Winston E. Willis

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Winston E. Willis in 1981

Winston Earl Willis (born October 21, 1939) is a formerly successful American real estate developer who first came to local prominence in Cleveland, Ohio during the early 1960s. At the time, one of the most successful business owner/operators in the country, he created and controlled a corporation, University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD, Inc.) that owned one of the most strategic and valuable real estate parcels in Cleveland and was the largest employer of blacks in that part of the country. Under his solely-owned UCPD corporation at East 105th and Euclid, upwards of 23 successful businesses were running simultaneously and exhibiting tremendous success. Frequently referred to as “The Black Rockefeller” and “The Black Howard Hughes”, Willis was the first African-American to appear in a front page headline story of the city’s largest newspaper,[1] that was not political or crime related. But his prolific business prowess and radical outspokenness clashed with the city’s politically powerful entities and hierarchical organization and set into motion an enmity that would lead to his eventual economic destruction. His ongoing legal battles with the city of Cleveland over ownership of his lands spans several decades, including his 2007 Petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, and continues to this day. Often described as "unique to the annals of American economic history", Willis’ place among notable Cleveland entrepreneurs has been greatly obscured by years of animosity and discord with city officials. He is one of several largely forgotten figures from the turbulent bygone era, an environment created by the explosive racial politics of America during the ’60s.

American historian and author, David J. Garrow, (1987 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Biography: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) commented:

In a staff meeting with her Club Date Magazine photojournalists who had witnessed and photographed the wrecking ball demolition of Willis’ Euclid Avenue properties, prominent local community leader/publisher, Madelyne Blunt[2] had this to say:

Family background[edit]

Winston, Age 9

Willis was born in pre-Civil Rights Movement Montgomery, Alabama, the third of the five children of Clarence C. Willis and his wife, Alberta Frazier Willis, both natives of Montgomery. His formative years included a Southern boyhood of strict parental rules, traditional values and obligatory racial boundaries. Boundaries of propriety, but more importantly, boundaries for his personal safety. But even as a male Negro child living under the legalized racial restrictions of the day, he was raised to see himself as equal to any other human being. Every adult male in his large extended family owned land and operated his own business, and he was strongly influenced by the drive and work ethic of these men in his life. They ignited in him an entrepreneurial spirit and impressed upon him the enduring value of economic independence and land ownership.

The close-knit, self-sufficient black community was composed of businessmen, farmers, lawyers, domestic workers, teachers, nurses, and day-laborers who shared a unique connection and alliance that bound them together. From this group, a number of courageous individuals would be launched toward the social movement that would change history.[3] Among them, Mrs. Rosa Parks a former classmate and friend of his mother’s at Miss White’s School for Girls, (aka Montgomery Industrial School)[4] and a cousin, Bernard Scott Lee,[5] a student leader of the Alabama Sit-In Movement, who was later chosen by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to become his personal assistant and road manager.

Early Life (1939–1954)[edit]

Postcard depicting St. Jude following completion of construction in 1946.

The Willis children attended St. Jude Educational Institute at the 36-acre (150,000 m2) City of St. Jude.[6] The sprawling educational campus originally named St. Jude Educational Institute for Colored People was the creation of Pennsylvania-born Roman Catholic priest Father Harold Purcell[7] and was founded “as a way to improve the lives of Southern Negroes”. Winston's father and older brother were among the construction crew that built the school building. The property on the outskirts of Montgomery included the school, grades K-12, the Church, a convent and rectory, and the hospital. St. Jude later served as the official campsite for the demonstrators of the famous Selma to Montgomery March of 1965 and is now a national landmark.[8]

The Detroit Years (1954–1958)[edit]

Just one year prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott,[9] in the fall of 1954 when Winston was 14, the Willis family joined in the Great Migration North and settled in Detroit. As with millions of other black families lining up for the tremendous exodus and Northward flow toward freedom, the Southern States reaction to the May 17 decision of Brown v. Board of Education[10] clearly demonstrated that there would be on-going and widespread resistance to the High Court’s ruling, another pilgrimage and escape from racial oppression was underway. In Northern cities all over the country, recently transplanted Southern Negros were settling into the complacency of the post WW-II era and newly discovered opportunities. Winston's father's years of experience as a carpet installer for the Montgomery Fair[11] department store enabled him to find suitable employment and settle his family into a quiet neighborhood on the West side near Dearborn. There, Winston created, published and delivered his own neighborhood advertising newspaper, the Western Detroit Shopping News. His high school career at Chadsey High School was uneventful – and brief. Before long, his daily walks to school gave way to the enticing pull of the local billiards parlor he passed on the way and where he discovered a hidden talent. Soon he was impressing local notorious pool hall denizens with his skills, until his father discovered his extracurricular interest and began pulling him out of the pool hall on a regular basis. But despite his stern and strait-laced parents determined efforts to keep him out of that environment, he had had a glimpse of possibilities outside of the sheltered world of academia they had in mind for him.

Early Business Ventures[edit]

Winston’s restless entrepreneurial spirit kept him in perpetual motion, in a universe of his own ideas. He then sold Collier's Encyclopedias door-to-door. The latter venture got him arrested on a regular basis “for loitering” (in a suit and tie) in affluent white neighborhoods. Later, his knowledge of the floor covering trade, which he learned at his father’s side, led him to be hired on at an East side Detroit retail tile store, and within a very short time, he had advanced to manager. With such promise he was expected to continue to establish a stronghold locally, but he knew that the success and kind of life he wanted lay outside the boundaries of Detroit. His plan was to head for Hollywood, where he would become the first successful black movie producer. But shortly before setting out on this odyssey with a neighborhood buddy, he took a brief side trip to Cleveland (at his mother’s insistence) for a short visit with relatives.

Business Career (1958–1963)[edit]

Arriving in Cleveland in 1958 for what was to be a brief stop-over turned out to be a detour of unexpected fortuity. Following a four-day junket with his lucky pool cue and a few games of One-Pocket, which netted the pair several thousand dollars, they decided to stay a few weeks, picking up games where ever they could to finance the planned trip to the West coast. During this time, he met and became friends with another pool-hall devotee, Carl Stokes, who later was elected mayor.[12]

Parlaying his winnings into capital, Willis reconsidered his original plans and decided to postpone his trip out West. The acquired experience of having operated several successful small businesses led to a quick assessment of the local college community that would prove to have been very shrewd. After securing a lease on a building that was previously an automobile dealership showroom, 19-year-old Willis opened The Jazz Temple, a liquor-less coffeehouse/night club, to immediate success. Situated on a small triangular lot on Mayfield Road near Euclid Avenue and adjacent to the Western Reserve University campus, his institutional neighbors were the Cleveland Museum of Art, University Hospital, and Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. The club also bordered the ethnic enclave known as Murray Hill/Little Italy.[13]

Willis approached such legendary jazz artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzie Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and Dinah Washington and convinced them to come to Cleveland to appear at his club. Not only did they appear and perform before standing-room-only crowds, but such notable acts at the trendy establishment also attracted visits from Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, and booked performances from other notables such as comedians Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. The popular night spot, frequently referred to as “the Jazz Mecca”, was hugely successful and became a regular hang-out for college students from throughout and around the State of Ohio. But that success was short lived. As is typical of jazz establishments – there was much race-mixing and numerous interracial couples in attendance. This triggered community wide resentment in the racially polarized community, and after months of threats and intimidation, a vanguard of vengeful racists planted a bomb in the club, thereby ending the brief history of one of the most successful jazz spots of the region.[14]

After The Jazz Temple was gone, Winston Willis continued on his entrepreneurial path. His Hot Potato Restaurant was one of the most successful businesses on Cleveland’s lower East side. The small restaurant proved to be the cash cow that would provide the means for his next business venture.

Building An Empire (1968–1982)[edit]

Venturing into the racially-restricted never-land of University Circle – the city’s so-called “cultural oasis”, he went on to purchase multiple real estate holdings in the city of Cleveland and surrounding areas of Cuyahoga County, opening wildly successful businesses and employing hundreds of blacks. He then set his sights on an opportunity to continue acquiring property and begin building his own real estate empire, but with this attempt, he fell into official disfavor with Cleveland’s white establishment community. With increasing white flight exacerbating historically polarized Cleveland communities, business owners were exiting the inner-city at warp speed. The explosive Hough Riots of 1966 and the notorious Glenville Shootout[15] triggered a mass exodus from the city and rapidly dwindling patronage of numerous businesses on Euclid Avenue.

Of particular interest to Willis was one large “strategic” parcel encompassing the old Doan’s Corner, at East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue, site of the Keith's East 105th Theater[16] where comedian Bob Hope got his start in Vaudeville. Flanked on either side by University Circle and the Cleveland Clinic, this acquisition by Willis followed a long and contentious legal struggle with the former titleholder, The Cleveland Trust Company, at the time Ohio’s largest bank. Every imaginable obstacle was devised and implemented to prevent him from purchasing the properties. But in spite of the clearly racially motivated efforts, and through some self-taught legal gymnastics of his own, Willis prevailed. He then went on to open and operate numerous successful businesses on the Euclid Avenue strip. Shortly thereafter, he established University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD, Inc.) a commercial property development corporation under whose auspices the strip of Euclid Avenue businesses were run. These included restaurants, movie theaters, clothing stores, taverns, a food market, a check cashing establishment, a penny arcade, a State liquor store, and an adult book store. With bright lights, music and 24-hour security, the newly revitalized East 105th St. and Euclid Avenue corner was a spark of life for the lower East side, and frequently referred to as “an inner-city Disneyland”. At one time there were 28 simultaneously thriving businesses in operation – all either owned or operated by Willis' UCPD, Inc.

A June 1, 1973 Cleveland Press newspaper article heralded the strip’s success in a cover story entitled: “Winston Willis’ Miracle on East 105th Street…”.[17] During this period of time, the turbulent riot-torn ‘60s, when minimal prospects for economic advancement existed for local blacks, Winston Willis employed over 400 of his fellow citizens, placing them securely on a road to more prosperity than they had ever known. All under the watchful and resentful eyes of the white establishment community and his institutional neighbors. Willis’ expanding business empire stood in the way of the city’s plans for creating a sprawling, mega-billion-dollar medical educational metropolis connecting Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals, and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Having formed this alliance to become one of the most dominant medical facilities in the country, they were anxious to remove the only “temporary obstacle” to their master plan – several strategically located city blocks with 28 flourishing businesses sitting right in the middle of the proposed expansion development project. Having successfully handled such “obstacles” with little resistance in the past, the group’s expectation was for similar results. Tightening their grip on surrounding properties, methodically expanding and crowding Willis’ turf, every conceivable advantage was seemingly on their side. But Willis let it be known that he wasn’t about to let go of his toehold on this corner without a fight.

Legal Battles – Defending His Property Rights[edit]

As reported in the local press, “…Willis, who has made a battleground of the courts in his fight… is on the legal rampage again.”[18] Other headlines followed, such as "Willis Alleges Land Squeeze In Area Around E. 105 and Euclid” alerting all concerned of his intentions to defend his property rights. It would prove to be a clash of titans. And as the enmity escalated, so did an endless course of harassment, police raids, bogus citations, arrests, bad faith criminal indictments, fires of suspicious origin, illegal break-ins and excessively frequent fire inspections. Whenever Willis challenged any of the unconstitutional conduct in the courts, the judicial authorities would repeatedly stay their hands, declining his requests for injunctive relief, and dismissing the action. The millions of dollars he was paying to the team of high-profile high-priced lawyers “…was like throwing money into the wind for all the good it did.” A July 13, 1977 front page Plain Dealer article reports: “Cleveland businessman, Winston E. Willis yesterday filed a $100 million dollar lawsuit charging that the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, University Circle Inc.,(UCI) and others are monopolizing real estate and violating antitrust laws. Willis, who owns a strip of shops and offices on Euclid Avenue between E. 105th and E. 107th Streets, said he and his tenants are being forced out of business.[19]

Willis and his lawyers filed numerous subsequent lawsuits in the local Federal District Court and the Ohio Court of Common Pleas in an attempt to prevent the illegal takings of his lands and the unconstitutional destruction of his investment-backed business operations. No court would put a stop to any of the conduct. Without exception, every single one of Willis’ lawsuits was dismissed on motions to dismiss or summary judgements. As was frequently reported in numerous local publications at the time, the ongoing fire inspections soon gained the notoriety of a sporting event. Unscheduled, unannounced and routinely taking place at the height of business hours while the restaurants and movie theaters and other businesses were teeming with customers. In response to the city’s constant targeting and harassment of Willis, newspaper publisher, W.O. Walker’s Call & Post ran a scathing editorial, "Fire Inspections as Weapons".[20]

Controversy – The Billboards[edit]

With the unrelenting levying of these inspections, and with no access to justice or recourse in the civil courthouse, Willis realized that there was no legal remedy available to him in the State of Ohio. Exercising his First Amendment privileges, he mounted a public forum. Utilizing his in-house construction crew and a talented artist, he erected a large, very visible billboard on the side of his building overlooking Euclid Avenue, the main thoroughfare for suburban commuters to Cleveland’s downtown financial center. Initially utilizing the newly erected structure as his own personal platform and bully pulpit, he exposed, protested and criticized what he had personally experienced as corruption and cronyism among Cuyahoga County officials, the local judiciary, and so-called philanthropic institutions, and what he believed to be the rampant practice of racism in his community.

Community Billboards

The "community billboard",as it came to be known colloquially, quickly became the featured attraction for neighborhood residents and patrons of Winston’s numerous business outlets on Euclid Avenue. The copy was changed every two weeks, and was soon elevated to folklore status. His initial posted statements were bold and provocative, exhibiting a sense of moral outrage. Soon the billboard became the talk of the town. A tourist attraction and "an embarrassment" to the establishment elite and the staid University Circle area.

As he continued to seize the opportunity to speak out against racist conditions, his words were labeled by some as “inflammatory propaganda” while attempts were made to discredit and silence him. At the time, Cleveland was “the second most racially polarized city in the nation” and blacks were being oppressed. As Willis himself said at the time: “I don’t hate whites for hating me…I just call them on it and make them admit it.” Prior to his death in 1981, Call & Post publisher and well respected force in the black community, W.O. Walker, gave the young Willis a dire warning: “Take those billboards down, son. These white people will crucify you.”

Walker, recognizing the city’s grand expansion agenda, had also attempted to use his considerable influence in the community to convince the city’s redevelopment planners that black businessmen should not be shut out of their plan, but he was unsuccessful.[21]

From the time the Jazz Temple was destroyed in the early ‘60s, there was an overt effort to remove Winston Willis and his businesses and employees from the University Circle area and return its so-called “cultural oasis” to its former “purity”. Rumblings of “…take back the block” reached City Hall and council meetings. City officials, the police department, and every mayoral administration (with one exception, Mayor Carl B. Stokes) were either bemused, enthusiastic observers or active participants in the plan. But to his credit, Mayor Stokes deflected every takeover attempt that came to his attention.

Writing about the corrupt nature of Cleveland City Hall and its police force in his 1973 autobiography, Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography, Carl B. Stokes described the rampant corruption he dealt with as mayor:[22]

Gunpoint Seizures/Evictions[edit]

The warnings were ominous and frequent. But Willis ignored them, speaking out and demanding his constitutional rights in stentorian tones. In the end, however, the usual protective provisions of the law would not be applicable to him. The gunpoint seizure/evictions occurred and continued regularly over a period of years, in spite of Willis’ attempts in the courts to prevent them. During one episode in 1997, sixteen 22-foot (6.7 m) truckloads of business inventory and personal property was seized and removed from the 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2) four building complex.


Finally, in spite of Willis’ defensive efforts, his politically powerful opponents, utilizing the city’s police powers and local judiciary, “framed a mischief and called it law.”[citation needed] Accused of having written “a $421 bad check” to a local lumber company, he was indicted by a grand jury and arrested on the charge that was later proven to be false[citation needed]. During his imprisonment at a Chillicothe, Ohio, correctional facility he was held in solitary confinement for ten days without access to his attorneys while the taking and immediate demolition of all of his Euclid Avenue properties was executed. The entirety of these lands, buildings and business holdings were taken without payment of just compensation. After being released from prison Willis filed a legal complaint and sought the assistance of Professor Spencer Neth[23] of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, who is an expert in the field of commercial transactions. Professor Neth concluded and stated in his written expert opinion that the check had been paid, “the transaction was closed” and there should not have been an indictment, trial or conviction. The judge hearing the case refused to allow him to present his findings.

Wrecking Ball – The Empire Falls – (1982)[edit]

With Willis isolated in solitary confinement 190 miles (310 km) away in Chillicothe, Ohio, his Euclid Avenue business compound and buildings were cordoned off and surrounded by huge numbers of the Cleveland police department, and S.W.A.T. teams. During the entirety of the 10 days of his incarceration/isolation, members of the police department’s Intelligence unit kept the entire complex surrounded on an around-the-clock basis. Unmarked police cars were stationed at each intersection leading to and from the area. As reported by numerous eyewitnesses at the scene, “the wrecking ball swung quickly and unmercifully”, flattening tall, multi-story brick buildings into a barren empty dirt lot. Within a few days, not a trace of the Willis/UCPD,Inc. business empire remained.

"Sometimes the verdict of 'history' counts for more in the long run than the verdicts of courts, or wealth and material possessions."

David J. Garrow

As noted in the reporting of hundreds of cases documented in the 2001 Associated Press series, Torn From The Land,[24] "...these property thefts are just the tip of one of the biggest crimes of this country's history." Dr.Raymond Winbush, scholar/activist, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, and native Clevelander.

Winston E. Willis

Willis maintains that the historic pattern of land takings from blacks in this country is a continuation of slavery.

Recent years[edit]

After decades in Cleveland courtrooms fighting to defend and protect his property rights, Willis has become somewhat of a legal scholar, living a quiet life in the shadow of his former empire, far removed from the life he once lived. Since the massive destruction of his large business empire in 1982, one singular obsession has occupied his mind to the exclusion of all else: “Payment for my lands and my federally guaranteed relocation benefits.” Most recently in his ongoing quest, he successfully prepared a Petition for Writ of Mandamus to the United States Supreme Court. His petition was accepted and docketed. A short time later however, he received word of the high Court’s denial. But rather than surrender to defeat and become another sad statistic among fellow African-American land theft victims, he continues to fight for his constitutionally guaranteed property rights. As noted in the reporting of hundreds of other cases documented in the 2001 Associated Press series Torn From The Land, "… these property thefts are just the tip of one of the biggest crimes of this country's history." – Dr. Raymond Winbush, scholar/activist, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.

Willis maintains that the historic pattern of land takings from blacks in this country is a continuation of slavery.

"To deny a person their right to own property is a form of slavery. I am a slave without bondage."

See also[edit]

  • Parks, Rosa, (with Jim Haskins) (1992). My Story, (NY: Scholastic Inc.) ISBN 0-590-46538-4.
  • Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson “The Montgomery Bus Boycott And The Women Who Started It”, University of Tennessee Press; 1ST edition (April 1987) ISBN 0-87049-527-5
  • Mary Ruth Coffman, (1984). Build Me A City: The Life of Father Harold Purcell, Founder of the City of St. Jude, Montgomery, Alabama (Pioneer Press) ISBN 978-9996668463.
  • Stokes, Carl B., (1973). Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography, (Simon & Schuster) 9 (131), 11;(171). ISBN 0-671-21602-3.


  1. ^ "Plain Dealer Archives". The Plain Dealer. August 26, 1971. 
  2. ^ Blunt, Madelyne. "Cleveland Memory Project". 
  3. ^ African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968)
  4. ^ Parks, Rosa, My Story, Puffin Books (1999) ISBN 0-14-130120-1
  5. ^ Bernard S. Lee. "The King Papers: MLK And The Global Freedom Struggle". 
  6. ^ Sister Mary Ruth Coffman (June 1984). Build Me A City: The Life of Father Harold Purcell, Founder of the City of St. Jude, Montgomery, Alabama. St. Jude Educational Institute for Colored People. ISBN 9996668460. 
  7. ^ "Father Harold Purcell". 
  8. ^ St. Jude Educational Institute
  9. ^ "Montgomery Bus Boycott". 
  10. ^ "Brown vs. The Board of Education". 
  11. ^ "Montgomery Fair Department Store". 
  12. ^ "Stokes Is Elected Mayor". The Plain Dealer. November 7, 1967. 
  13. ^ "Little Italy". 
  14. ^ Call and Post “Believe Racial Bigots Behind Jazz Temple Bombing” (August 17, 1963) Pg. 1-A
  15. ^ "Glenville Shootout July 23–28, 1968". 
  16. ^ "Keith's East 105th St. Theater". 
  17. ^ Emanuel Hughley, Jr. and Dick McLaughlin (June 1, 1973). "Winston Willis’ Miracle on E.105th Street". Cleveland Press Showtime Pgs. 3–4. 
  18. ^ "Clinic and U. Circle Inc. Accused of Land Squeeze". The Plain Dealer. July 13, 1977. 
  19. ^ "Willis Alleges Land Squeeze In Area Around E. 105th and Euclid". Cleveland Press. March 14, 1979. p. 19-B. 
  20. ^ Call and Post Editorial, Fire Inspections as Weapons, January 23, 1982, Pg. A-1
  21. ^ OHIO Magazine, W.O. Walker-Cleveland's Black Power Broker, February 1981, p.57
  22. ^ Stokes, Carl B., (1973). Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography, Simon & Schuster
  23. ^ Spencer Neth, Professor Case Western University School of Law
  24. ^ "Torn From The Land". 
  • Depke, John E. (August 26, 1971). “Porno King’s Empire Grows Fast” The Plain Dealer Front Page Headline.
  • Hughley, Emanuel, Jr., McLaughlin, Dick. (June 1, 1973). Pg. 3-A “The Brave New World of Winston Willis…Miracle on E. 105th Street” Cleveland Press p. 3-A.
  • Andrzejewski, Thomas S., Abbot, David T. (July 13, 1977). “Clinic and UCI Accused of Land Squeeze”. The Plain Dealer Front Page.
  • “105th & Euclid Landlord Sues…” (February 8, 1978). Cleveland Press, p. 19-A.
  • Rice, Joseph D. (August 21, 1979). “Therapy Center Might Wipe Out Willis’ Business Strip On Euclid Avenue”. The Plain Dealer Front Page.
  • Price Elizabeth, Kermisch, Amos A. (November 8, 1980). “Clinic Plans Massive Expansion”. The Plain Dealer Front Page.
  • “Police Army Leads Fire Inspection at Willis’ Big Daddy’s Warehouse” (January 12, 1982). Call and Post, p. A-8.
  • Publisher’s Editorial: “Fire Inspections As Weapons”. (January 23, 1982). Call and Post, p. A-8
  • “Willis Sues City for $100,000,000.00…” (January 27, 1982). Cleveland Press, p. 6-E.
  • “Winston Willis Arrested – Charged With Obstruction of Official Business”. (March 20, 1982). Call and Post, Front Page.
  • “Restaurant Gives Free Lunches on Saturdays.” (January 12, 1984). Call and Post, p. 2-B.
Magazine Articles
  • Griffith, Gary (April, 1973). “The Porno King Who Never Was – Winston Willis…Takes A Walk”. Cleveland Magazine p. 63
  • Tidyman, John H. (January, 1980). “Winston Willis – The King of Cleveland Streets”. Ohio Magazine pg. 36
  • Majied, Verle and Blunt, Madelyne (Fall – 1982). “The Five Comes Down”. Club Date Magazine pg. 26
Related Articles
  • Kisner, Ronald E. (February, 1981). “W.O. Walker: Cleveland’s Black Power Broker”. Cleveland Magazine pg. 57.

External links[edit]