This story orginally appeared in the Call n Post in February 2012. Visit the Call n Post at www.callandpost.com
Emmett “Tonelli” Cobb would have turned 90-years-old on December 24th. He died unnoticed on October 22, 1999, in a state hospital for the criminally insane. He spent nearly all of the 45 years there since his trial, one of Cleveland’s most sensational, in 1954. But his legacy remains—he was a pioneer in Cleveland for what would become a national wave of black power movements in the 1960s. He did it on his own terms, and he paid the ultimate price: his freedom.
Photo 1. Emmett Cobb, Courtesy Alan Cole Collection,
Western Historical Society
I. White Slavery
On April 12, 1954, Cobb, 32, aka Ahmed El aka the Prophet was indicted by a Cuyahoga County grand jury on “morals” charges. Ralph “Smitty” Smith, 27, and Dr. Samuel Braun, 65, a white doctor, were indicted as co-defendants.
Cobb was accused of luring women into prostitution. Among the witnesses that testified before the grand jury were two white women, a 19-year-old Shaker Heightsheiress and a 30-year-old Westside housewife, along with an 18-year-old black woman from theCentral Avenue area. Other witnesses reportedly testified that he used hypnosis to lure women into the life. He was also accused of operating a crime school, educating call girls on pigeon drop confidence games, boosting, and prostitution. The most serious of the accusations against Cobb was that he had sex with the black woman three years earlier, in 1951, when she was 15-years-old.
Co-defendant Ralph Smith was accused of violating Ohio’s white slavery laws, which stemmed from the federal White Slave Traffic Act. In 1910, Congress passed the Act to preserve society’s morals by protecting white women from the influx of immigrants who were supposedly transporting them across state-lines and subjecting them to sinful sexual activity.
The federal White Slavery law is best known for its use against celebrities like Chuck Berry and Jack Johnson, the heavy weight boxing champion. Johnson was charged in 1913 for travelling across state-lines with a prostitute, whom turned out to be his white girlfriend. Co-defendant Smith, according to the charges, drove the two white women, who testified before the grand jury, to Pennsylvania to engage in prostitution. In connection with the Cobb investigation, the doctor from University Heights was accused of performing an abortion on a 23-year-old woman in 1952.
Cleveland became enraptured by Cobb’s “morals” case. During his trial, which started in May 1954, the judge ordered a sheriff deputy to stand at the door of the court room. People wanted a glimpse of Cobb. The daily line of spectators outnumbered the 50 seats available. The lines were sometimes three deep.
The slender, 6’2, handsome, bearded, black man defied convention. He was a Muslim and wore a red fez or tarboosh, as it was called, with a swigging tassel. He was a vegetarian, didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, and married a white woman.
He had a doctorate degree in metaphysical science from Neotarian Institute of Philosophy in Kansas City and studied constitutional law of the Zodiac under revered teacher C. M. Bey, a Moorish mathematician and eventual author of Clock of Destiny, who had a storefront on E. 89th St. and Cedar Avenue. He also studied at the Institute of Applied Hypnology in New York City. His studies generated intrigue and skepticism but mostly fear, as was the case when a police officer told to a Plain Dealer reporter, before trial, that he feared Cobb would hypnotize the jury.
Young lawyers loitered the halls of the courthouse. They had hoped that Cobb would change his mind about representing himself, causing the judge to appoint them as counsel. Cobb’s fellow Moor and teacher, C. M. Bey, was in attendance. The trial was unexpectedly short. But the drama that unfolded would leave a lasting, strong reaction in the public’s consciousness about the name “Tonelli.”
More than his unconventional character, Cobb was known for standing up to charges of assaulting an off-duty police officer near E. 105th Street and Euclid Avenue, in June 1950. Refusing to plead guilty, he and his attorneys, Moses H. Dixon and Jay B. White, took the case to trial, claiming self defense. The judge found Cobb not guilty—an unprecedented verdict for such a case—and declared from the bench that, “both the police officer and the prosecutor got a hold of something too hot to handle.”
The media coverage of Cobb’s “morals” case was extensive. The Call & Post, Cleveland News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Cleveland Press covered every aspect of his arrest, indictment, trial, and sentencing. The news of Cobb’s indictment made the Plain Dealer’s front page on April 13, 1954, which was entitled, “Indicts ‘Prophet’ in Morals Case.”
Even before trial got underway, Cobb’s case garnered national attention. Several days before jury selection started, he refused to take off his fez during a pre-trial hearing. He told the judge he was a nationalist and a Moorish American of the Islamic faith, before such designations gained currency and acceptance.
II. Emmett Cobb Becomes Tonelli
John Drake was Cobb’s closest friend. In reminiscing about his old friend, Drake, who maintains a daily reading of the Koran and the Bible at 80-years-old, as he cares for his 96-year-old mother, said with a big smile that he met Cobb in the 1940s at a dance. Cobb was a regular at dances around town doing the jitterbug. “He thought he could dance and I challenged him,” said Drake. “He (Cobb) laughed, when I started to tap dance; you see, I was taking tap dancing classes at the time.”
Drake, ten years younger, latched onto to Cobb, whose personality radiated pride and energy. Tonelli, in turn, surely was aware that Johnny Drake was the son of Arthur “Little Brother” Drake, one of the biggest numbers operators in Cleveland’s history; and the son of Catherine Drake, the owner of the Café Tia Juana on the corner of E. 105th Street and Massie Avenue, which was once known in the late 1940s as the plushiest café in the Midwest.
Almost every day, driving his mother’s Oldsmobile 98, Drake would pick up Cobb, who, like most people, didn’t have a car. He would pick him up at one of Cobb’s favorite hang-outs, Lam’s Chinese Restaurant on Cedar Avenue near E. 97th Street. Drake recalls spending many a day and night together with Cobb, just hanging out and having fun, until Cobb was confined in 1954.
The development of Cobb’s worldview paralleled, in many ways, that of Malcolm X’s. Their experience of racism’s soul-rotting effects while growing up led to an ironclad resolve to challenge the status quo. To understand Cobb, Drake emphasized, one needs to understand what the Ku Klux Klan did to his mother.
Cobb was born in Alabamain 1921. Details of his upbringing and his mother’s death are not fully known. June V. Williams of the Call & Post profiled his sister’s relentless but unsuccessful effort to get Cobb out of the insane asylum. What is known, from his sister and people interviewed for this article, is that his mother was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Drake remembers Cobb telling him how his mother suffered a ruthless death in 1926. The Ku Klux Klan tied a rope around her head and hair. They tied the rope to a horse and stood by as it dragged her until she died. Unconfirmed accounts suggest that Cobb’s father, in protecting his family, killed one or more Klansmen. Terrified of the repercussions, the family fled the state.
Growing up, Cobb was a precocious student. He was far ahead of his Central High Schoolclassmates, where he graduated. By all accounts, he was gifted and had a high IQ. Call & Post’s Woody Taylor reported, in April 1954, that “an old acquaintance of his [Tonelli] remembered that during Tonelli’s high school days he had a fertile mind and was the envy of his classmates because he could cite classical and poetic masterpieces verbatim, with flawless diction and with the greatest of ease.”
In his senior year in 1941, Cobb participated in Central’s Question Mark Club, whose purpose was to study “Negro Life.” Years later, Drake and Cobb often went downtown to the three-story bookstore called Kay’s at 620 Prospect Avenue near E. 6th Street, where Tonelli would buy stacks of books. “He could read a book and recite a passage from any page,” Drake said. “He had a photographic memory.”
To go along with his superior intellect was an attitude, a deadly combination that left him restless as a teenager. He got into enough fights with the Italians to earn him the nickname Tonelli. His reputation turned infamous around the Cedar Avenuearea, acquiring a bad boy image and the label of “dead end kid” from leading his high school friends in the Gunga Din Gang.
People’s reputations often become stretched, especially the self-assured ones, and Cobb’s was no different. It oversimplified the truth about a man with conflicting identities. His venomous attitude toward authority masked a jovial nature. He was voted most popular by the Gay Associates at an event, in 1947, held at the Paradise Auditorium. He was an avid roller skater at the Pla-Mor, and he enjoyed theater at the Karamu House.
He was into jazz, too. As reported by Raoul Abdul of the Call & Post, during a Josephine Baker performance at the RKO Palace Theatre, he joined her in an “entertaining by-play across the footlights” after she spotted him in the front row and both exchanged Islamic greetings.
When Cobb wasn’t with Drake, he could be found walking the neighborhood of Cedar Avenue and E. 97th Street. He incessantly talked, and he talked to everybody. He always stopped the kids, handing out dollar bills and empowering them to learn the true nature of the black man. Drake’s friend since Audubon junior high school, 78-year-old Roy Strickland, grew up on E. 106th St. and Cedar Avenue. Strickland remembers being young, around 12 to 13-years-old, and knowing of Cobb. “A lot of people looked up to him,” Strickland said. “He was no trouble maker but when trouble found him, he didn’t run away.” Strickland described Cobb as the type of guy who was for the underdog. “If you had a problem with somebody or somebody jumped on you, he would come to your side. That’s the way he was.”
If Tonelli had a singular passion it was the pursuit of knowledge. Drake stood up during one of our interviews in his living room, pointing to his wrists and ankles, to drive home what Cobb was unmasking: the nature of slavery had merely changed from the physical chains to chains around the mind through the indoctrination of white supremacy rhetoric. “Tonelli understood this,” Drake proclaimed. “Knowledge was power to him, and he wanted to dominate. He wanted freedom.”
This passion for learning coincided with the occult movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Ernest Turner, a civil rights activist in the 1960s and retired Cleveland Public School teacher after 30 years, explained that blacks began questioning what it meant to be black inAmerica. Traditional teachings were devoid of answers, so blacks began seeking out nontraditional sources. Cobb began learning Moorish law from C. M. Bey and eventually acquired the name, Brother Ahmed El.
Cobb was also passionate about women. His association with pretty, upscale white women was widely known: he sought them and they sought him. Harboring a belligerent and prideful attitude that he could have what the white man desired, Cobb bragged about having many white women. Even though he didn’t drink alcohol, Cobb regularly patronized the Gold Coast, the famous entertainment area of E. 105th and Euclid Avenue. His magnetic personality attracted women from all over Cleveland and its suburbs. One of the women in Cobb’s criminal case, the Shaker Heights heiress, admitted to being a former mistress. She testified at trial that she had met him at the Towne Casino, a prominent jazz club located on Euclid Avenue between E. 105th and E. 107th Streets.
Opening in 1951, the Towne Casino became a hot national jazz scene, attracting stars such as Count Bessie and Sarah Vaughn. It also attracted a mixed racial crowd. Six months before it closed on August 1, 1953, Duke Ellington and the All Stars jammed out to 400 people. That night was the first of a string of bombs detonated at the club because of its interracial crowd. The Casino held out after the first two bombs but capitulated after the third, writing on the outside marquee, “Don’t Bomb Us. We Quit.”
Photo 3. Towne Casino, Courtesy Cleveland Press Collection,
Cleveland State University
Unsurprisingly, Cobb’s marriage to a white woman engendered considerable consternation. His resentment at the white man for what they did to his mother was amplified by their reaction to his marriage. When white men would come into the neighborhood people showed respect, but not Cobb. Drake exclaimed, “He gave them no air; he jumped all over them, immediately interrogating them, and Tonelli could get loud.”
A month before the trial commenced, Cobb’s wife told the Call & Post, during a two hour interview, the criticism leveled against them since their marriage in 1949, “may have changed his racial feelings a lot. I think they taught him a lot of hatred that he might not have had otherwise.” Although Ohio struck down its anti-miscegenation law in 1887, it was taboo, an unwritten law. It wasn’t until 1967 that the US Supreme Court ruled against the remaining 16 states with anti-miscegenation laws.Alabama, Cobb’s birth state, was the last state to remove the law from its books, in 2000.
As much admiration as Cobb generated, there was equally as much disdain for what he represented as a Muslim black nationalist of the streets. Published in the Call & Post, Mrs. Marva Stein of Alcazar Hotel represented this wide-spread sentiment, especially in the white community, that morals were being attacked.
Mrs. Stein was incensed over the Call & Post’s coverage of Cobb’s trial, writing that she anticipated reading about the Philharmonic Glee Club’s Sunday performance at the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church. Instead, she found front page reporting on “terrible Tonelli and his vicious and vulgar antics….and the first page of second section dominated by ‘leggy’ models at a dance.”
III. Ahmed El Goes to Trial
On May 6, 1954, the judge resumed the trial of State of Ohio vs. Emmett Cobb. The trial might have begun May 3rd, but Cobb refused to remove his fez as he pontificated on the science and law of Islam as reason for his disobedience. The judge called it a hat and instructed the deputies to forcibly remove it. He further infuriated the judge by claiming that he was unfair, biased, and prejudicial toward him. Cobb was ordered to have a psychological evaluation by the court’s clinic to determine if he was competent to stand trial.
In court this day, May 6th, Cobb was wearing his fez, again. The judge, Arthur Day, immediately inquired as to why he was not complying with the court’s order. Cobb explained, “Your Judgeship, I am in the science of Islam; I am not a Christian; and it is my understanding that I am under my constitutional right…the fez represents the height of wisdom and knowledge based upon the twelve signs of the zodiac, the seven planets and geometry, which is in harmony with my school of thought.” The prosecution informed the court that it did not object to the fez. The judge acquiesced, declaring Cobb could wear the fez.
The judge moved onto to the psychiatric evaluation. The judge read, “It is our opinion that while this person [Cobb] presents an unusual personality, which sets him apart from his social group, he is not suffering from a mental illness.” The judge adjourned for the day.
On the next day, May 7th, the jury was picked and sworn in, and the trial commenced with the prosecution’s opening statement. The prosecution called seven witnesses that included the three women, who testified before the grand jury. Cobb did not cross examine the State’s witnesses. He had subpoenaed 41 witnesses but never called anyone to the stand. With the exception of giving an opening statement, Cobb refused to participate in his defense. Cobb accosted the judge throughout the trial, insisting that the judge rule on his change of venue motion. He was held in contempt of court and fined, twice.
With Cobb not furnishing a defense, the trial only lasted three days. On May 12th, after deliberating for two and a half hours, the jury returned its verdict. Cobb was found guilty of all 11 counts. “I was there that day when he was sentenced,” said Cleveland Attorney James Willis, who still practices today. Willis was right out of law school, but is clear about what he witnessed 57 years ago: “The trial was a farce – he got railroaded.”
Willis has dug back into the case, trying to understand how Cobb ended up in an insane asylum with no eligibility for parole. After the jury rendered its guilty verdicts, the judge sentenced Cobb to 14 to 68 years to be served at Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. But the judge ordered another psychiatric evaluation of Cobb based upon his behavior during the trial. On May 25, 1954, the court found Cobb to be a “Psychopathic Personality.” The judge ordered him sent to the Ohio State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Lima for an indefinite period of time. The judge made clear that his time spent in Lima would not count toward his prison sentence. Willis remarked that if the diagnosis was warranted, it seems that he should never have been allowed to represent himself.
The drama continued while Cobb waited to be transferred to the Limahospital for the criminally insane. Call & Post’s Woody Taylor delivered a note to Cobb in the county jail. The reporter had visited the Westside housewife, who testified against him at trial, at the county jail cell two days earlier. She had been arrested prior to trial and charged with passing phony checks. She wrote in the note that she would do anything to help free him.
A month after trial, both the white women, who testified against Cobb before the grand jury and at trial, publically recanted their statements, claiming they were promised no jail time by police on their check cashing cases. The Westside housewife told the Call & Post, “I was double crossed by the prosecution after I got on the witness stand and lied for the state about my relationship with Tonelli.” She further said that she would have exonerated co-defendant Ralph Smith but he had already plead guilty. TheShaker Heights heiress also accused the police of bribery, in another case. The police denied the women’s claims and asked the judge for leniency due to their cooperation in the state’s case against Cobb. The judge sentenced both to 1 to 10 years. Smith was deported toJamaica.
Photo 5. Call & Post. Emmet Cobb, in 1971, Leaves Confinement with Attorney Charles Mosley to Attend Sister’s Funeral
When Cobb was sentenced to prison, he immediately requested a new trial, but the judge denied the motion. It would take until 1970 for him to gain a glimmer of hope. Well known attorney Charles E. Mosley Jr. of Cleveland’s first black law firm, Willis, Mosley, Childs, and Chandler, won an appeal that ordered the trial court to hold a hearing on arguments presented by Attorney Mosley that Cobb’s constitutional rights had been violated. For some unknown reason, the hearing never happened.
Cobb was released quietly in the late 1980s. He stayed with his closet friend, John Drake, at Drake’s house onImperial Avenuebut it only lasted two weeks. Cobb could not function; his mental condition was unstable, and his medication was wearing off. For 31 years, he had been given injections of Thorazine and Stelazine. He was sent back toLima. It was the last time Drake saw Cobb.
Cleveland’s first Black Nationalist was defiant up until he died in aColumbushospital, still confined, in 1999. That defiant posture—most vividly remembered when he refused to remove his fez —created an indelible moment in the consciousness of blacks growing up in Cleveland. For a Muslim Black Nationalist to have the audacity to defy the system in 1954 in Clevelandwas vanguard and remnants of his memory live throughoutCleveland’s history.
He did it alone. There were no protests outside the courtroom. There was no petition drive. Even though Cobb’s trial was watched by hundreds daily, none of the spectators wanted to be associated with the trial.Fezwearing men were conspicuously absent. When a Call & Post photographer positioned his speed graphic to take a crowd shot, the spectators quickly ducked their heads.
This was 1954. There were few powerfulClevelandblack elected officials. There had never been a black mayor of a major city elected in the nation. There was comprising effort, but not aggressive, confrontational effort, in theClevelandarea, at that time, devoted to fighting racial injustices. The emerging civil rights leaders in the South were not focused on urban problems in northern cities likeCleveland.
Yet, Cobb’s trial was timely. Given the media saturation of the trial, the number of potential people paying attention had never been higher: the trial occurred right in the middle of the Second Great Migration of blacks to the north between 1940 and 1960. The millions who moved north illuminated the simmering racial problems beyond the southern borders.
Fredrick M. Brown Jr. was part of the Second Great Migration. Brown, who turned 70-years-old this year, moved with his father, mother, five brothers, and sister to the Glenville area in 1956. Unlike most of the southern transplants toCleveland, Brown was not fromAlabama. Being different, kids from the neighborhood called himMississippi.
Brown remarked that he knew another Emmett before arriving toCleveland. “I liked a girl who was the cousin of Emmett Till’s family. When they murdered him [in August 1955] in a town nearby, my mother told my father they needed to leave.” His mother had a friend in Cleveland who got his father a job at GM’s Fisher Body plant.
Being a 15-year-old, cotton-picking, country boy looking to fit in, Brown looked for role models. “He was gone when I got toClevelandbut he was a folk hero…everyone wanted to be Tonelli,” said Brown. “I have a lot of love for Tonelli, and the Marcus Garveys, the Malcolm Xs.” Brown explained: “They kept saying no more; we ain’t got to be bothered with them [whites]; we’re Kings andQueens; and you need to look at yourself other than a black boy picking and chopping cotton.”
The changing demographics coupled with a burgeoning civil rights movement propelled the quite 1950s into the turbulent 1960s. Activists in the 1960s began displaying similar defiance as Cobb, like Malcolm X, which turned into a measuring stick for blacks; the prevailing spectrum of acceptable behavior of blacks was being reshaped by a more confrontational approach in their pursuit of inalienable rights. Less than 10 years after Cobb’s trial, the Cleveland NAACP chapter was bolstered with new groups that reflected the doubling of Cleveland’s black population. There were 50 separate civil rights groups inCleveland by 1963, ranging from Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to Black Muslims, as reported in the Masotti Report on the 1968 Glennville Riots.
These groups, in Cleveland, organized under the umbrella group United Freedom Movement (UFM) and boldly challenged the Board of Education’s de facto school segregation policy. Whereas Cobb elicited scorn by violating society’s morals by venturing into the realm of white women, the UFM caused an acid firestorm when it took on white children. It took the death of a white minister, Rev. Bruce W. Klunder, in 1964, who was crushed by a bulldozer in protest of the building of a school in the black community designed to insure segregation, to attain footing in the fight for school equality.
Black Nationalism, which Cobb professed in the 1950s, would gain momentum as blacks from urban centers sought a different approach than their southern brethren, according to Leonard Moore, in “Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power.” Mainstream America could no longer ignore the Black Nationalism movement. Millions flocked toward the gifted orator, Malcolm X, whose philosophy was rooted in Black Nationalism, because he was publically saying things about whites that many blacks believed privately.
Cobb’s refusal to remove his fez, in the face of being held in contempt of court and jailed, symbolized the Black Nationalist’s belief that the existing institutions were inherently racist and the only option was to refuse to play by a set of rules stacked against them. They sought, instead, their own path. Black Power was born and a central tenet, asMoorepoints out, was Black Political Power. At a rally hosted by CORE, Malcolm X’s Ballot or Bullet speech at Cleveland’s Cory Methodist Church on April 3, 1964 was a harbinger for the historic election of the nation’s first black mayor of a major city, Carl B. Stokes.
Cobb’s courage to be different, to strike a different path, in the exploration of his African heritage, and to question the status quo, to challenge conventions, in the sacred halls of justice, created threads that were to be weaved into the fabric of blacks charting their own course in the quest for freedom. The bad boy fromCedar Avenuestared down authority on his terms. Cobb’s extreme posture of defending himself hurt him in the end. But Cobb only operated at the extremes, and because of that, he is not forgotten.
Photo 1. Alan E. Cole Collection, Western Historical Society. The date of Allen Cole’s portrait photograph of Emmett Cobb is unknown. For more information about Alan E. Cole, visit the website of Western Historical Society:
Allen E. Cole, Western Historical Society: http://www.wrhs.org/Research/Allen_Cole_Collection
Photo 2. Picture taken by writer at Mr. Drake’s house in October 2011
Photo 3. Cleveland Press Collection/Cleveland State University/Ohio Cleveland SGS http://clevelandsgs.com/blog/?p=912
Photo 4. Call & Post. May 15, 1954; 1-A
Photo 5. Call & Post. March 13, 1971; 8-A
Photo 6. Cleveland Press Collection,Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. April 8, 1964
Leonard N. Moore, “Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power” 2003. University of Illinois Press.
Acknowledgments: Charles Mosley Jr. Participants Cited in Story. County Clerks Office. Court of Appeals Records Department. Western Historical Society. Cleveland State University Library. Cleveland Public Library. Kenneth Range.
Writer is Requesting Information and Photos of Emmett Cobb and/or Family: Please email me at email@example.com or Ryan Miday, PO Box #31263, Independence, Ohio 44131.