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Writing the History of Karamu House: Philanthropy, Welfare, and Race in Wartime Cleveland

From: Ohio History
Volume 115, 2008
pp. 80-100 | 10.1353/ohh.0.0039

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Like the majority of settlement houses, little is known about Karamu House's past. Founded at the end of the Progressive Era, rebuilt in the 1940s, and continuing, indeed thriving, to this day, scholarly neglect of the Karamu settlement in Cleveland, Ohio, is a subject worthy of explanation. As is the case with its more notable peers—Hull House in Chicago and the South End settlement in Boston, to name just two—scholars have tended to portray settlement houses as exemplary of the spirit and intention of progressive reformers, while failing to explore the histories of particular institutions. Most of what is written about such organizations is derived from former members, relayed from personal memory rather than archival records, and often hagiographic in delivery. This is certainly the case with Karamu House, a neighborhood settlement started by Cleveland's Second Presbyterian Church as the Playhouse Settlement in January 1914, and made famous by its later successes in drama and the arts.

Accounts that do discuss Karamu's past have tended to be organized around a few definite dates. This is an approach that compresses history into facile join-the-dot tales. Isolating particular moments in the past and arranging narratives around them is, nevertheless, a method of doing history with high purchase, especially, though by no means exclusively, within popular formats. Yet it is also an unhistorical method. With its emphasis on a few supposedly key moments, such an approach attempts to impose an order and coherence on events that contemporaries would have failed to recognize as true. This critique is by no means confined to the history of welfare institutions. Indeed, some of the best-known stories of the past revolve around the work performed by key "dates." We might think, for example, of 1789 or 1968 for confirmation of this point, while recognizing that 9/11 and 7/7 will soon serve a similar function.1 Identifying the problems inherent in this method of historical production, this essay will argue that such dates are themselves products of historical caricature, often fixed in place less by the significance that contemporaries accorded them than by the role they have assumed in later archival processes and narrative constructions. As Haitian scholar Michel-Ralph Trouillot has noted, this joint process of creating and selecting certain dates is objectionable both for its reductionism and also for the way in which it compromises the complexity of the past through its narration in the present. Authors of Karamu history who cite just a few dates—the settlement's opening in 1914, the plant's destruction through fire in October 1939, and the reopening in 1949—I will argue, have "impose[d] a silence upon all events surrounding the one being marked" and in turn have distorted the history of this institution. Focusing on the decade between 1939 and 1949, what follows is an attempt to propose a different way of narrating the past lives of institutions.2

For a number of reasons, it is fitting that the first scholarly account of Karamu House examines the years 1939-49. This was the decade in which the buildings familiar to present-day observers came into existence; the settlement was officially named Karamu House and rebuilt after a lengthy funding campaign.3 Indeed, one of the most impressive achievements of this period was the amount raised by the settlement's staff and members toward the construction of a new plant. Following the fire of October 1939, trustees at the settlement calculated that they would need approximately $500,000 to continue their work. After some ten years, not only had they achieved this feat but exceeded it, and all at a time when the United States was experiencing extensive economic uncertainty and Cleveland was undergoing considerable demographic transformation.4 To convey the enormity of their task, one recent estimate suggests that $500,000 in 1939 is the equivalent of just less than $10 million in 2000.5 These trends are even more impressive when one considers that they ran against the general trend of settlement houses, as the 1940s sounded a death knell for America's first generation of such institutions. Comprehending why it was that Karamu survived this...