Advocate for Self-Determination
Imagine going to work and somehow being enlisted into another country’s civil war. Cleveland Colbert is most well-known for leading the Afro American National Economic Society as its first president beginning in 1940 and for advocating for the African American community through civic, political, and economic avenues. But prior to those endeavors, he had to advocate resolutely for himself in the late 1930s when he found himself being coerced to fight against his will in the Spanish Civil War.
Cleveland Moland Colbert was born on October 6th of 1906. He was a musician, an upholsterer, a crane operator, and an aviator. Along with his wife Marie Colbert, stepfather James Cook, mother Minnie Cook, and sister Octavia Williams, he rented a home located at 813 West Galena St.
While recruited to fly non-military missions for Spain, Colbert argued he was enrolled against his will to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Against his protest, he was given a uniform and deprived of his civilian clothing. While he argued his original contract was for commercial flying, he was put into the training fields of the military. He left from the camp while the training unit was doing field maneuvers on February 17, walking for three days and nights until he arrived in Cuenca, Spain. Desertion is considered a serious act for which military consequences can be harsh. Punishments can vary from periods of incarceration to execution depending on the circumstances. While in Cuenca, Colbert was arrested and taken to the Valencia consulate under the escort of guards around March 2nd of the same year. When accused of being a deserter, Colbert’s argument in self-defense instead reflects a position comparable to a conscientious objector.
Colbert returned to the United States on July 2nd of 1937 to 2016-91 North 8th Street in Milwaukee. While back in the city, he served as the president of the Afro American National Economical Society (AANES) beginning in 1940. The AANES was established to foster African-American-owned industrial plants while serving the civic, charitable, and social welfare needs of all citizens. Among the organization’s aims for the African American community was large-scale economic development through ownership of new enterprises and participation in the growth of industrialization at the time. It sought to gain the cooperation of the African American community “in starting and operating industrial plants in order to make the [community] economically strong enough to employ their own people.” Colbert was also active in local politics and claimed victory in Milwaukee County’s Sixth District assembly election in 1942. Colbert would have been the first African American to be elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly, had a recount not unseated him.
In 1951 Colbert authored the book The Afro - Americans’ Problems and Solution. Distributed by Dell and Dell Publishers of Milwaukee, Colbert focused his book on three parts: the nomenclature and culture of the African American community, the problems African Americans faced in the United States, and a solution to the state of African American issues. Mirroring his work with the AANES, Colbert’s analysis reflected his own life experiences as a crane operator for a steel foundry and those of his wife Celia, who had worked on a factory assembly line. His book offered a push for African American industrial ownership on a national level, with trade coming from other African American owned industries as a solution to improve the community’s overall well-being. Colbert died in Milwaukee on January 23rd of 1962. Although now out-of-print, the book remains a testament to the legacy Cleveland Colbert built through leadership, advocacy, and dedication to promoting economic self-determination of the African Americancommunity in Milwaukee. An original print of The Afro - Americans’ Problems and Solution is housed at the Special Collections Department of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and individuals may request a library appointment to examine the book.