Carl Stokes: A Pioneer of Environmental Justice

A man at a podium talks to a room of people.
Mayor Carl B. Stokes testifies before the US Congress during water pollution hearings in 1970.

Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library

“I am fearful that the priorities on air and water pollution may be at the expense of what the priorities of the country ought to be: proper housing, adequate food and clothing.” - Carl B. Stokes, commenting on Earth Day 1970

Elected in 1967, Cleveland Mayor Carl B. Stokes’ platform on the environment stressed a people-first approach that we now call environmental justice. Environmental justice means providing the benefits of environmentalism to everyone in equitable ways. At the time, Stokes did not see himself as an environmentalist because the movement did not embrace the concerns of people living in urban poverty. Nevertheless, Stokes used his fame as the first Black mayor of a major US city to draw attention to how communities of color are hurt the most by environmental problems. He and his brother, Congressman Louis Stokes, both advocated for environmental laws to improve people’s living conditions. As national political leaders, they were major voices in defining America’s “urban agenda.” Their agenda included the environment. Carl and Louis Stokes were two decades ahead of the environmental justice movement which took shape in the late 1980s.

A smiling Black teenage boy sits on a bicycle between cars parked outside a brick building.
Carl Stokes at about age 14, circa 1941.

Cleveland Public Library

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is interested in this legacy for several reasons. First, it helps us to interpret the significance of the Cuyahoga River as an icon of the environmental movement. Second, our national park was established in December 1974 under the “Legacy of Parks” initiative launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971. It prioritized urban parks. We’re curious if Carl Stokes influenced this. Third, the Stokes legacy remains relevant, both nationally and locally. It can inform the National Park Service’s Urban Agenda (launched during the 2016 Centennial with leadership from Gayle Hazelwood) as well as Cuyahoga Valley’s 50th anniversary in 2025, and America’s 250th anniversary in 2026.

Living in “Hazardous” Cleveland

The Stokes brothers grew up in the Outhwaite Homes Estates in the Cedar-Central neighborhood, the city’s Black enclave. Outhwaite was among the first federally funded public housing projects in the nation. This childhood experience gave Carl a perspective on urban problems that past mayors lacked.

Sign reads “In the Spirit of Cleveland Now Edgewater Beach Safe Swimming. Carl B Stokes, Mayor.”
A sign touts Stokes’ role in providing safe swimming at Edgewater Beach, 1971.

Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library

Carl's parents came to Cleveland as part of the first Great Migration. The city experienced an industrial boom from 1910-1930. Before this time, African American homes had been dispersed across the city. As new people crowded in, attitudes became increasingly intolerant. Across the country, African Americans and other minorities were “redlined” into ghettos. Redlining gets its name from federal home-ownership policies that began in the 1930s and became illegal with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. These policies guided where the US government would insure residential mortgages. Areas were color coded on internal maps by how “suitable” they were for investment. Neighborhoods where people of color lived were routinely assigned the lowest rating, D (“Hazardous”), which was shaded red.

Obviously, it was the living conditions, not the people, who were hazardous. Environmental laws started with the River and Harbors Act of 1899 but didn’t have any true impact until 1970. Industrial cities were incredibly polluted. For example, waste in the Cuyahoga River caught fire at least 12 times before the small but infamous fire of 1969. Locally, the 1952 fire—which caused $1.5 million in damages—was a catalyst for change in Cleveland. City leaders and activists called for better sewage facilities and pollution control. The Cuyahoga River Basin Water Quality Committee formed in 1963 to confront these needs.

Tackling Water Pollution

Stokes promised environmental reforms during his campaign for mayor. Once he took office in 1968, he called for improved sewage services, storm water management, harbor operations, and debris removal. Later that year, Cleveland voters passed a $100 million bond issue for Cuyahoga River clean-up by a two-to-one margin.

Part of this vision was to make Lake Erie beaches safe for swimming. Stokes and Director of Public Utilities Ben Stefanski came up with the plan. They installed barriers to create “pools” along the shoreline and added chlorine to kill bacteria from sewage. The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration funded the project with a $325,000 grant.

Stokes and Stefanski began at White Beach on Cleveland’s East Side. Previously, it had been targeted by the “wade-in movement,” non-violent Civil Rights protests to desegregate American swimming areas. On July 31, 1968, Stokes visited White Beach and swam in the chlorinated area with neighborhood kids. The project expanded to Edgewater Park the following year. This approach, however, was only a short-term solution. It required 350 pounds of liquid chlorine to be poured into the pools every day. The area outside of the barriers remained hazardous.

A Black man in a lab coat leans over test tubes and vials. The rack attaches to recording equipment.
George Ashley, head technician for the Cleveland Division of Air Pollution Control, 1973.

Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library

On June 5, 1969, Stokes traveled to Washington D.C. to testify before the US House Appropriations Committee. He referenced Cleveland’s water pollution successes, including the experiment at White Beach. He asked for billions of federal dollars to fight water pollution. Stokes stated, “Utilization of water resources is as vital to our economy as a well-developed highway system.” Although he did not receive immediate support, Stokes drew attention to his administration’s successes.

On June 17, 1969, Stokes and Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes held an opening ceremony for the East 55th Street Marina, near one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods. Stokes said, “The state and the city have combined to bring into being a facility which utilizes Lake Erie as the priceless recreational asset it can and must be, a source of delight, relaxation and fun recreation in a true sense of the word. Not only for Greater Clevelanders but for visitors from the whole northern part of the state.” Addressing the governor, he added a plug for more state funding. “When you get back to Columbus, we hope you remember that all kinds of problems remain here—housing, welfare, air and water pollution, education, law enforcement.”

Note that all this occurred before the Cuyahoga River fire on June 22, 1969. Stokes held a Pollution Tour for the press the following day. Within months, this event became an international story, forging the Cuyahoga’s reputation as an icon of the environmental movement.

Fighting Air Pollution

Water quality wasn’t Stokes' only environmental concern. On April 10, 1969, the mayor proposed another bold action. He said, “Cleveland has taken the forefront nationally in the battle against water pollution and with this announcement today we are making significant steps to match that effort in our desire to control air pollution.” He wanted to use federal and local funds to create the Division of Air Pollution Control in the Department of Public Health and Welfare. Scientists, engineers, legal workers, and law enforcement would make up the team. They were tasked with updating pollution codes and limiting harmful emissions into the air. That October, citizen testimonies helped the new ordinances to pass.

Dressed in a suit, Stokes stands on a stepladder beside a park sign, Children smile below him.
Carl B. Stokes opens the Martin Luther King, Jr. “totlot” in the Glenville neighborhood on May 20, 1969.

Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library

Controlling Rats

Stokes broadly defined what he called the “crisis in the urban environment.” He believed that issues such as urban rat infestation and lack of green spaces in minority neighborhoods should be addressed as seriously as water and air pollution.

As suburbanization occurred, urban areas were increasingly neglected by city government. This gave rats welcoming conditions to create burrows in vacant lots and aging homes. Rats spread disease and bit children. Stokes knew this personally. He recalled that during his childhood, “We covered the rat holes with the tops of tin cans.”

On June 2, 1969, Stokes met with the director of Cleveland’s health department and the commissioner of environmental health. At a press conference in the Hough neighborhood, they announced a city-wide initiative to control rats using federal funds. After a year of the program, rat infestation rates fell in most areas, from 41% (1969) to 19% (1970). Stokes framed the rat issue as a symptom of a larger environmental problem, urban decay.

Places to Play Outdoors

On May 1, 1968, Stokes announced a $1.5-billion initiative called Cleveland: Now! This was a month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rocked the nation. Stokes aimed to revitalize the inner city and calm racial tensions. The 10-year plan was to leverage public and private money to improve housing, employment, urban renewal, public recreation, and youth services. It fell short of its goals but had lasting benefits. One was better access to green spaces, especially for children.

The initiative created small “vest pocket parks” and “totlots” for underserved Clevelanders. Deanda Johnson, an NPS Civil Rights historian, described these: “The vest pocket park, first tested in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, soon became the standard, uniform response of cities to the urban recreation crisis. Tucked in densely populated, low-income neighborhoods, often in the vacant lots of burned-out commercial districts destroyed during uprisings of previous summers, these pocket parks generally consisted of two or three benches and tables, a swing set and other play equipment for children, a solitary tree or shrub, a mural on an adjacent building wall, and sometimes a small shelter.”

Cleveland: Now! paid for youth to attend summer camps in rural areas. A Cleveland Press article from August 20, 1968, named two boys who got scholarships to Camp Mueller in the Cuyahoga Valley. “Ted Headricks, 8, of Fulton Road and Rodney Thomas, 9 of Kinsman Road are going to summer camp this year. They are part of the Welfare Federation of Cleveland’s $145,000 intercultural and interracial Summer Campership Project. It is financed by Cleveland Now!”

The First Earth Day

Demonstrations by 20 million Americans on the first Earth Day—April 22, 1970—caught the attention of politicians. Greater Cleveland held a “Crisis of the Environment Week.” An estimated 500,000 students joined in. Local people wrote to Mayor Stokes in support of environmentalism. One letter from a second-grade class on Cleveland’s East Side read: “We do not like dirty air. We want air to be clean so we can be healthy. Please make our air clean.”

Stokes, however, did not participate in the public events. Soon after, he addressed the hypocrisy of politicians celebrating Earth Day while turning a blind eye to environmental action. “Frankly, on Earth Day, just a few days ago, I was not particularly impressed with the Congressmen and Senators and mayors and legislators and members of the administration who fanned out across the nation giving speeches about the terrible threat to the continuity and longevity of this nation, because there is no question in my mind but that those same [politicians] . . . will be reluctant to try to face what it would cost to do something about that which they were speaking so pointedly and so brilliantly. . . .”

Days later—on April 28, 1970—Stokes traveled to Washington, DC to testify again before Congress. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine had organized hearings before the Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. Stokes spoke on behalf of the National League of Cities and US Conference of Mayors. In his speech, he said that pollution was a national problem affecting cities. He also remarked, “We in Cleveland sit on the banks of a river and lake which become almost legendary, not only in the United States but abroad.”

Two months later, on Independence Day 1970, Stokes visited Edgewater Beach to swim in its chlorinated Lake Erie “pool” near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. Joining him were Cleveland children. Although a thunderstorm dampened the festivities, Stokes considered it a milestone in how far he had come on recreational water use.

In the months and years ahead, the federal government passed significant environmental laws and established the US Environmental Protection Agency. Half a century later, the recovery of the Cuyahoga River has exceeded all expectations and is a source of community pride. The federal investment includes our national park, just upstream of where the river once burned.

Stokes kneels in front of a chain link fence, with dead rats next to a trap.
Carl Stokes sets rat traps in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood during his press tour following the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.

Cleveland State University / Michael Schwartz Library

Learn More

To explore this topic in more depth, we recommend Where The River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland by Richard and David Stradling. You can also visit Stokes exhibits and archives at the Cleveland History Center.

Two websites allow you to zoom in and discover more about communities across the country. Can you find yours? Mapping Inequality shows the historic redlining maps that divided up many cities. These include written descriptions of demographic changes that reflect the racial attitudes of the time. To learn about pollution issues near your home, explore the US EPA’s environmental justice mapping tool.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Last updated: February 27, 2023