On his way to Hollywood, a young Black man named Winston Willis stopped in Cleveland in 1959 to shoot a little pool and walked away $35,000 richer. He used his winnings to open over two dozen businesses on Cleveland's East Side, a vibrant area that locals referred to as "Inner City Disneyland." For a time, Willis was a multi-millionaire, the largest employer of Black people in the Midwest, and a bold business mogul with a big reputation.
Nowadays, there's no trace of the "Miracle on 105th Street". That same intersection is dominated by the campus of a non-profit hospital system. And most people growing up in Cleveland today have never heard of Winston Willis.
Cleveland writer and race educator Ajah Hales examines the forces that punished Willis for daring to live the American dream, and goes on a search for proof of his missing legacy.
- "The Jazz Temple" article on Cleveland Historical
- "Cleveland's Second Downtown" article on Cleveland Historical
- "The Winston Willis Story" website
- "The Winston I Knew" article on Cool Cleveland
- Doan's Corners - Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
- Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in Cleveland in 1967
- "The Miracle on East 105th" article in Pressure magazine
Special thanks to Winston Willis, Aundra Willis Carrasco, Kasner Willis, Mark Souther, Kandiace Gibson, Michael B., and WCPN in Cleveland.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Nora Saks: A heads up: this episode contains strong language, including a racial slur that some may find offensive. Take care when listening. OK, here's the show.
Nora: Loyal Last Seen listeners - I’d like to introduce you to Ajah Hales.
Ajah Hales: I'm Ajah Hales and I'm a writer and race educator from East Cleveland, Ohio.
Nora: Give me a little window into your work as a race educator. What do you spend your time doing?
Ajah: Well I give churches, nonprofits and corporations the tools to have productive conversations about race. Which basically means I create a lot of lesson plans and curriculum and do a ton of research.
So I’m not a reporter. But I worked really hard to report out this story with WBUR Podcasts so it could be told and heard in its entirety for the first time.
Nora: Right, and it has to do with one very busy - and very famous - intersection on Cleveland’s East Side. So tell us about this intersection - what’s there today?
Ajah: It’s called 105 and Euclid, and it’s kind of where Cleveland started. But right now, it’s home to a building owned by the Cleveland Clinic, you know, the number two hospital in the nation. It’s just two nondescript brick buildings called the W.O Walker Center, which is a physical therapy and rehab center.
Nora: About 40 years ago, though, this corner looked totally different, right?
Ajah: Yeah, I mean back in the 70s and 80s, this corner was a toehold for Black-owned businesses in a city that didn’t want them there. And that’s in large part thanks to Winston Willis, and his miracle on 105.
Nora: I’ve never heard of Winston Willis.
Ajah: Well, I'd love to tell you the story of a young Black man who came to Cleveland, gambled his way to the top and built a multi-million dollar empire that people once called ‘inner-city Disneyland.’ You know, a man who became the largest employer of Black Americans in the Midwest. But that's not the full story. The full story ends in a very different way.
[Voice 1: To me, 105th and Euclid is a crime scene…
Voice 2: Broader context of Black dispossession…
Voice 3: If America wasn’t America, my uncle could have been Bill Gates...]
Ajah: This is the story of a Black man who was punished for daring to live the American dream.
Nora: Punished by whom?
Ajah: It's not that simple. You can't put it down to just one person or one entity. This was a conglomeration of forces coming together. And here’s the thing. These forces don't have to prove they weren’t involved with what happened to Winston Willis. They just have to make it really hard for you to prove they were.
Nora: Welcome to Last Seen - a show about people, places and things that have gone missing, and whether or not they can, or even should, be found. From WBUR - Boston’s NPR station. I’m Nora Saks.
Today, for the final chapter in our Season 2 anthology, we hear a story that comes from a clear point of view. Race educator Ajah Hales is on a search for proof of the missing legacy of Black business mogul Winston Willis - while he’s still alive. This is Episode 10: “Searching for a Miracle”.
Winston Willis: I think that Cleveland has to be, absolutely the most racist part of all of America.]
Ajah: That’s Winston Willis four years ago, speaking for a documentary that was never made. He’s talking about Cleveland in the 60s, but honestly? Not much has changed since then. By the time I was born in 1985, Cleveland had earned the label ‘hypersegregated.’ Today, Cleveland still ranks in the top ten most segregated cities in America. That’s why it surprised me to learn that a Black millionaire once owned prime real estate on Euclid avenue with 28 businesses where Black Clevelanders could shop, work and thrive. A place they called ‘inner-city Disneyland.’
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
Winston Willis grew up in Detroit, Michigan. And he was always a bit of a rebel. A rebel who would go from being a hustler to becoming a serial entrepreneur and real estate developer. At 19, Winston left Detroit without his parent’s permission and set out for Hollywood. He wanted to make movies.
Aundra Willis Carrasco: And he felt guilty, because he knew our mother was going to be so upset. So he stopped at a payphone to call Mother, and she was just hysterically crying and saying well at least go to your cousin's house and get a hot meal.
Ajah: That’s the voice of Aundra Willis Carrasco, Winston’s sister. She has spent the majority of her life trying to salvage her brother’s legacy and tell his story. Now that Winston’s health has declined to the point where he no longer speaks to the public, his ‘baby’ sister fights for him. I’d tell you her age, but she knows where I live.
Since Black Americans could never ensure their welcome among their leucistic analogs, stopping at the house of a family member, or friend, for a home-cooked meal (and generous to-go plate) was the safest option for Black American travelers well into the ‘70s. In 1959, Winston stopped at his cousin’s house in Cleveland to eat, and shoot some pool.
Aundra: In that pool hall, one of the first people he met was a guy named Carl Stokes, who later became mayor.
Ajah: The first Black mayor of any major U.S. City. Winston started that night by making friends in high places and ended it $35,000 richer than he came in. Ultimately, neither his money or his powerful relationships would save him from ‘the powers that be.’ More on that later.
Winston grew up managing his father’s tile shop. That’s where he met and befriended jazz legend Miles Davis - he was shopping there. So when Winston won $35,000 in a pool game, he used his winnings to start Detroit Carpet and Tile. The first of over two dozen businesses Winston would eventually own on Cleveland’s Eastside. Detroit Carpet and Tile was where Willis met his first love, a woman named Charlene.
Aundra: And with Charlene, Winston and Charlene created the Jazz Temple. And that was in 1961.
[JAZZ MUSIC PLAYS]
Ajah: The Jazz Temple sat across the street from Case Western, and a stone’s throw away from University Hospital. The building bordered an infamously anti-Black neighborhood called Little Italy. At 19, Winston was too young for a liquor license, but he knew he didn’t need to sell alcohol to turn a profit--top-notch performances at affordable prices would keep the music accessible and the chairs full.
He also knew that a young Black man opening an integrated club in a predominantly white ‘ed’s and med’s’ district, or educational and medical as it used to be called, was nothing short of a declaration of war. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Using his relationships with Black entertainers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Winston created a venue that became a hot spot for Cleveland. A place to catch a real legend perform, or just the mere chance of spotting someone Black and famous.
Aundra: And the Jazz Temple was hugely successful.
Ajah: Aundra started working at Jazz Temple the night she got to Cleveland. If you were family, and you were in town, Winston was going to put you to work.
Aundra: We used to get bomb threats every single night! I used to answer the phone and hear the most god-awful racist threats.
Ajah: That was to be expected since Jazz Temple drew in college students from all over Northeast Ohio and was known as a ‘safe place’ for interracial couples.
Freddie Hubbard: For some reason, I don't think they wanted, the people in the neighborhood didn't want that club to be there. So they threatened to throw a bomb in the club that night.
Interviewer: What happened?
Freddie: Art Blakey said I don’t care what they do, we’re gonna play anyway.]
Ajah: That’s Jazz legend Freddie Hubbard telling a local NPR affiliate about a night the Art Blakey band headlined at Jazz Temple. The musicians refused to be intimidated. They created a vaudevillian performance guaranteed to distract the crowd from the bomb threat.
Freddie Hubbard: And I’ll never forget, there was a guy, a friend of Art’s, who came in the club that night and danced on nails. So he, he came up on stage, and I'll never forget, we were playing Three Blind Mice and this guy laid down on some nails and walked on glass, right on stage.]
Ajah: Threats of racial violence did little to deter college students from going to see some of the hottest acts in the country. I’m looking at a poster from back then of Jazz Temple headliners that reads like a who’s who of 1960s Black entertainers. Miles, Coltrane, Dinah Washington, Redd Foxx, Herbie Hancock, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory--even Malcolm X came to ‘worship at the temple’. But the Jazz Temple’s success would be short-lived.
Ajah: What happened to it?
Aundra: It was bombed (laughs).
Ajah: Just two weeks after Art Blakey’s friend danced on nails, someone put dynamite in an exhaust vent. It was the end of Jazz Temple. Cleveland Police failed to arrest any suspects. They called the bombing an ‘educational warning.’
It was the kind of “warning” many Black entertainment venues near white neighborhoods received, a form of what African American literature professor Koritha Mitchell calls ‘know your place aggression.’
Koritha Mitchell: Sometimes it wasn't that you were doing something wrong, it was that you were doing everything right, and thereby needed to be put in your so-called proper place.
Ajah: The Jazz Temple wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. I found example after example throughout the Midwest of Black people making incursions into white spaces, only to be met with racial violence. A few years earlier, a white-owned Jazz club that allowed ‘race mixing’ was bombed three times in one year. After the third bombing, they posted a sign that said: “Don’t bomb us. We quit.”
And it wasn’t just businesses. Mount Zion Congregational Church, one of the oldest churches in the country organized by and for Black Americans, was bombed when the congregation moved into University Circle. One local Black Pastor’s house was bombed twice. When racial covenants weren’t enough to keep Black Clevelanders in their place, hostility, threats, bombs, and violence often did the trick.
Like I mentioned, the Cleveland police called these kinds of incidents “educational warnings”. Feel free to disagree with me, but when white people destroy Black owned or frequented spaces to tell Black people we don’t belong somewhere, I call it racial terrorism - and that’s the term I’m going to keep using.
The crazy thing is, all of University Circle started off as land grants–a form of federal real estate subsidies that allowed white men to purchase huge parcels of land for pennies on the dollar. University Circle was built by and for white people, and racial violence was used to keep the area white. Black residents and business owners had no recourse against racial violence. They simply had to pick up the pieces and move on.
Which is exactly what Winston did.
In the years after racial terrorists destroyed the Jazz Temple, Winston opened up over two dozen more businesses throughout the midwest.
He invested in high liquidity businesses like after-hours restaurants, adult movie theaters, number’s stations - which are bodegas where you can gamble–businesses that didn’t ruffle any feathers and which allowed him to stack cash. Winston knew that when it came to real estate, the only color that really mattered was green.
Then, in 1968, Winston finally got the lucky break that would take him from being the new kid on the block to being able to buy the block. But we can’t talk about Winston’s success, or his ultimate downfall, without addressing the elephant in the room–urban renewal.
Mark Souther: It's a period of convulsive change. I'm Mark Souther, I'm a professor of history at Cleveland State University in Cleveland Ohio. I teach courses on US History, 21st century urban history, and public history
Ajah: Mark helped me make sense of the University Circle Winston was trying to break into. The area had always been known as an ‘eds and meds’ district, home to Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals, and what was at that time a small but promising teaching hospital called Cleveland Clinic.
Mark: The powers that be in Cleveland had eyed that area as an important node of future activity. It was a place that had been Cleveland’s second downtown. It had in their eyes fallen into blight and decline. And now they wanted to redevelop it and they envisioned a campus, again, towers in the park. If you can just look at the pictures. They wanted it to be less dense but with high rises, surrounded by greenspace.
Ajah: That idyllic image does little to describe the brutal reality of urban renewal.
Mark: I mean heck, the urban renewal program - it was not for nothing that some people called it negro removal.
Ajah: Urban renewal is a nexus of strategic disinvestment and displacement. After World War 2, the Federal Housing Act allowed the government to send states money to purchase and develop ‘blighted areas.’ States marked off neighborhoods for urban renewal, which allowed them to forcibly displace residents and businesses through a process called eminent domain
Most U.S. cities put some amount of land under urban renewal programs, but Cleveland went all in.
Mark: Cleveland really bit off more than it could chew. It got really excited about urban renewal, and it put six thousand sixty acres under urban renewal planning.
Ajah: The University-Euclid urban renewal project was one of the biggest in the city. New amendments to the Federal Housing Act allowed cities to count expenditures made by hospitals and schools as match money to leverage federal dollars–essentially letting cities redevelop for free.
Mark: That would have been attractive...had it all come together.
Ajah: By 1961, the City of Cleveland had already used eminent domain to displace over 1,000 Black families, making room for the Clinic to expand. Phase two, which was spearheaded by Cleveland Clinic, would eventually displace upwards of 20,000 Clevelanders, most of them Black.
Black residents of University Circle were being forced into two nearby areas: Hough and Glenville.
Displacement, racial terrorism, and poverty created a perfect storm of discontent. By the mid-1960s, Cleveland’s Eastside was a powder keg ready to explode. And eventually, it did.
[BLACK PANTHER CHANTS: Pigs are gonna catch hell! No more brothers in jail!
Ajah: Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X both visited Cleveland in the mid-1960s. They spoke at Cory United Methodist, Cleveland’s largest Black Church.
[MONTAGE OF MLK AND MALCOLM X SPEECHE
Martin Luther King Jr.: And so every Black person in this country must rise up and say I am somebody...
Malcolm X: They attack all of us for the same reason. All of us catch hell from the same enemy...
Martin Luther King Jr.: Freedom is never voluntarily given to the oppressed...
Ajah: Both wanted Black Clevelanders to stand up for their rights, but their messages, much like their methods, were very different.
[Martin Luther King Jr.: We’ve got to get smart. We’ve got to organize…
Malcolm X: Today is time to stop singing and start swinging...]
Ajah: Most Black Clevelanders, including my grandparents, said the police and FBI started the riots. Recently redacted documents from the FBI’s COINTELPRO project support that assertion. The year was 1968. Cleveland was burning. And Winston Willis was nowhere to be found.
During the riots he was sealed in the back of one of his restaurants, playing a high stakes game of craps. Although he didn’t know it, that weekend would forever be a defining moment in Winston’s life. His sister Aundra told me all about it.
Aundra: What they didn't know in those three days that they were literally sequestered in that back room was the Glenville shootout had broken out and there was martial law all over the city.
Ajah: Winston says he won half a million dollars in three days, showing up at his sister’s house later with industrial-sized garbage bags full of money. His friends wanted to keep the game going, but Winston had other plans.
Aundra: He said, “nope, I'll catch you all later. I'm going to buy me some real estate!” And those were his exact words to them, and that's what he did.
Ajah: Winston used his winnings to found University Circle Properties Development. His goal was simple: to put Black people in charge of what urban redevelopment looked like. Winston built a $2 million dollar empire in two years, all centered around the needs of Black people, like Boon Docks Seafood restaurant, Paymaster money exchange, WinJam Studios, Mr. John’s Haberdashery, and the Scrumpy Dump theater. By 1970, he was the largest employer of Black Americans in the midwest.
Unfortunately, Winston’s vision for the community didn’t quite fit with the city’s idea of urban renewal. Professor Mark Souther explains.
Mark: I don't think they actually used the term 'skid row', but that was the type of term that was used in a lot of cities to describe businesses that catered to African Americans. And granted, some of these businesses were adult businesses.
Ajah: The Pussycat Cinex and Adult Bookstore was the only adult business Winston owned at that location. With 28 businesses on the corner of 105th and Euclid, Winston was in the way of the city’s urban renewal plan, and the city went out of their way to make sure that he knew it. He faced constant setbacks and sabotage, from direct threats on his life to bogus code violations and character assassination by media, who called Winston a pornographer, and a slumlord.
Ajah: Was Winston a slumlord?
Aundra: No. Do you want me to tell you how that came about?
Aundra: Okay. The city and the utility companies, like the Electric illuminating company, they would pull back the utilities in his beauty salon and claim that it was for non-payment, but the payments were made. But they did that on purpose to be able to portray him as a slumlord. He was not a slumlord. All of his buildings were very well maintained, and I have lived in some of his buildings. So none of this is true. No.
Ajah: As for the pornography accusation, in 1971, there were two black-owned newspapers and one white-owned paper in Cleveland, The Plain Dealer. And the white-owned paper reached out to Winston because they said they wanted to profile a successful business owner. He was skeptical. He worried it would be a hit job. But his mom talked him into it.
Aundra: My parents were staying at my house. And so that morning I went out to get the paper off the lawn, and when I saw the headline, I said oh my God, I don't believe it.
Ajah: The headline? ‘Pornography King’s Empire Grows Fast’. Aundra tried to hide the paper from their mother, but she saw it anyway.
Aundra: She was very, first of all she was very angry. And then she was saying, “you should sue them, how can they say that awful stuff?” But yeah, she was very angry.
Ajah: Winston did own a chain of adult movie theaters throughout the midwest. And he leveraged the profit from those movie theaters to buy more land. But -
Ajah: Was he a porn king?
Aundra: No, he was not a porn king in the sense that he did not make the movies. He did not create the movies. But he distributed the movies. So, no. He was not a porn king.
Ajah: He might have been public enemy number one in Cleveland, but to his nephew, Chef Kas Willis, he was simply Uncle Winston.
Kasner Willis: I think people look at the street things that my uncle was involved in and don't focus enough on the true businesses that he operated and the impact that they had, not just on the African-American community, but Cleveland as a whole.
My name is Kasner Willis, and I am Winston Willis's nephew. I am an executive chef and I own my own hospitality firm now, Great Lakes Hospitality Solutions.
Ajah: Kas is the fourth generation of Willis’ to own his own business. We met at a place called The Coffee House. It sits on Case Western Reserve’s campus, six blocks from where the Jazz Temple once stood and it owes its existence to yet another federal land grant. I’m not sure if Kas knows this history, and I don’t tell him.
Ajah: Well I think you have a lot of information.
Kasner: On the family side.
Ajah: Kas has always looked up to his Uncle Winston. Like everyone else in the family, he started working for his uncle on the first day he visited Cleveland. His job was to sit by the window and keep an eye out for cops. Kas’s first check was printed on company stationery. The amount? One dollar.
Ajah: Did you frame it?
Kasner: No, no I don't know where it is.
Ajah: Ha! You probably cashed it.
Kasner: Well definitely I cashed it! I definitely had Mom take me to the bank and cash that $1.
Ajah: I ask Kas about the newspaper article that called his uncle "the porn king of Cleveland", he barely remembers. By the time he came along, Winston was transitioning into what had been his dream all along--movies.
Kasner: It was such resistance to him being in the traditional movie business.
Aundra: And the distributors had been giving him hell to get first-run movies.
Ajah: Winston convinced the distributors to play ball by showing up at their office with a molotov cocktail in hand. He was charged with attempted arson, but when he got out, he was, well, tolerated.
He forced his way in. That’s what made him dangerous–Winston’s willingness to fight fire with fire. Kas tells me about going to pre-screenings with Winston when he was 13 or 14 years old. They were the only Black people there.
Kasner: They called them sneaks.
Ajah: Representatives from all the other movie theaters were there.
Kasner: And a movie like Claudine or something like that would come out and they say, 'give that to the [racial slur]'. Yeah, they didn't have any interest in playing them because at that time, they saw no revenue in African-American or People of Color in that star power.
Ajah: But that all changed in 1972 with the cult classic Super Fly–a fictionalized version of the life of Frank Lucas, the Harlem-based kingpin Denzel Washington portrayed in American Gangster.
[CLIP FROM AMERICAN GANGSTER: See, you are what you are in this world. That’s either one of two things. Either you’re somebody. Or you’re nobody. I’ll be right back
Aundra: So for six months, we knew that Scrumpy Dump was going to get Super Fly.
CLIP FROM SUPERFLY: This dude is bad. And he ain’t just fly, he’s Super Fly. Yeah]
Ajah: Winston told Aundra to quadruple the concession orders for the premiere.
Aundra: I would just say would you just let me do my job? I know what I'm doing!
Ajah: But on the morning of Super Fly’s premiere…
Aundra: I turned the corner, coming down Euclid Avenue, the line was around the block, like twice.
Ajah: She hadn’t ordered enough food–and was worried about her brother’s reaction.
Aundra: But you know what? When I got there, he didn't say one word to me. Winston was in the back. He was handing out money to all of his employees to go to the grocery store to buy more hot dogs, to buy more popcorn. We didn’t, we wouldn't had enough to feed all those people, and he was absolutely right. But he never ever scolded me about it. He didn’t say anything.
Ajah: He just found a way to get the job done. Unlike Aundra, Winston knew that Black Clevelanders would turn out en masse for a chance to see themselves on the big screen.
Kasner: From the movie side, I never saw anything like this...It was two senses of pride going on. The first sense of pride was as an African-American that we were even on the big screen in the first place because that was nonexistent. The second sense of pride was that it was at our house, it was at our house. That was gigantic for me.
Aundra: And to this very day, I can recite every line of dialog from that movie because I heard it so much.
Ajah: With Black Clevelanders' overwhelming support for Super Fly, the Scrumpy Dump theater and Winston’s other businesses at the intersection 105th and Euclid became a destination location for Black people–smack dab in the middle of University Circle. Locals called it ‘Inner City Disneyland.’
In addition to Winston’s companies, there were Black-owned medical clinics and insurance agencies, one of the first Black-owned McDonald’s in the country, and Vels, the #1 social club for Black Clevelanders. Marquee lighting at the theater, street lamps, and outdoor lighting kept the area brightly lit, 24/7. Winston’s private security team ensured that people and their property were safe, regardless of race.
And then there was the music.
[GET UP BY JAMES BROWN PLAYS]
Ajah: It played 24 hours a day.
Aundra: James Brown, BB King, Gladys Knight & the Pips. Everything! All the latest music.
Ajah: I'm sure his neighbors loved that.
Ajah: In its heyday, 'Inner City Disneyland' was a vibrant business community where Black Clevelanders could eat, shop, and be entertained.
Over 400 Black people worked for Winston–and he paid a living wage.
Aundra: He was just generous. I hear from people to this very day that tell me ‘I'm living in a house that I bought when I work for your brother because he paid us so well’.
Ajah: He wasn’t just doing good in the neighborhood, he was building Black wealth. And making powerful enemies.
Kasner: Everybody's with you when you’re doing good.
Ajah: But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. More on that, after the break.
Ajah: So what happened to Winston’s miracle? And how did a multi-millionaire go from the largest employer of Black people in the midwest to living in what his sister calls ‘utter poverty?’
Let’s find out.
Aundra: And they were breaking laws in court left and right.
Mark: He apparently punched him in the courtroom and he got charged with contempt of court.
Kasner: One day, I'm the prince of the city. The next day, no money, nothing.
Ajah: For four years, the miracle on 105th street was in full swing. But when Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, the country’s first Black mayor, announced he would not be running for reelection in 1972, things started to change.
Even though Winston’s businesses were successful, he faced constant harassment in the form of popup fire inspections, police harassment, trumped up code violations, and direct or indirect threats on his life–death by a thousand paper cuts. His sister Aundra Willis Carrasco explains.
Aundra: If he had witnesses to certain crimes that were being committed, the judge wouldn't allow that person to testify.
Ajah: With no legal recourse against a majority white administration, police force and judiciary, Winston took things to the court of public opinion.
Aundra: So Winston started exposing what they were doing by putting up these billboards, and they were very provocative.
Ajah: It became known as ‘the community billboard,’ and it was located on the side of Scrumpy Dump theater. The billboards were essentially a Black Lives Matter movement in the early 1970s. Winston used them to call out racial violence from police officers, FBI infiltration of Black power movements, and even Cleveland Clinic.
Winston posted a billboard saying Cleveland Clinic had zero Black doctors. It’s rumored they hired their first Black doctor a few weeks later. Aundra says the city hated her brother, and she knows why.
Aundra: He outsmarted them, and they could not stand that.
Ajah: Aundra told me every time Winston filed a case in court, it was thrown out. I saw that for myself with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who either summarily dismissed or refused to hear Winston’s cases in 1984 and 1990.
Aundra says this is how Winston was treated by all government officials, not just judges. Winston certainly had ‘friction’ with all of the powers that be, but no one found themselves in Winston’s crosshairs more often than Cuyahoga county prosecutor John T. Corrigan.
One billboard depicts Winston, dressed as Super Fly, fighting Corrigan, decked out in the white hooded robes of the KKK. Another shows a group of Black people lynching Corrigan with the caption: You had it coming, you dirty rascal you!
Aundra: So the situation with John T. Corrigan was, first of all, he was a racist to his core.
Ajah: Corrigan, who was the county prosecutor for four decades, was fondly nicknamed “the white crusader” — known for pursuing harsher sentences for Black Clevelanders than white ones. He was often accused of pushing cases through without sufficient evidence. He was also very well connected. Cleveland is riddled with Corrigans, serving as judges, prosecutors, and reporters, even now. Aundra says the Corrigan family had Cleveland in a chokehold.
Aundra: He hated Winston's guts...But Winston always would goad him, and he would say: “John Corrigan, my man!” And then he would walk up to him and say: “why do you hate Black people? We haven't done anything to you.” And one time he did that, and Mr. Corrigan socked him in the face.
Ajah: Right outside the courtroom. And John Corrigan wasn’t the only white man in authority to punch Winston in the face. The Assistant Law Director was held in contempt of court for punching Winston during a trial.
Kasner: To me, he was fearless, so, and still is.
This is what Winston’s nephew Kas remembers about his uncle—his fearlessness. And that fearlessness paid off, for a while. For ten years, Winston thrived at his 105 and Euclid location, despite the city’s efforts to discredit and destroy him. But you know what they say, you can’t fight City Hall.
Aundra: When Winston was in his height of notoriety, I would say, they invited him to lunch at the City Club.
Ajah: The City Club of Cleveland was founded in the early 1900s and is one of the oldest independent free speech forums in the United States.
Aundra: He was the first black person ever invited there, even long before Carl Stokes or anyone, or Obama, many, many, many years later.
Ajah: City Club wined and dined him. Then, Aundra says, a few guys from the Cleveland Clinic ‘invited’ Winston to take a ride in their limo.
Aundra: On the ride, they were just driving him around, up and down Euclid avenue telling him their plans. Their expansion plans. And so they offered Winston a piddly sum, of like $400,000 for all of his properties or something. And Winston said to them, ‘you must be out of your mind’! So then he said, ‘you don't, you don't understand young fella! We'll make you a rich man, all you have to do is leave town’! And Winston said, ‘I'm already rich and I'm not leaving. What else you got’? And then he said, ‘we will destroy you. Do you understand that? We will destroy you’. And they did.
Ajah: My producers keep asking me this –who is this ominous ‘they?’
Aundra: And the architect of all of this was George Voinovich. He started out his legal career as the county auditor, then he was the mayor, then he was a senator, then he was a governor. And he hated Winston's guts.
Ajah: George Voinovich and John Corrigan are part of ‘they,’ but so is the entire Cleveland judiciary, the entire police force, other white business owners, University Circle Inc. Everyone is complicit. It’s Winston versus what my grandmother called the PTB–the powers that be.
First, there was the arrest.
Aundra: Now, you have to keep in mind this man was a millionaire, okay?
Ajah: One of the banks Winston used was called First Bank National. Aundra says George Voinovich had blackmail material on the bank president and used it to make him tamper with Winston’s account and caused a check to bounce. Police arrested a multi-millionaire over a $400 bounced check. A check Winston never even signed.
Aundra: They drove him - when Winston described this to me, it was like something out of a 1940s gangster movie. They drove him to five different penal institutions all over the state of Ohio. And each one of the wardens refused to accept him as an inmate because they could not see that any crime was committed. First of all, Winston didn't even sign the check. And small things like that, the CEO used to sign checks. So, at the very last institution that they drove him to, in the middle of the night, the warden was about to tell him, you're going to go home. And then he got a phone call. And he left the room, and he came back, and they took Winston in as an inmate. That was in Chillicothe, Ohio...So, shortly after that, Winston said that a deputy came in his room and told him, ‘we've been ordered to take you to the hole’. And Winston said, ‘for what’? They don't know! So they took him to solitary confinement and they kept him there for 10 days. And in those 10 days they destroyed the entire Euclid avenue empire. And not one word of that was ever reported or written about or spoken about in Cleveland media
Ajah: When Aundra says destroyed, she means bulldozers and wrecking balls. She says there were witnesses.
Aundra: Because the FBI and the police had the entire area cordoned off. And they wouldn't allow people to walk on the street.
Ajah: Maybe that’s why I can’t get anyone Black, outside of Winston’s family, to speak about the incident on the record. Cleveland Clinic casts long shadows here.
If you’re not from Cleveland you probably only think about it as the number two hospital in the country. But if you are, you know how the hospital has built an empire by displacing communities and residents as its need for land has grown and continues to grow. And you know whose needs have been erased by that growth.
Ajah: How were they able to keep this out of the news? How come we haven't, I mean I'm a Clevelander, I grew up in Cleveland, I went to Cleveland City schools. How come we haven't heard of your brother?
Aundra: Because the Plain Dealer was in the grip of the Cleveland Clinic, always.
Ajah: The reporter covering the area at the time? Another Corrigan. A search of Cleveland Plain Dealer archives reveal articles that painted Winston as a pornographer and slumlord, coverage of his $100 million lawsuit against the Cleveland Clinic–more on that later, and a brief article about how a new therapy center might topple his empire, but nothing about the demolition of his properties.
There’s no archival footage from the news and a Google search of Winston’s name reveals less than 4,000 results. To put that in perspective, a Google search of my name yields over 5000 results, and I’m not a mogul or a millionaire.
Kasner: For most people, the thought process would be - even though you're wealthy, even though you're doing okay, why would you take on the power structure in this fashion? Why would you put these billboards up? It’s suicide! Why push it to that level?
Ajah: Kas thinks it’s because the Willis family had already lived through a land grab. Part of the land his Grandfather owned in Alabama was taken via eminent domain to create Maxwell Field Air Force Base.
Kasner: And they took that land through pretty much the same process. So in his mind, this whole thing was happening. It is happening to the family again. It’s happening to him again. He saw it as a child. And now it's happening again.
Winston sued the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and University Circle Inc. for $100 million in 1977 before 'the PTB' demolished the lion’s share of his buildings. He accused them of ‘eliminating Blacks from the community’ by pushing out Sears, the local grocery store, and his own shops.
After the demolition in 1982, Winston continued to appeal his cases up to the Supreme Court level. Each case was thrown out. Winston has never stopped fighting for his businesses. And in 1999, he recruited his sister.
Aundra: After he had lost everything, he was living in complete and utter poverty in his last building. So I went for a visit, I thought for a weekend.
Aundra: She ended up staying four years. Aundra remembers the last demolition clearly.
Aundra: It was snowing like crazy. The truck broke down.
Ajah: Aundra was walking to the courthouse to serve papers to a city judge, informing him Winston’s case was no longer in his jurisdiction.
Aundra: He held the hearing anyway, and he said from the bench, that he had never laid eyes on me, and he said ‘who are you? I've never seen you before!’ And he ordered us out of the building by 8:00 the next morning. And the SWAT team came the next morning. And the Cleveland police. And a phalanx of lawyers. And put us out of the building.
Ajah: Despite his concerted efforts, Winston lost everything.
Ajah: Can you tell me about how he went from being a young man who built a $2 million empire in 2 years to being completely broke in 1999?
Aundra: Mmm-hmm. They took his house. They took a fleet of cars. They took family heirlooms that have been in our family for years. They took a safe that was in his office that I know from my own eyesight always contained $35,000 in cash. And the police claimed that it was empty. They took everything he had.
Ajah: So who is they? The police?
Aundra: The Cleveland police, and they got their orders from the city of Cleveland, yeah.
Ajah: It’s been really hard to get information about exactly what happened to Winston’s land. And trust me. I’ve tried. I’ve reached out to the police–both in Cleveland and in Chillicothe, where he was arrested - they deny any involvement. So does Cleveland Clinic. Anyone at City Hall who may have been able to add some clarity is dead.
I found out that the county recorder’s office combined Winston’s 23 parcels that occupied 2 city blocks into one mega parcel. That office was at the time run by then county auditor George Voinovich. The mega parcel eventually ended up in the hands of Cleveland Clinic. But it’s unclear who gave the go-ahead.
What we do know is that same parcel now has two massive brick buildings called The W.O. Walker Center - a physical & occupational therapy center owned and operated by the Cleveland Clinic.
Efforts to tell Winston’s story keep meeting similar dead ends. In 2020, the city’s museum of contemporary art dropped a grant-funded installation honoring the Jazz Temple. The museum and the foundation that issued the grant declined to comment.
Why would a city go through so much effort to erase one man’s legacy? Could it be that Cleveland’s most powerful institutions want to escape their shameful pasts? I reached back out to local historian Mark Souther to discuss the records–or lack thereof.
Mark: I would love to learn more about what really happened, and I feel like the story has been never covered, very satisfactorily. So there are a lot of unanswered questions.
Ajah: Mark thinks this is why historians haven’t written much about Winston.
Mark: That's the problem is you can't, you can't just say what you think happened. You have to say what the sources tell you happened.
Ajah: Well, I mean he's alive. His sister's alive. His nephew is alive, they all lived during that time period. Is that not enough?
Ajah: Mark says even Aundra is not a primary source. I mention she has recordings of Winston she took for a documentary that was never made. She’s got chapter and verse. But people still don’t believe her. I asked Mark what would make historians feel able to write authoritatively about Winston.
Mark: You’d need, I think you’d need court records. I think you probably need city, you need property records...
Ajah: Records no one has been able to find. Mark and I are trying to figure out exactly how much Winston’s land would be worth today.
Mark: Yeah it looks to me like, see this black line that goes like right there, there there there
Mark: That's the property.
Ajah: We ultimately figured the value would be at least 50 million dollars today. Aundra thinks it would be much more.
Aundra: It is virtually incalculable because when you think of all the illegal wealth that the city has accumulated since 1982, that’s when the Euclid Avenue businesses were destroyed. I mean, it's incalculable!
Ajah: She says Winston’s was a life interrupted.
Winston turned 82 last October. Since then his health has declined to a state where he no longer interacts with the public. He's in a skilled care facility that Winston's family would rather not name.
Now, the people that love him are continuing to fight for his legacy and tell his story.
Aundra: He's in fragile health, but he's still Winston. And he's still fighting.
Ajah: Aundra talks to him almost every day. She says he still remembers case numbers and lawyers.
Aundra: And I can hear his caregiver saying ‘Mr Willis come on, it's time for your bath. And he'll say I don't want a bath! I want a lawyer! Get out of here!’
Ajah: Aundra may not be as outspoken as her brother, but she’s a fighter too. She’s written two unpublished documentaries and is working on a book. After 30 years telling of Winston’s story to anyone who would listen, she’s finally getting some traction.
Aundra: Recently I have had so many requests for interviews, and this story has really taken off on its own.
Ajah: What would be your wildest dream of the outcome of all of this work? For you? The outcome for your family?
Aundra: Here's what I want for him: I want to put him in his own house. With round-the-clock nursing care. I want him to be safe and comfortable. And I want his stuff returned to him.
Ajah: She also wants to expose the PTB, the “powers that be”, for what she calls a ‘hate crime’ against her brother.
Aundra: I want them to be held accountable for what they did. I want the city to be made to admit what they did. And I want them to know and appreciate the extraordinary person that Winston was. And that so much of this that he has done has been for his family.
Ajah: Even if Winston finally gets the recognition he deserves, it's unlikely that will do much to reconcile Cleveland's hypersegregated past and present.
Mark: Because you don't really reconcile, you can move on, but if you don't reconcile in the process, I think you leave that wound open.
Ajah: I love that. I absolutely love that, because I think that's what Winston's story represents to me, is an open wound.
Ajah: Winston took care of everyone around him, and now he needs long term care, which is expensive. Aundra has tried online fundraising before without much success.
But she hopes that more people finding out about Winston's story might change that. Because that’s what’s going to help his family make sure that Winston has the quality of life he deserves.
Winston: But unfortunately, for me, I was one who rebelled, you know? I wanted to do things that traditionally Black people did not do. And white people didn't like that.
As for getting back all that was stolen from him, plus interest? In the immortal words of Deniece Williams, ‘it’s gonna take a miracle.’