It Happened Here: The First Public High School West of the Allegheny Mountains


Ever wonder where so many historical events happened around town? Or how Cleveland history helped shape the country’s larger history? This academic year, Teaching Cleveland is on a quest to uncover some hidden history gems for you – places where events took place that helped influence this unique community and beyond. And hey – if you didn’t know about any of these, don’t kick yourself! These are places that have no historical markers telling anyone anything about it.

It happened here… Central High School, the First Public High School West of the Allegheny Mountains
Where? East 55th Street and Central Avenue
(on the site of the current George Washington Carver CMSD school)

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory

On this site, the first free public high school west of the Allegheny Mountains once proudly graced the east side of Cleveland. In 1846 a group of local leaders advocated for something unique at the time – a publicly-funded secondary school. Today it may be hard to conceive that this might be a controversial issue, but Ohio law actually prohibited public funds for schooling beyond the elementary level. Cleveland mayor George Hoadley, along with community leaders Charles Bradburn and George Willey, led the fight to change state law, eventually influencing legislation in 1848 that made provisions for public support.

In truth, the East 55th site was actually the third – but longest – home to Central High School. For the first ten years, the school operated out of a Universalist church basement on Prospect Avenue, and then it moved to a building on Erie Street (now East 9th) near Euclid Avenue. Soon, space needs required a larger building, and in 1878 a Victorian Gothic structure was completed at the corner of Willson (now East 55th) and Central Avenue.

Laura Spelman, a prominent graduate and abolitionist, donated the ornate clock tower that would grace the front of the building, which would be the home to the school for 62 years. She would marry John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, who also attended and graduated from Central High School. Notable graduates of Central also included:

●      Charles F. Brush (inventor of the arc lamp, industrialist)

●      Helen Maria Chesnutt (among earliest women of color in U.S. classical education)

●      Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen)

●      Marcus A. Hanna (businessman, U.S. Senator, chairman of the Republican National Committee)

●      Langston Hughes (poet, novelist, playwright, columnist)

●      Mary B. Martin (first Black woman elected to the Cleveland Board of Education)

●      Samuel Mather (industrialist and philanthropist)

●      John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (industrialist and philanthropist)

●      John Severance (industrialist and philanthropist)

●      Louis Stokes (civil rights pioneer, first Black Congressman elected from Ohio)

In 1940, a new building relocated Central High School to East 40th between Central and Cedar avenues, and after multiple changes over the years, including a name change to the Carl and Louis Stokes Central Academy, the structure was closed in 2013. Although physically gone from Cleveland, Central High School once stood for more than 150 years as an important reminder of a highly successful, multiracial school funded by tax dollars – a significant legacy in educational history around the U.S.

Read more at the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.



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