How the Stokes Brothers Changed the Cuyahoga River Forever

I recently had the chance to talk to India Nicole Burton, a co-director of the Cleveland Public Theatre’s recent show about the Cuyahoga River, “Fire on the Water.”

During our interview she mentioned that the play alluded to the importance of Carl and Louis Stokes in helping with not only the Cuyahoga River, but environmentalism policy as a whole.

Carl Stokes is famously known as Cleveland’s first African-American mayor. His brother, Louis, was Ohio’s first African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Both of these men were vitally important to the Cuyahoga’s healing and, at the time, the country’s new trajectory toward environmentalism.

Unfortunately, I never really knew about these important men until my conversation with Burton.

On the “Fire on the Water” page of the Cleveland Public Theatre’s website, they highlight the importance of the Stokes brothers and link to an article from that details the importance of the brothers’ initiative during the time of the river’s fires.

Since Carl was the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, he of course drew a lot of media attention. He used it for good, eventually holding a press conference the day after the famous 1969 fire.

TIME magazine put one of the fire photos on its front cover, shocking the nation with the notion that a body of water could be polluted enough to literally catch on fire.

Both of the Stokes brothers went on to testify before Congress on behalf of their state’s troubled waterway.

The attention they brought through the media and their Congressional testimony ultimately helped the country understand the gravity of what happened to the Cuyahoga and what could happen all over the country if large structural changes were not made.

Some time after all these events the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, as well as the Clean Water Act, which was passed just three years after the 1969 fire.

The river is much healthier than it was in the 60s and 70s, but it still has a lot of room to improve.

Without the incredible, trailblazing Stokes brothers, the river would not be as healthy as it is today and policy changes would have taken much longer.

I hope more people can learn about these men and what they did for not only the Cuyahoga, but the ripple effect they made for environmentalism across the country.

*Featured photo taken from:

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