Civil rights

Cincinnati civil rights and community activist Carl Westmoreland dies at 85

CINCINNATI (Cincinnati Enquirer) — Community activist Carl Westmoreland, a tireless advocate and self-proclaimed “troublemaker” who has dedicated his life to expanding black property and preserving black history, is died Thursday in Cincinnati. He was 85 years old.

Westmoreland’s son, Guy Westmoreland, and his employer, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centerconfirmed his death.

Born and raised in Lincoln Heights, Westmoreland’s early years in a deeply segregated America shaped his belief that owning property and building communities was the best way for minorities to earn respect, wealth and equality.

His goal was to use the momentum of the civil rights movement, as well as his own strength of will, to bring about lasting change.

Carl B. Westmoreland, senior historian of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center speaks during the 150th anniversary ceremonies of the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.(Joseph Fuqua II/The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Westmoreland was never shy about speaking his mind, but he backed his talk with action. If something at the town hall bothered him, he would complain to the town hall. If he advocated change in the community, he would knock on doors to make his point. If he saw garbage on his street, he would pick it up himself.

And when the Freedom Center, where he worked as a curator and historian, considered turning a Kentucky slave pen into an exhibit, Westmoreland slept in it overnight at the farmhouse he’d been on since before the Civil War.

He did it, he later said, because “I wanted to feel what it was like to be in there”.

“Dad was fearless and shameless,” his son, Guy Westmoreland, told The Enquirer on Thursday. “He would always find a way.”

In a 2016 interview with Cincinnati MagazineWestmoreland explained why he was so insistent that the voices of black and other minorities be heard and their history remembered.

Carl Westmoreland, historian and curator of the
Carl Westmoreland, historian and curator of the “slave pen” at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center near a grove of trees in a grave a few yards from where the “slave pen” was built on a farm in Mason County, Ky. .(Tony Jones/The Cincinnati Enquirer)

“All of us have genius in us. Why can’t we find it?” he said. “At some point, you have to allow people to have an impact.”

Westmoreland understood the challenges he faced growing up in Lincoln Heights, a small, predominantly black village north of Cincinnati that his father helped found in the 1940s. Years later, he watched his father struggle in court, unsuccessfully, for land that ended up in predominantly white Evendale instead of Lincoln Heights.

He told Cincinnati Magazine that his father wept when he learned that the village would not get all the land it was entitled to, land it needed to expand its tax base and prosper as a community.

Westmoreland said he never forgot the lesson he learned that day: “You’re nobody if you don’t own something.”

It took him a while to figure out how to get there. As a student at Knoxville College, Westmoreland embraced activism but needed the occasional reminder that activism without results would never change the world.

“I did what many scholarship students do”, Westmoreland told WVXU-FM last year. “I decided I was going to be a radical and forgot about school.”

It was then that he said he received a letter from his grandmother, who reminded him that he owed it to his family and his community not to waste his opportunity. “Do your best, then come back and do service for the rest of your life,” she told him.

He said he did his best to honor that advice. After getting back on track and graduating, Westmoreland moved back to Cincinnati, married his wife, Mozella, and raised two sons at Mount Auburn.

He became active in community renewal and historic preservation, founding the Mount Auburn Good Housing Foundation with $7,000 in seed capital, which he used to rehabilitate his first building. He then raised millions of dollars for construction and home projects in Over-the-Rhine, Madisonville, and other neighborhoods.

Westmoreland wasn’t afraid to pound the table and speak up if he felt the Cincinnati movers and shakers weren’t paying attention to the issues he felt mattered most. He once said that his wife’s career as a nonprofit executive suffered because people saw him as a troublemaker.

Guy Westmoreland said his father’s passion for his causes and for community service became part of his family’s life. Sometimes, he said, his father would come home and tell him and his older brother, Carl Westmoreland II, to put on their coats.

“Hey, let’s go meet some people,” he remembers saying.

And then they would come out to knock on doors, usually to raise awareness about an issue or cause that his father thought was important.

It wasn’t just political activism either. Every Saturday morning, Guy Westmoreland said, his father would wake him and his brother, put trash bags in their hands, and take them outside to pick up trash in their neighborhood.

“You have to take care of where you live,” he told them. “The community must take care of the community.”

The Cincinnati City Council honored local historian and curator Carl Westmoreland in recognition of...
The Cincinnati City Council honored local historian and curator Carl Westmoreland in recognition of Black History Month, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, at Cincinnati City Hall. For nearly 50 years, Carl Westmoreland served as Cincinnati’s urban historian and was a leader in urban revitalization and preservation efforts in the city and nationally and internationally. He is a known pioneer in the broader preservation movement, particularly with regard to African-American preservation work.(Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer)

When he wasn’t working or driving his sons to football and track practice, his son said, Westmoreland was an avid reader. He wanted to know everything from history and politics to the best way to upholster the second-hand chair he had just bought at a garage sale. Often his wife and sons would find him sleeping on the sofa, a book on his chest.

“He was always learning something,” Guy Westmoreland said.

He expected his sons to do the same. Whenever they were in the car for a long drive, he made sure they had a book or magazine to read on the way.

As his grandmother had told him years earlier, Westmoreland told his sons that they had an obligation to make the most of their opportunities and give back to those less fortunate. “I could always hear that in my head when I was struggling in school, and even now,” her son said. “I really hear that.”

Westmoreland’s work sometimes took him beyond Cincinnati. He was the first black board member to serve on the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as a delegate to China in the 1980s.

In his later years, Westmoreland was instrumental in establishing the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. He continued to work there as a curator and historian until his death.

In his interview with WVXU last year, Westmoreland said he worried that the poor and minorities were getting lost in the country’s increasingly toxic political discourse. It was a reminder, he said, of the amount of work that still needed to be done.

“As good as this place is, this America is ugly that we can fix,” he said.

Westmoreland is survived by his sons, Guy Westmoreland and Carl Westmoreland II; one granddaughter and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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