Carl Stokes

For the Baltimore politician, see Carl Stokes (Baltimore).
Carl Stokes
United States Ambassador to Seychelles
In office
7 September 1994  12 May 1995
President Bill Clinton
Preceded by F. Stephen Malott
Succeeded by Brent E. Blaschke
51st Mayor of Cleveland
In office
Preceded by Ralph S. Locher
Succeeded by Ralph J. Perk
Member of the Ohio House of Representatives
from the 44th district
In office
January 3, 1967  January 5, 1968
Preceded by Inaugural holder
Succeeded by Phillip DeLaine
Personal details
Born Carl Burton Stokes
(1927-06-21)June 21, 1927
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A
Died April 3, 1996(1996-04-03) (aged 68)
Cleveland, Ohio
Cause of death Cancer
Resting place Lake View Cemetery
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Shirley Edwards
Raija Kostadinov
Children Carl Stokes Jr.
Cordi Stokes
Cordell Stokes
Cynthia Stokes
Sasha Kostadinov (stepson)
Parents Charles Stokes
Louise Stone
Alma mater University of Minnesota
Cleveland State University
Occupation Politician, Lawyer
Awards World War II Victory Medal
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1945–1946
Rank Private
Battles/wars World War II

Carl Burton Stokes (June 21, 1927 April 3, 1996) was an American politician of the Democratic party who served as the 51st mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. Elected on November 7, 1967, and taking office on January 1, 1968, he was the first black elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Although he was elected after Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, he took office first. Walter Washington was first black mayor of a major city (Washington, DC), but was appointed. Fellow Ohioan Robert C. Henry was the first black mayor of any U.S. city (Springfield, elected 1966).

Early life

Stokes was born in Cleveland, the son of Louise (Stone) and Charles Stokes, a laundryman who died when Carl was three years old.[1] He and his brother, politician Louis Stokes,[2] were raised by their mother in Cleveland's first federally funded housing project for the poor, Outhwaite Homes. Although a good student, Stokes dropped out of high school in 1944, worked briefly at Thompson Products (later TRW), then joined the U.S. Army at age 18. After his discharge in 1946, Stokes returned to Cleveland and earned his high school diploma in 1947.

He then attended several colleges before earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota in 1954. He graduated from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1956 and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1957. While studying law he was a probation officer. For four years, he served as assistant prosecutor and became partner in the law firm of Stokes, Stokes, continuing that practice into his political career; it was successful after one year.


Elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1962, he served three terms. Stokes worked hard to even out legislative districts. Then, Ohio had uneven representation among its Congressional and General Assembly districts. By the late 1960s, he was able to carve out a district that could elect him to Congress, but deferred to his brother Louis Stokes who represented Cleveland in the US House of Representatives for three decades. Stokes narrowly lost a bid for mayor of Cleveland in 1965. His victory two years later drew national attention, as he was the first black mayor of one of the ten biggest cities in the United States.[3]

Able to mobilize both black and white voters, Stokes defeated Seth Taft, the grandson of former President William Howard Taft, with a 50.5% margin. At the time of his election, Cleveland was a majority white city with a 37% black population. [4][5] A crucial part of his support came from businessmen living outside the city limits of Cleveland, especially Squire, Sanders and Dempsey lawyers Ralph Besse and Elmer Lindseth who were directors and officers of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and wanted Stokes to rein in the City's Municipal Electric and Light Plant. Stokes tried to rein in the city's municipal utility but was thwarted by city councilmen whose wards took advantage of the cheaper product.

After his election, Stokes said, "I can find no more fitting way to end this appeal, by saying to all of you, in a more serious and in the most meaningful way that I can, that truly never before have I ever known to the extent that I know tonight, the full meaning of the words, ‘God Bless America', thanks a lot."[3]

As mayor, Stokes opened city hall jobs to blacks and women. He was known as a strong administrator, and is remembered for his vision and motivation. Stokes feuded with City Council and the Police Department for most of his tenure. He also initiated Cleveland: Now!, a public and private funding program aimed at the revitalization of Cleveland neighborhoods. Stokes pulled through and was reelected in 1969.

After his mayoral administration, Stokes lectured to colleges around the country. In 1972, he became the first black anchorman in New York City when he took a job with television station WNBC-TV. While at WNBC New York, Stokes won a New York State Regional Emmy for excellence in craft, for a piece about the opening of the Paul Robeson play, starring James Earl Jones on Broadway. After accusing NBC of failing to promote him to a national brief, he returned to Cleveland in 1980 and began serving as general legal counsel for the United Auto Workers.

From 1983 to 1994, he served as municipal judge in Cleveland. President Bill Clinton then appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles. Stokes was awarded 12 honorary degrees, numerous civic awards, and represented the United States on numerous goodwill trips abroad by request of the White House. In 1970, the National League of Cities voted him its first black president-elect.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus while serving as Ambassador to the Seychelles and placed on medical leave. He returned to Cleveland and died at the Cleveland Clinic. His funeral was held at Cleveland Music Hall, presided over by the Rev. Otis Moss. The funeral was carried on WERE radio. Stokes was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.[6]


The US Federal Courthouse Tower in downtown Cleveland, completed in 2002, was named the Carl B. Stokes Federal Court House Building. There are many other buildings, monuments and a street named for his memory within the City of Cleveland including the CMHA Carl Stokes Center, Stokes Boulevard, and the eponymous Carl Stokes Brigade club. Members of the Brigade celebrate his birthday every year at Lakeview Cemetery with gravesite services.

In November 2006, the Western Reserve Historical Society opened an exhibit entitled Carl and Louis Stokes: from Projects to Politics. Focusing on the brothers' early life at the Outhwaite projects, service in World War II, and eventual rise to politics, the exhibit ran until September 2008.


Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
Ralph S. Locher
Mayor of Cleveland
Succeeded by
Ralph J. Perk
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