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Cincinnati civil rights and community activist Carl Westmoreland dies at 85

Carl B. Westmoreland, the senior historian at the National Underground Freedom Center, talks...
Carl B. Westmoreland, the senior historian at the National Underground Freedom Center, talks about the history of race relations and white nationalist in this region. Westmoreland said, "White nationalists are taking advantage of a cultural and political flaw in the American system."(Liz Dufour/The Cincinnati Enquirer)
Published: Mar. 11, 2022 at 10:18 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (Cincinnati Enquirer) - Community activist Carl Westmoreland, a tireless advocate and self-described “troublemaker” who devoted his life to expanding Black home ownership and preserving Black history, died Thursday in Cincinnati. He was 85.

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

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

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

Carl B. Westmoreland, senior historian of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center...
Carl B. Westmoreland, senior historian of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center speaks during the ceremonies for the 150th anniversary 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 up his talk with action. If something at City Hall upset him, he’d go to City Hall to complain. If he advocated for change in the community, he’d knock on doors to make his case. If he saw trash on his street, he’d 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 on the farm where it had stood 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 unapologetic,” his son, Guy Westmoreland, told The Enquirer Thursday. “He always would find a way.”

In a 2016 interview with Cincinnati Magazine, Westmoreland explained why he pushed so hard for the voices of Black people and other minorities to be heard, and for their histories to be remembered.

Carl Westmoreland, historian and curator of the "slave pen" in the National Underground...
Carl Westmoreland, historian and curator of the "slave pen" in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center by a stand of trees in a grave site just a few yards away from where the "slave pen" as built on a Mason County, Ky. farm.(Tony Jones/The Cincinnati Enquirer)

“Every one of us has some genius in us. Why don’t we find it?” he said. “At some point, people have to be allowed to have an impact.”

Westmoreland gained an understanding of the challenges he’d have to overcome while 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 fight in court, unsuccessfully, for land that ended up in predominantly white Evendale instead of Lincoln Heights.

He told Cincinnati Magazine his father wept when he learned the village wouldn’t get all the land it was entitled to, land it needed to widen its tax base and thrive 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 some time to figure out how to make that happen. As a student at Knoxville College, Westmoreland embraced activism but needed an occasional reminder that activism without results would never change the world.

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

That’s when he said he got a letter from his grandmother, who reminded him that he owed it to his family and community not to squander his opportunity. “Do your best and then go back and give 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 returned to Cincinnati, married his wife, Mozella, and raised two sons in Mount Auburn.

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

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

Guy Westmoreland said his father’s passion for his causes and for community service became part of his family’s life together. Sometimes, he said, his dad 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 recalled him saying.

And then they’d head out to knock on doors, usually to raise awareness about an issue or a cause his dad thought was important.

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

“You got to take care of where you live,” he’d tell them. “The community has to take care of the community.”

Cincinnati City Council honored local historian and curator Carl Westmoreland in recognition of...
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 almost 50 years, Carl Westmoreland has served as an urban historian of Cincinnati and served as a leader in the urban revitalization and preservation efforts in the city and on the national and international level. He is a known pioneer in the larger preservation movement, especially regarding 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 learn about everything, from history and politics to the best way to reupholster the second-hand chair he’d just bought at a garage sale. Often, his wife and sons would find him asleep on the couch, 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 a magazine to read on the way.

As his grandmother had told him years earlier, Westmoreland told his sons they had an obligation to make the most of their opportunities, and to give back to those who were less fortunate. “I could always hear that in my head when I struggled in school, and even now,” his son said. “I definitely 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 the creation of 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’d become concerned that poor people and minorities were getting lost in the nation’s increasingly toxic political discourse. It was a reminder, he said, of how much work was yet to be done.

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

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

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