CLE icons: H. Leslie Adams becomes seventh member of WRHS African American Art/History Walk

Last October, the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) unveiled its African American Art/History Walk—a public art installation in University Circle featuring murals of six prominent African American Clevelanders made by Cleveland artist and Cleveland Heights High  School and Monticello Middle School arts educator Jerome White.

On Saturday, June 8, composer and pianist Dr. Harrison Leslie Adams, Jr. (1932-2024) became the seventh notable Clevelander featured on the Walk—joining architect Robert P. Madison, 100; physicist and NASA Glenn Research Center director Julian M. Earls, 81; multi-talented opera diva and United Nations delegate  Zelma Watson George (1903-1994); librarian and WCLV radio host A. Grace Lee Mims (1930–2019); composer, pianist and teacher Dolores White (1932-2023); and Cleveland Orchestra cellist Donald White (1925-2005).

“Dr. Adams is one of two award-winning Black composers featured in this work of public art,” explains Regennia Williams, distinguished scholar of African American history and culture at the WRHS’ Cleveland History Center. “The other is Professor Dolores White, and she and Dr. Adams are next to each other on the African American Art/History Walk.”

Adams died this past May 24 at the age of 91. A Cleveland native, Adams was a graduate of Glenville High School, in the neighborhood where he lived for many years throughout his life. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree in voice, piano, and composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, his master’s degree in music from California State University, Long Beach, and his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

Jerome T. WhiteJerome T. WhiteAdams’ lifelong love of music and teaching led to a 2015 Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Music.

Adams has worked as piano accompanist for ballet and other dance companies and choral music ensembles. He served as the associate musical director at Karamu House from 1964 to 1965 and became Karamu's composer-in-residence in 1979 before serving as guest composer at Cuyahoga Community College in 1980. He then was composer-in-residence at the Cleveland Music Settlement from 1981 to 1982 and had several teaching positions throughout his career.

In addition to the Cleveland Arts Prize, Adams was recognized by the National Council of Negro Women, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cleveland Foundation, and the Marta Holden Jennings Foundation, among other organizations.

White’s mural panels are inspired by photographs of the Cleveland notables featured. “Jerome White did an excellent job of creating the visual art for this mural, and it looks amazing,” says Williams. 

Each portrait has a QR code that links viewers to online biographical sketches and digital oral histories of the featured person. The profiles come from The HistoryMakers—a nonprofit founded in 2000 by Julieanna L. Richardson to share and preserve the oral histories of Black history-makers and artists.

“As someone who had the pleasure of interviewing six of the current subjects for The HistoryMakers oral history project, I am really glad that people can use the QR codes on each mural panel to hear the subjects share their first-person narratives,” says Williams, adding that White’s use of color, paired with  the oral histories, really brings each panel to life. 

“All of the photographs that inspired the exhibit were black and white, but we wanted to see this public art in living color,” she explains. “Not necessarily naturalistic colors—but bold colors that will cause people to stop in their tracks when they're walking along the sidewalk and go over to the panels and read the short bio.”

Located on East 108th Street between Magnolia Drive and East Boulevard in University Circle, the unveiling of Adams’ portrait coincided with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Parade the Circle, which gave the Walk extra attention.

“It's so moving for me, even on a normal day, when we're not having Parade the Circle and there's thousands of people down East 108th Street,” says Williams. “Probably every 100th or so, a person stops and says, what is that? And then they pick up the cell phone and they walk over to the wall where they can see the history makers, and it takes them to the site where they can read about them. But on a normal day, we get foot traffic.”

The concept for African American Art/History Walk originally came during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when former WRHS African American history archivist Patrice Hamiter worked with Ingenuity Cleveland executive artistic director and #Voices of Cleveland public art initiative creator Emily Appelbaum on an idea to bring history and art together in outdoor public spaces.

Mural Art, Dr. Harrison Leslie Adams Jr. by artist, Jerome T. WhiteMural Art, Dr. Harrison Leslie Adams Jr. by artist, Jerome T. WhiteWRHS had to secure permission from the Cleveland Landmarks Commission to create a public art installment in the Magnolia-Wade Park Historic District. WRHS will now change the public art installation approximately every two years.

Hamiter and Appelbaum then teamed up with Williams, WRHS program associate DavidPatrick Ryan, and White to complete the first installation of the African American Art/History Walk last October. While Adams marked the seventh panel is this current installment, Williams says there will be at least one more panel on the current African American Art/History Walk.

“The next panel to be installed on White’s mural, number eight, if everything goes as planned—and the art has already been created—is Congressman Louis Stokes,” says Williams, noting that Stokes, Donald White, and Madison are all World War II veterans. “We're happy that the public art faces the [Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs] VA Hospital with so many veterans being represented on the wall.”

Williams says approval of the Stokes artwork is pending, and the entire team looks forward to celebrating the installation of the next panel in early fall 2024.

She says she is excited to see what the next public art installment brings in 2025.

“Going forward, we want each of the future murals to be just as enlightening and engaging as the first,” Williams says. “And we are convinced that the creative artists, educators, and scholars in Greater Cleveland are more than capable of working with WRHS to make that happen.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.