If you know about Labor Day, then you should know about John Patterson Green.
That’s how Dorothy Salem, a retired Cuyahoga Community College history professor, feels. She gets riled when people don’t know about the Father of Labor Day, a Clevelander who was among the first African Americans to serve in the state legislature. As a Republican state representative from Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, Green introduced the 1890 bill establishing the holiday in Ohio.
Salem is working to make sure Green is who people think of when they hear “Labor Day.” She and the other members of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation are dedicating a memorial garden to him at noon on Saturday, Sept. 2, at his burial site in the cemetery, 6901 Quincy Ave. in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. Green died in 1940 at 95.
Salem got tired of getting answers like these when she asked people what comes to mind when they think of Labor Day: A day off work. A cookout. Maybe a parade. It irked her that Green’s name seldom appears on the list of influential historical figures from Cleveland, even during Black History Month.
“I would go out in the community, and I would mention John P. Green,” Salem said. “Nobody knew about him. I’m saying to myself, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Father of Labor Day
Green is the undisputed Father of Labor Day in Ohio. After Congress made the first Monday in September a national holiday in 1894, “many called Green the Father of Labor Day in the United States,” according to his official Ohio Statehouse biography. (In 1887, Oregon became the first state recognizing the holiday, according to the federal Department of Labor website. By the early 1890s, Ohio, like the majority of states, had made Labor Day a holiday.)
Nationally, others have also been given the moniker Father of Labor Day. They include Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire, both 19th Century labor leaders, according to the DOL website.
Salem, the cemetery foundation’s educational outreach coordinator, begs to differ.
“John P. Green IS the Father of Labor Day!” she said.
Leonard DiCosimo, who heads the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor and is one of the speakers at Saturday’s dedication, said the middle and working classes are indebted to Green.
“John Patterson Green led the way for our nation to celebrate a holiday for working people,” the head of Northeast Ohio’s largest labor organization wrote in an email to Signal Cleveland.
“Green drafted the bill in 1890 and his timing was perfect,” he wrote. “The 1880s were seen as a decade of improvement for working families due to successful campaigns that resulted in the founding of over 70 labor organizations. The Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions met in the city in 1882, and the Cleveland Central Labor Union was founded in 1887.”
Distinguished career from humble beginnings
In 1882, Green became the second African American to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives. (In 1880, George Washington Williams of Hamilton County became the first Black member.) In 1892, Green became the first African American elected to the Ohio Senate. In addition to Labor Day, notable bills Green introduced included those granting veterans benefits and updating the state’s civil rights laws.
During his legislative career, Salem said Green introduced about 30 bills, including one that led to the formation of park and recreation departments throughout Ohio. She said many people were initially suspect of creating such departments. This was decades before a five-day workweek and other labor reforms. Leisure time was often thought a rarity for the masses.
“He had to fight off people saying that this is something for the rich,” she said. “He said no, the parks are for the people.”
Before entering politics, Green practiced law in Cleveland. He became Cleveland’s first Black elected official, serving as the Republican justice of the peace from 1873 until 1882, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. After leaving the Ohio Senate, Green held federal positions. They included the newly created U.S. postage stamp agent, a position he held from 1897 to 1905. He also briefly served as the acting superintendent of finance for the Post Office. Green left government in 1906, returning to practicing law. He also authored books and wrote for the Afro-American News Syndicate. Green’s autobiography, “Fact Stranger Than Fiction,” was published in 1920.
Despite a groundbreaking and illustrious career, Green had humble beginnings. He was born free in 1845 in New Bern, North Carolina. His father died when he was five, plunging the family into severe poverty. The Greens relocated to Cleveland in 1857 in hopes of improving their financial situation.
Green lived in Central, Salem said. He attended Central High School and Union Law School. She said he and a sister had to drop out of school for several years and work full-time to help his mother pay for housing. Salem said Green held jobs such as porter, cutting wood and running errands for people.
“If employers wouldn’t agree to let him study on his downtime, he left the job and went somewhere else,” she said. “That’s how important education was to him. God, if we could just get that back.”
Lessons in the cemetery
Green’s story of perseverance is an inspirational one that transcends generations, said Callie Johnson, a foundation member. She said one shouldn’t view the cemetery in morbid terms, but as an homage to people whose lives hold lessons for the living. Several years ago, she taught the young people at the nearby Cuyahoga Juvenile Justice Center about Green and others buried at Woodland.
“When I share these stories with the youth, they listen and they ask questions,” Johnson said. “I tell them that they may have been in trouble, but that they can persevere and be something no matter how bad the trouble may have been. I tell them that they can still have hope and a dream.”
Woodland, which opened in 1853, was Cleveland’s primary public cemetery for more than a half century. Because of this, the people buried there offer a glimpse of what life was like in the city in the 1800s and the early 1900s. Salem has focused on Black Clevelanders buried there. With dedication and precision, she has researched their lives. She has gotten grants to replace some of the headstones of influential citizens and to write booklets for children with short biographies of some of those buried there. Salem gives tours for adults and children, emphasizing the lives of African Americans buried there
Woodland is the final resting place for people such as John Brown. Not the John Brown who led the raid on Harper’s Ferry. This John Brown, who died in 1869, was one of Cleveland’s most affluent Black residents. He was a barber who co-founded a school for Black children. As a leader in anti-slavery societies, he helped runaway slaves, now sometimes called freedom seekers, escape to Canada.
Eliza Bryant, who died in 1907, is buried at Woodland. In 1896, she founded what is now Eliza Bryant Village. The nursing home in the city’s Hough neighborhood closed in 2022, but its assisted living facility and various services for senior citizens continue.
Woodland is the final resting place of Sara Lucy Bagby (Johnson), who died in 1906. She was the last person prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act, which permitted people who had escaped slavery to be returned to bondage. Bagby was captured in Cleveland in 1861, tried here and then sent back into slavery in the South. Bagby chose to return to Cleveland after being freed by Union soldiers before the Civil War ended.
Salem said because Green writes about Bagby’s trial in his autobiography and she is buried at Woodland, the foundation found it fitting to include something about Bagby’s life in Saturday’s dedication. Actress Robin Pease will portray Bagby.
Though Central is perhaps Cleveland’s oldest Black neighborhood, Johnson had the common misconception that few African Americans were buried in Woodland. After she became active in the foundation, she learned that the cemetery offered clues to the richness of Cleveland’s Black history. She initially had the same reaction that many at the juvenile justice center and others have when they learn about the historical figures buried in Woodland.
“I didn’t know that,” she said.
It is often followed by this statement:
“Why didn’t I learn about this in school?”
The Green family plot is under a huge cottonwood tree. A stone obelisk, with Green engraved near its base, anchors the location. It is engraved with the names of family members buried there. The obelisk dwarfs the small headstone beside it, which marks the Father of Labor Day’s grave.
The family plot recently has been transformed into a memorial garden. The foundation planted two dogwood trees there. One will have white blooms, the other orange. The third tree, a redbud, will flower in purple. There are two oakleaf hydrangea shrubs that will bloom in white. The foundation planted daffodil bulbs, which Salem said symbolize hope.
Saturday’s dedication will take place in the memorial garden. Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Charles L. Patton Jr. is the keynote speaker.
A plaque with Green’s biography as well as a new flat headstone marker, in addition to Green’s original headstone, are also part of the garden. It’s hard to make out the writing on his headstone, which has weathered over eight decades. The modest headstone, which Salem said doesn’t boast of his accomplishments, was in character for Green.
“He was so humble,” Salem said. ”In his autobiography, he talks about all these people and how they helped him.”
The lengthy list includes the famous, such as John D. Rockefeller. It also includes the everyday people whom history often doesn’t record.
The foundation’s flat headstone marker for Green leaves no doubt about the importance of this historical figure. The first line reads: “The Father of Labor Day.”
“We wanted people who take the self-guided tour to read the headstone and know Green’s significance in history,” Salem said.