A light has gone out in Cleveland, a beam unlike any other.

Mansfield Frazier found the light right before he left prison for the last time.

Then he became the light for others, became that beacon of hope for people who had none.

And why wouldn’t he, a man named Mansfield?

His name matched the gloomiest prison in America, the Mansfield Reformatory, the notorious prison featured in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

Mansfield’s life was all about redemption. First his, then every man who walked out of a prison gate into the unknown. He taught the rest of us how to give those people a second chance, to believe in their redemption.

Mansfield, who loved to call himself a “retired outlaw,” died of liver cancer Oct. 9. He was 78. He died surrounded by family and friends in his beloved Hough neighborhood that he gave his heart and soul to resurrect.

I was saddened to learn of his death, but so blessed to have known him. When he was on my podcast last year, he shared the story of his redemption:

“I had a charmed life,” Mansfield said. “I was totally unprepared for racism.”

He graduated from East Tech High in Cleveland, worked for an aluminum foundry then got a job at The Illuminating Co. for 10 years as a pipe welder.

In time, they had him training people. The white guys he trained got promoted, but he didn’t. It was 1967. They told him, “We can’t put you in charge over white guys.”

“It was literally soul-crushing to me,” Mansfield said.

Since the system cheated him, he decided to cheat it.

He quit the job and started stealing credit cards. Then he started making them. He said being a career criminal was like being a house painter, there’s a chance you’re going to fall. He called prison “an occupational hazard.”

He was convicted of counterfeiting five times and served six years in prison. The prison library fed his soul. He joined a prison writing group and published a book, “From Behind the Wall.”

Shortly before leaving prison, a prison psychiatrist asked what he planned to do next. Mansfield told him, “I’m a counterfeiter, that’s what I do.”

“Oh, and make everything in your book a damn lie,” the psychiatrist said, then turned on his heels and walked away.

Those words hit him hard. He was 52. It would take more courage to write, then to commit crimes. He had to give up who he was comfortable with to become what he had said he wanted to be: A writer.

He became that and so much more.

After giving himself a second chance, Mansfield became a community activist and re-entry mentor. He became a columnist for Cool Cleveland and wrote for The Call & Post and City News.

He told inmates to make use of their time in prison so they could build a resume there. Get a GED, take a college course, get a certificate, pick up skills. When one former inmate told Mansfield that he played a lot of basketball, Mansfield told him, “Then go ask LeBron James for a job.”

He told them all, if you stay clean, opportunities will present themselves.

Mansfield created his own. He founded Neighborhood Solutions, a nonprofit to help formerly incarcerated people with re-entry.

When a big ugly apartment building was torn down near his home, a firefighter said, jokingly, “What are you going to do, put a vineyard there?”

Mansfield did. He built a winery in the Hough neighborhood once famous for the Hough Riots of 1966, when the powder keg of racism blew up after a white bar owner refused to give a Black man a glass of water. Four African Americans died, 50 people were injured and 275 arrested.

Chateau Hough sounded like a joke at first. But the urban winery took off. It gives formerly incarcerated people an income and a sense of purpose and dignity. Mansfield called it a “re-entry project disguised as a vineyard.”

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and a product of the Cleveland public school system. He left Cleveland in 1969, and for the next 30 years lived all over the United States, pursuing activities that can best be described as checkered at best, an experience he feels greatly shapes his perspectives as a writer and journalist, primarily focused on social justice issues.

He used his voice and his life to transform the lives of others, to lift people out of financial poverty and from that poverty of spirit that keeps people in bondage long after they’re released from prison.

To honor him, some have suggested that the community name the Cleveland Public Library being built at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue after him.

I think he’d love to see the Mansfield Frazier Public Library become a permanent beacon of hope, and a reminder to us all, to give people a second chance to make a first impression.


Connect with Regina Brett on Facebook at ReginaBrettFans. Listen to “Little Detours” with Regina Brett at reginabrett.com or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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