Black History Month Profile: Louis Stokes

8:08 PM, Feb 28, 2013   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- He became Ohio's very first black Congressman, serving 30 years on the hill. A pretty impressive accomplishment for the man, who tells Channel 3's Russ Mitchell, as a young man he had no political aspirations.

"I'm trying to adjust to retirement. It's not easy," says Louis Stokes, when we sat down recently at Table 45 in the Renaissance Hotel.

Stokes says he learned the importance of hard work from his later mother, Louise, a housekeeper who became a widow when Louis was 5.

"I've worked since I was 12 years old. I had my own paper route when I was 12. I took a lot of pride in the fact that I was the best shoe shiner downtown," Stokes says, with a laugh.

After high school he was drafted and served two years in the army during World War II. At the time of his service, the branch of the military was still segregated.

Stokes says he saw prisoners of war treated better than black soldiers.

 "It helped me make up my ind that I had to get an education because I had to fight this thing in my country and I knew I just could not fight it without an education," Stokes said.

Through the G.I. Bill he went to college and then law school, eventually practicing with his brother, Carl Stokes, who, in 1967, was elected the first African American mayor of a major city.

Stokes didn't see himself pursuing a political career until 1968 when he won a lawsuit to redraw a congressional district. That's when he was asked by his brother and other community leaders to run for the office.

"I was scared to death. I just never though of political office. I knew my forte was in the courtroom. I was comfortable there," says Stokes.

It turns out, he had little reason to worry, winning 75 percent of the vote in that general election. Stokes went on to serve 15 terms, becoming one of the most powerful and respected lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Retired since 1999, Stokes has his opinions about the current state of gridlock in Washington.

"I am optimistic that thing will get better when the people take those people who are the obstructionists out of the congress with the understanding that I'm sending you to Washington to represent the people and do good for the people," Stokes says.

After leaving Capitol Hill, Stokes returned to his law practice in Cleveland. For 13 years he worked at Squire Sanders, only retiring his past December.

These days, the former Congressman and his wife, Jay, split their time between Cleveland and Washington DC.

Of course, you will find the Stokes name honored all over Northeast Ohio, including in Shaker Heights. The Louise Stokes Post Office is named in honor of his mother.

"She scrubbed floors and washed clothes and took care of people's homes. She believed in hard work, she believed in excellence in whatever you do. She believed in what she used to say to us: be somebody! Those are the things that I think inspired my brother Carl and I," Stokes says proudly.        


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