The Next 400: One family, three generations fighting discrimination

Published: Mar. 5, 2021 at 10:30 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Doctor Charles Garvin was a pioneering doctor in Cleveland.

“The first Black medic in World War I. The only Black resident at UH. He started a reading club for Black doctors,” recounted Lisa Garvin, his granddaughter.

He was also an activist and community organizer. He founded a life insurance company, was a trustee at the Karamu House, served as president of Alpha Phi Alpha and was on the Board of Directors at the Cleveland Public Library.

Of all his accomplishments, being a civil rights pioneer may be his greatest.

“My grandfather was threatened with bombs and racist symbols. He didn’t back down, he stayed and he dug in, and it was the same with my parents” said Garvin.

In 1926 Dr. Garvin sought to build a home in Cleveland. Before the home was completed, it was firebombed, twice. Fortunately, little damage was done and Garvin was able to move in.

“He knew it was going to be difficult and it was. It was bombed before it was finished, had KKK painted on the house,” said Doris Garvin, Lisa’s mother and Dr. Charles Garvin’s daughter-in-law.

She still remembers the stories. She actually lived through similar discrimination when her husband, Charles’ son Dr. Harry Garvin, sought to settle in Shaker Heights.

“There seemed to be an unwritten rule; real estate agents wouldn’t show any houses past Lee Road to a black family,” said Doris Garvin.

“In any new development you could expect to find deed restrictions that you could not sell to Black Americans,” noted author, historian and professor Dr. Todd Michney—a Cleveland native who wrote a book on the topic.

Undeterred, Harry and Doris found a way around the pushback through a straw-buyer. A neighbor bought the house for them, then sold it to them.

“I feel like we were pioneers at the time. Home life with the children as calm as it could be” recalled Doris Garvin.

School for Lisa and her two brothers was a different story.

“When we moved to Shaker and we went to Mercer [elementary], being the first Black children in that elementary school...when we got to school everyone knew who we were,” said Lisa Garvin.

Despite the initial notoriety, life did eventually quiet down for the Garvins.

“By the time next Black family arrived in Mercer, district people were much more open to people of color,” she said.

It is a remarkable legacy. One family. Three generations of breaking barriers in Cleveland.

“You’ve got to know you belong there, and you’ve got to stand behind that no matter what comes,” said Lisa Garvin.

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