White Flight In Cleveland Ohio

White Flight Patterns Cleveland Ohio

            Cleveland Ohio is an upper Midwestern city once known as a booming industrial center that has since faded into the lonesome rustbelt category.  These cities, which ranked among the elite of the first superpower, have faded in different shapes and forms into sheer memories of what they once were.  Cleveland was once the 5th largest city in the United States, but has dropped significantly in population to 45th, barely clinging to the top 50 category.  Analyzing the population patterns of this dissolving city brings the question of how a once powerful city fell in rank so quickly.  One explanation, and the most visible in the city’s population history, is the idea of white flight.  White flight is the migration of a white population out of an area due to increasing proximity to another race.  In this case the opposing race is the black population that engaged in a mass migration out of the southern United States into Northern areas where they hoped for prosperity and equality.  I will examine the causes and effects of both the outmigration of the white and black populations of Cleveland between the years 1910 and 1990.  I will use both census data and scholarly studies to support the theory that white flight was most effective in the noticeable decline of Cleveland’s population.

The beginning of the twentieth century found Cleveland with the highest population in the State of Ohio and the sixth largest in the United States.  Cleveland featured a 95% white population and a 1.5% black population that had maintained its low proportion throughout the nineteenth century (Census1).  As the great city grew in population it attracted the southern black population that looked to the north to free themselves from inequality.  During the early years of the Great Migration “population density within black neighborhoods increased substantially”, leading to a rise in the overall black population (Tolnay1).   By 1930 the black population of Cleveland had risen by 63,451 and represented a stronger 8% of the city’s population (Census1).  Meanwhile the white population was unaffected and expanded alongside the incoming black population, reaching its historically high population of 827,833 in the same year.  At this point in Cleveland’s history the relationship between the white and black population was stable and growth was shared among the two.  However, the tide began to shift when a larger number of black migrants occupied the city, decreasing the once fine cut majority of the white population.

As the black population of Cleveland increased the crowded black neighborhoods that stood just outside the central city became overpopulated.  This was due to both a lack of new housing developments and racial segregation within the housing market that limited the black population’s ability to expand into white populated areas (Guest106).  As the friction between the two races grew in the now crowded city the white population began to migrate out of the central city and eventually out of the city all together.  At first the movement was slow, dropping by only 34,416 between 1930 and 1940, but became more defined as the years passed, reaching a decline of 170,493 between 1940 and 1960 (Census1).  Whites began to migrate out of the city leaving the black population with opportunities to move in toward the central city by purchasing property once unavailable to their race.  One theory suggests that “whites were not fleeing from blacks” and that whites were “selling most of their homes to blacks rather than to other whites” (Zuiches458).  This study was conducted in 1969, had it been later the assumption may have been disbanded due to the loss of population that closely followed the pattern of riots created by mobility friction between blacks and whites from 1960-1980 (Margo874).

As the white flight pattern continued from its start in 1940 more of the black population entered the central city, inhabiting areas once restricted to them due to segregation.  Because of the increase in black population the race began to hold some amount of power.  These individuals, who represented “ministers, politicians, and the middle-class-oriented National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Urban League”, saw Cleveland as the “best location for African Americans” between 1940 and 1950 (Moore135). Even though the black population was steadily increasing as the white population decreased, the black population still dealt with the segregation of the American school system. This posed a problem for the increasing population of the segregated minority who were sending their student further away, outside of the city, to schools that were overcrowded and improperly maintained (Moore136).  Both the rise in population (representing 29% total population in 1960) and the recent movement into city’s political sphere coupled with the Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954 to set the stage for monumental changes in the separation of blacks and whites.  During the 1963-1964 school year “, black Clevelanders launched a yearlong protest in an effort to end de facto segregation and other discriminatory policies within the Cleveland public schools” (Moore135).  Their reasons were clear; the black population then represented a very significant number within the city of Cleveland and demanded a change to the era of segregation within their schools. This caused a number of riots and fights between black protestors and angered white citizens that felt they still represented power to maintain a segregated city.  As national changes were made and laws ending discrimination were implemented the Cleveland schools were eventually integrated.

The results of the era of school desegregation left an impact on the white population.  The white population was now integrated throughout the entire city and began to migrate away from the black population that increased at an even higher rate.  In 1970 the white population numbered only 458,084 and represented only 61% of the overall population.  When compared to the 1930 white population of 827,833, this is a staggering decline in the white portion of the city.  While the white population and percentage fell each year after 1930 the black population has been increasing ever since.  The black population in 1990 represented 47% of the city with a population of 235,405.  The population changes of Cleveland Ohio are a result of white flight and black in-migration between the years 1930 and 1990 and are shown obviously through census data and events within the time period.




  1. “United States Census Bureau.” Population Division Working Paper – Historical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990. Accessed February 22, 2015.
  2. Tolnay, Stewart. “The African American “Great Migration” and Beyond.” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2009): 209-32. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036966.
  3. Guest, Avery. “Race and Population Change: A Longitudinal Look at Cleveland Neighborhoods.” Sociological Forum 17, no. 1 (2002): 105-36. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/685089.
  4. Guest, Avery, and James Zuiches. “Another Look at Residential Turnover in Urban Neighborhoods: A Note on “Racial Change in a Stable Community” by Harvey Molotch.”American Journal of Sociology 77, no. 3 (1971): 457-67. Accessed February 1, 2015. American Journal of Sociology.
  5. Moore, L. N., and L. N. Moore. “The School Desegregation Crisis Of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963-1964: The Catalyst For Black Political Power In A Northern City.” Journal of Urban History, 2002, 135-57. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://academic.csuohio.edu/tebeaum/courses/euclid/Moore_schooldesegregation.pdf.
  6. Collins, William J., and Robert A. Margo. “The Economic Aftermath Of The 1960s Riots In American Cities: Evidence From Property Values.” The Journal of Economic History 67, no. 4 (2007): 849-83. Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40056402.

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