Winston E. Willis

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Winston E. Willis in 1981

Winston Earl Willis (born October 21, 1939) is a former American real estate developer who established his business in Cleveland, Ohio during the early 1960s. He created University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD, Inc.), which owned real estate parcels in Cleveland and was the largest employer of blacks in that part of the country. Under UCPD at East 105th and Euclid, upwards of 23 businesses operated simultaneously. In the 1970s and 80s Willis ran afoul of tax and other laws and lost his properties to seizure in 1983. 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.

Early life[edit]

Winston, Age 9

Willis was born in Montgomery, Alabama the third of the five children of Clarence C. Willis and his wife, Alberta Frazier Willis, both natives of Montgomery. The Willis children attended St. Jude Educational Institute at the 36-acre (150,000 m2) City of St. Jude.[1] In the fall of 1954 when Winston was 14, the Willis family settled in Detroit. Winston's father's years of experience as a carpet installer for the Montgomery Fair 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.

Early Business Ventures[edit]

He sold Collier's Encyclopedias door-to-door, a venture that resulted in his arrest for loitering in affluent white neighborhoods.[citation needed] His knowledge of the floor covering trade, which he learned at his father’s side, led to his hiring by a Detroit retail tile store, where he advanced to manager. His plan was to head for Hollywood, where he intended to become the first successful black movie producer. Before setting out on that odyssey with a neighborhood friend, he took a brief trip to Cleveland in 1958 for a short visit with relatives at his mother’s insistence.

Business Career (1958–1963)[edit]

In Cleveland Willis went on a four-day spree playing One-Pocket, a billiards game, and won several thousand dollars. He decided to stay a few weeks, playing more games to finance the planned trip to the West coast. He reconsidered that plan and decided to postpone the trip. The 19-year-old Willis leased a building that was previously an automobile showroom and opened The Jazz Temple, a liquor-free coffeehouse and night club, to immediate success.

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. The trendy establishment also attracted visits from Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael and performances from other notables, such as comedians Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. The night spot became popular with college students, and the clientele included interracial couples, which triggered resentment and threats from the racially polarized community. A bomb was planted in the club, and Willis closed the business a few weeks later.[2] He launched another venture, the Hot Potato Restaurant, on Cleveland’s lower East side. The small restaurant enabled him to finance his next business.

Building An Empire (1968–1982)[edit]

Willis hoped to revitalize a large parcel of land encompassing the old Doan’s Corner at East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue, site of the Keith's East 105th Theater[3] where comedian Bob Hope got his start in Vaudeville. The area had deteriorated following the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Shootout of 1968. Those events accelerated white flight from historically polarized Cleveland communities, affecting businesses on Euclid Avenue, which suffered rapidly dwindling patronage. After a long and contentious legal struggle with the former titleholder, The Cleveland Trust Company, Willis bought the property, which was flanked on either side by University Circle and the Cleveland Clinic.

Willis opened and operated numerous businesses on the Euclid Avenue strip. He established University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD, Inc.), a commercial property development corporation, to manage the stores and shops. The businesses included restaurants, movie theaters, clothing stores, taverns, a food market, a check cashing store, a penny arcade, a state liquor store, and an adult book store. At one time there were 28 businesses in operation, employing over 400 people. A 1973 Cleveland Press newspaper article heralded the strip in a cover story entitled: “Winston Willis’ Miracle on East 105th Street…”.[4]

Legal troubles[edit]

In 1975 Willis was convicted of failing to pay city income taxes. In 1979 a police raid found drugs and gambling equipment at Winston's Place. By 1980 he was found guilty of more tax violations and accused of owing thousands of dollars on water and sewer bills.[5] Willis alleged that he was being harassed by the city and that his properties were targeted for excessive inspections by the fire department. Newspaper publisher W.O. Walker’s Call & Post ran an editorial sympathetic to Willis, "Fire Inspections as Weapons":

"It is unfortunate when city workers are forced to carry out their normal duties as a means of affecting the policy and prejudices of higher ranking officials….That does not excuse higher-ups from blame for fomenting a plot against Willis...."[6]

Willis fought the city with lawsuits, as reported in the local press, "Willis, who has made a battleground of the courts in his fight… is on the legal rampage again."[7] Other headlines followed, such as "Willis Alleges Land Squeeze In Area Around E. 105 and Euclid”.

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.[8]

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,

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.[9]

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:[10]

…Cleveland's City Council is an anachronism in the second half of the twentieth century. No other major city in the country has such an unwieldy legislative body. Unwieldy isn't the word, it is corruptive, it is crippling… My greatest frustration as mayor of Cleveland came through my futile attempts to reform the Police Department; … I was forced into a defensive position and was not able to fully exercise the authority I had been elected to wield. When I left office after four years, The Cleveland Police Department was as politically corrupt, as Byzantine in its organization, as brutal in its understanding of the sources of crime, as it was before I came. Cleveland was in the hands of ethnics, the immigrants from Middle and East European countries…

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[11] 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]

Willis' businessses occupied an area the city wanted for a large medical-educational complex connecting Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals, and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

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.

As noted in the reporting of hundreds of cases documented in the 2001 Associated Press series, Torn From The Land,[12] "...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."


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ Call and Post “Believe Racial Bigots Behind Jazz Temple Bombing” (August 17, 1963) Pg. 1-A
  3. ^ "Keith's East 105th St. Theater". 
  4. ^ Emanuel Hughley, Jr. and Dick McLaughlin (June 1, 1973). "Winston Willis' Miracle on E.105th Street". Cleveland Press Showtime Pgs. 3–4. 
  5. ^ "Jazzed in Cleveland Part 137 - The Jazz Temple". Retrieved March 27, 2017
  6. ^ Call and Post Editorial, "Fire Inspections as Weapons", January 23, 1982, Pg. A-1
  7. ^ "Clinic and U. Circle Inc. Accused of Land Squeeze". The Plain Dealer. July 13, 1977. 
  8. ^ "Willis Alleges Land Squeeze In Area Around E. 105th and Euclid". Cleveland Press. March 14, 1979. p. 19-B. 
  9. ^ OHIO Magazine, W.O. Walker-Cleveland's Black Power Broker, February 1981, p.57
  10. ^ Stokes, Carl B., (1973). Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography, Simon & Schuster
  11. ^ Spencer Neth, Professor Case Western University School of Law
  12. ^ "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]