WE MUST NEVER FORGET: The Tragedy of Glenville, July 23, 1968

On July 23rd, 1968, three Cleveland Police Officers and one civilian “Good Samaritan” gave their lives protecting the residents of Cleveland.  Twelve other Officers and a Police Tow Truck Driver were wounded and one of the Officers remained paralyzed and ultimately died of his wounds years later.

The Lakeview Tavern at the corner of Lakeview and Auburndale with 12312 Auburndale just to the left of the building.

July 23, 1968 was the bloodiest day in the history of the Cleveland Police Department: at about 8:20 that evening, the infamous Glenville Riots began.  Earlier that afternoon, five members of the Task Force unit reported for duty and were dispatched with orders to place a dwelling at 12312 Auburndale Avenue under surveillance. The residence of a local Black Nationalist leader, it was believed to house a cache of weapons, and as far as police officials knew, that were to be moved that night to another Midwest city where a riot was believed planned for several days in the future. 

(It’s probable that City Hall knew there were weapons in the Auburndale apartment because, early that evening, a city councilman was sent there to try and soothe the problems. He and his party left the house 5 to 10 minutes before the shooting started but later claimed they didn’t see any guns. As they left, they never acknowledged the police detail.)

All Task Force communications pertaining to the detail that evening were to be via High-Band Radio or by telephone and were unavailable to District personnel. The surveillance teams were told to take no action but to watch the house and wait for the vehicle which was supposed to transport the weapons. The Task Force evening shift, due to come on duty at 7 PM, would supplement the original detail and the entire shift would then to follow the transport vehicle until they could determine it’s destination. At that time a federal agency was supposed to take over the surveillance.

Cleveland Police Tow Truck #58

Officers taking cover
Cleveland Pollice Task Force Unit Car 966

Wounded Officer Ernest Rowell #1606 being carried to safety

However, before the 2nd group of Task Force personnel could get to Auburndale and instead of being transported out of town, the hidden rifles and shotguns were distributed to about 20 black nationalists who had gathered at the Auburndale apartment. Those men then immediately fanned out and began a guerilla war against the City of Cleveland and its police department.

The two Task Force cars were ordered out of the area and directed to meet reinforcements at E.107th & Superior but as they moved, they came under fire. Within minutes, two unarmed Police Tow Truck drivers, who happened to be in the area to tow an abandoned auto also came under fire and were wounded.

Tear gas being deployed toward sniper’s at Lakeview and Auburndale
Young boy being carried to safety

Cleveland Police Mobile Patrol 591
WKYC Camera Car

Wounded Lieutenant Elmer Joseph had just been pulled to safety by Patrolman Thomas Smith #1232 (on right) just before he was also wounded.

Before that night was over, the rioters had murdered three police officers – Lieutenant Leroy Jones and Patrolmen Willard Wolfe and Louis Galonka – and a civilian, James Chapman. Another officer – Patrolman Thomas Smith – was paralyzed and would ultimately die of his wounds. In addition, at least ten more officers were shot and wounded.  Some of the wounded officers recovered sufficiently to return to some type of duty but many of them were so severely wounded that they were forced to retire on disability pensions. All had been ruthlessly gunned down when they heedlessly responded to other officers’ calls for help.

Almost simultaneously with the first shots, shooting broke out in other parts of the east side and fires were started. Firefighters responding to those blazes then also came under gunfire as they arrived at fire scenes, forcing them to pull back. As the night wore on, looters added to the chaos. After midnight, the fighting slowed in the Lakeview-Auburndale area, but it continued in other parts of the 5th & 6th Districts. For much of the night, the east side was a battle ground with fire fights erupting as police officers arrived to quell incidents already in progress.

Fires raged throughout the neighborhood

Woman being escourted to safety

Cleveland Police and National Guard

By the next morning, the National Guard had been called out but – partly because of a decision by then Mayor Carl Stokes to keep Guardsmen and white police officers out of the riot area to prevent retribution by the police – a portion of the city burned for the second straight night. On the third night of the riot, that decision was reversed and police and Guardsmen were allowed into the riot area with no innocent parties suffering dire consequences. After two more days, when nothing was left to burn, the riot subsided. The National Guard was released and by Sunday, July 28, a sense of normalcy was returning to the city. But by then parts of Glenville resembled Dresden in 1945.

In the end, a ‘blue ribbon’ study of the riot provided a few excuses for its start but no real cause ever was uncovered. The committee couldn’t even agree on an initial incident in the riot and, to this day, most media reports usually cite the vehicle being towed as the “cause.” Eventually, 7 black nationalists were tried in connection with riots: two received Life sentences for their parts in the murders of the (then) three dead policemen and the one civilian. The riot’s ringleader died in jail.

Article written by Lt. James J. O’Malley, Jr. James “Bud” O’Malley was one of the five members assigned to the original Task Force detail. (Badge Number 887; Appointed 09/01/1964; Retired as a Lieutenant 05/05/1992; End of Watch 05/16/2012)

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