Cleveland’s Unknown African American History from the Icabod Flewellen Collection

By Rita Knight-Gray, Host Committee member

Icabod Flewellen (image courtesy of the Flewellen Collection)
Icabod Flewellen (image courtesy of the Flewellen Collection, East Cleveland Public Library)

Icabod Flewellen was born July 6, 1916, in Williamson, West Virginia.  His passion for Negro history began as a young man reading J. A. Roger’s Negro newspaper articles. After discharge from the army in 1945, Mr. Flewellen believed that everyone should have the opportunity to see the accomplishments of Africans and those of African descent. His dream was to build an Afro-American museum in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1953, while working as a Veterans Administration messenger and a maintenance person at Case Western Reserve University, Flewellen started collecting material to build his collection for the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society. He traded, purchased, and bartered for items pertaining to known and unknown African American events and people. In 1964, the Cleveland “Parade of Progress” exhibition proclaimed Flewellen’s Negro history collection of one of the largest in the country.

The closed Cleveland Public Library’s Hough Branch became the home of the African American Museum. Unfortunately, managerial and financial debacles forced Flewellen out, and he had to return the documents and historical items to his home. In 1999, Flewellen donated his 400 cubic feet collection to the East Cleveland Public Library.

In 2005, the Cleveland Foundation awarded funding for the processing of the collection. Presently, 90% of the collection has been inventoried, cataloged, and is available online through a finding aid.

In 1993, Flewellen obtained a degree in history and became the oldest graduate from Case Western Reserve University. He continued to research and lecture on everything regarding African Americans until his death in 2001.

The above photographs are courtesy of the Flewellen Collection, East Cleveland Public Library.

Other Cleveland African Americans featured in the collection include:

  1. Rev. Glen T. Settle, pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church, whose Wings Over Jordan Choir was the first professional black choir in the United States that preserved Negro spirituals, receiving the Peabody Award.
  2. John Malvin, a free man born in 1795 in Dumfries, Prince-William County, Virginia of a slave father and a free mother, who worked with an organization to obtain land in Canada so that Negros could move away from Black Laws. While in Cleveland, he became a successful canal boat captain, a civil liberties fighter, and established a colored children’s school. In 1880, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Erie Cemetery. Icabod Flewellen worked with the John Malvin Foundation of Cleveland to obtain funding for a headstone for Malvin’s grave.
  3. George C. Jones, who owned a brass foundry on Central Ave. in Cleveland, where he made street car trolley wheels. His wheels were considered the best of their time and marketed by the Holland Trolley Supply Company of Cleveland throughout the world.

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One thought on “Cleveland’s Unknown African American History from the Icabod Flewellen Collection

  1. Cleveland Museum recently acquired an unusual sculpture by Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), America’s first African-American sculptor. Known as “Indian Combat,” the three-figure marble group may express feelings that the artist probably felt at the shifting support of mentors – including Oberlin College.


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