Sunday, July 1, 2001
Lou Stokes didn't mean to cry.
For almost an hour, the former congressman had been sitting under a
canopy at the National Institutes of Health, listening quietly as
one prominent person after another rose up to sing his praises. It
made sense, the speakers kept saying, that Lou Stokes should be the
first black American to have a
building named after him at NIH. He was the first black American
to do so many things.
Now, the testimonials were ending, and the head of NIH was doing the
final honors - walking Stokes to the front of the brand-new,
six-story Louis Stokes Laboratories, unveiling the
plaque that will explain to future
generations why his name is on this building.
Hundreds of guests were watching. Behind him, an all-black choir was
singing: "Did you ever know that you're my hero?"
Stokes smiled and looked at the plaque describing his career. Then,
abruptly, his smile turned to a grimace. He reached into his pocket
for a handkerchief, removed his glasses, dabbed his eyes. But the
grimace wouldn't go away. Out came the handkerchief again. And
Finally Stokes gave up. He blew his nose unapologetically, and the
Several days later, at a restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave. near the
office where he now practices law, the Lou Stokes most people know -
the powerhouse ex-pol who can disarm almost anyone with his laugh,
and cow almost anyone with his anger - is shaking his head, trying
"I'm not easy to tear up," he says. "But that got me."
What got him at that NIH ceremony a few weeks ago, he says, is
something he's only beginning to fully absorb now that he has time
to look back at his 30-year career as Ohio's first black congressman
- the distance he traveled to get where he is.
"Here's a little boy who came out of the projects who wasn't
supposed to get very far in life at all," he explains. "When I
looked at that plaque standing there and when you see it with the
gold in the background, and just looking up at it . . . I couldn't
control it. It was a big jump and a long road."
Stokes has been thinking a lot lately about that long road he and
his brother Carl traveled - Carl to become the first black mayor of
a major American city, he to become the first black congressman to
handle a host of prestigious assignments.
This freedom to look back, he says, is one of the benefits of his
decision three years ago to quit Congress for a less stressful life
as a part-time lawyer at Squire Sanders & Dempsey, a visiting
professor at Case Western Reserve University, a chairman of various
commissions, a member of various boards, and an occasional
He still has a busy schedule, but he gets home for dinner on many
nights by 6:30. He no longer has to wake up in middle of the night
to catch early flights. He no longer has to rush constantly from one
meeting to another. He no longer has to bear the burden of being the
first black American to do this or that.
Looking back, he says, all those firsts he racked up were the best
part of his career - being the first black member of the
Appropriations Committee, the first on the Intelligence Committee,
the first to chair a major investigations committee, the only black
member of the Iran-Contra committee.
But until he quit, he says, he didn't realize just how much pressure
being first entailed. "When you're the first black doing anything,
there's a different standard," he says. "You knew the spotlight was
on you. You knew everything you did was being watched."
It was only when people began telling him recently how good he
looks, he says, that he realized how much more relaxed he is.
Now, he says, he has the time to savor the honors that keep coming
his way - like the building just named for him at NIH, the
dedication soon of a medical library bearing his name at Howard
University, and a spate of smaller awards ceremonies where young
black professionals walk up to him and tell him they owe their
education to minority scholarships he set up while in Congress.
He has time as well to think about future generations - what can be
done to help children still growing up in housing projects, and what
can be done in places like Cleveland to nurture more black political
talent. This is a delicate subject for him these days, and he
chooses his words carefully.
Stokes insists he made no attempt in recent weeks to influence
Stephanie Tubbs Jones, his successor in Congress, as she was
deciding whether to give up her seat in Congress to run for mayor.
But he doesn't hide his opinion either that, in the absence of Mike
White, no other black politician has a chance to be elected.
"I am painfully aware that Stephanie Tubbs Jones is the only black
politician in Cleveland with the stature to be elected mayor to
succeed Mike White," he says. "And I am cognizant of the fact that
after Carl left office, it took 20 years before we saw another black
Stokes says he is struck that there is such a dearth of black
political talent in Cleveland at a time when the city's black
population is much larger proportionally than in his brother's day.
"It's a loss of political progress," he says mournfully.
But asked why he thinks no other strong black candidates have
emerged, Stokes says he has no idea. For all his efforts in Congress
to promote educational opportunities for minorities, and to prod
agencies like NIH to hire more minorities, he says the secrets to
success are sometimes mysterious.
In his own case, he says, it all goes back to a hard-working mother
in the projects who cleaned people's homes for a living and never
let her sons forget that she expected them to do better. Constantly
when he was growing up, Stokes says, his mother would harangue him
and his brother to "be somebody" and "get something in your heads so
you don't have to work with your hands like I had to."
But he never really understood what she meant, he says, until one
day when she was sick and he walked into her room and took her hands
in his, trying to comfort her.
"We were living there in the projects, I was in high school, and I
heard her moaning in pain. I went into the bedroom. The bedroom was
dark and I sat beside the bed and took her hands and felt these
hard, calloused hands," he says. "That is the first time I
understood what she meant when she said, 'Get something in your
heads so you don't have to work with your hands.' She'd never said:
'I have calloused hands from trying to get you an education.' "
Auster is a senior writer in
The Plain Dealer's Washington, DC, bureau.
firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: 216-999-5335