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History will judge George L. Forbes kindly: Phillip Morris

October 7, 2018

History will judge George L. Forbes kindly: Phillip Morris

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In the spring of 1982, then Cleveland City Council President George L. Forbes stood waiting patiently near the front of city hall. Four executives from BP America had flown in from Houston to discuss with him terms that Cleveland had to meet in order to keep BP’s American headquarters from leaving town.

Two years after the city had defaulted on its municipal debt, Cleveland was desperately trying to rebuild and rebrand itself as a city poised for a dramatic comeback. Keeping BP headquartered in Cleveland was considered a critical part of the city’s resurgence plan. The city knew that it would need to offer generous tax abatements to ensure the company’s continued presence.

But as the executives walked into City Hall for their scheduled meeting, Forbes saw something that instantly disturbed him. His body language changed and his face registered displeasure. Before a single pleasantry was exchanged, Forbes abruptly canceled the meeting.

Jon Ferrell, who served as Forbes’ chief of staff, was standing next to his boss. Here’s how he recalls that stunning moment:

“We watched four sharply dressed Anglo-Saxon gentlemen walk in. You would have thought that the council president would have started walking toward them. He didn’t. Instead, he begins to walk away. After a few steps, he turned and looked over his shoulders,” Ferrell said.

“I’m not meeting with you. You better go back to Houston and get a suit for your (expletive) janitor because there’s no way I’m meeting with you unless there’s a brother at the meeting,” Forbes stated matter-of-factly.

“I was stunned,” Ferrell continued. “I was a white guy standing there looking just as confused as they were. So I turned and walked away as well. Interestingly enough, four sharply dressed BP executives showed up to meet with Forbes two weeks later – and one of them was black,” Ferrell said.

The second meeting was highly productive. An agreement in principle that would keep BP in the city was reached in under an hour. Cleveland would offer the company attractive tax abatements. In return, BP would build a new headquarters in downtown Cleveland and ensure that 20 percent of the construction and subsequent workforce jobs would go to minorities.

That anecdote effectively captures the political legacy of Forbes. He arguably played the seminal role in Cleveland’s recovery from default. During his 26 years on Cleveland City Council, he did a lot of the dirty, unheralded work. But his strategy was always two-pronged.

He was furiously committed to minority inclusion in the city’s economic development. It was that unbridled championing of minority businesses and his willingness to traffic in hardcore racial gamesmanship that long made him a polarizing figure in Greater Cleveland. Indeed, the fact that Forbes was the political architect of Cleveland’s modern skyline is often clouded over by his racial activism and demanding persona.

But Forbes was far more than an angry black man. Those who know him and worked with him understand that. The late George Voinovich once summed up the heavy lifting performed by Forbes in the years after default: “There’s a big George and a little George at City Hall. I’m the little George,” the former mayor and U.S. senator said of his political relationship with Forbes.

Today, at the age of 87, Forbes has outlived most of his political peers – not that he had many political equals. He walks with a cane and seldom accepts public speaking engagements. His mind remains razor sharp and his wicked sense of humor is intact.

“I only go to lunch with white people these days, because all of my black friends are dead,” he said recently at an appearance at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

This coming weekend, many of those friends, admirers and those simply seeking to know more about Forbes’ insider role in the city’s recovery will gather at the Western Reserve Historical Society to celebrate him. A dinner in his honor will be held Saturday evening, where several speakers will offer personal insights into his life and career. On Sunday, the society will open its doors free of charge to further celebrate Forbes’ life and career with music, a play, various activities and testimonials.

Forbes will also use the weekend to formally present many of his papers, documents, along with other personal and public effects to the Western Reserve Historical Society’s African American Archives program.

It’s great to see well-deserved tribute being paid to Forbes while he is able to fully bask in the city’s applause and appreciation. When future texts on the history of Cleveland are written, the role that he played in the city’s rise from the ashes cannot be overstated.

The rich and masterful legacy of George L. Forbes is intact.

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