Cleveland February 09, 2020
We Should Never Forget The History Behind The Battle For Desegregation In Cleveland Schools
If you’ve lived in Cleveland for any amount of time, you’ve surely heard of the local battle for educational desegregation. Whether you lived it or heard about it from family members, Cleveland busing was at the center of debate and education reform initiatives. While the schools were eventually desegregated, the process was long, complicated, and controversial.
The road to desegregation was a long and storied one, but the fight was really thrust into the spotlight when one man lost his life on the grounds of an elementary school.
Stephen E. Howe Elementary School in Glenville was the site of one of many protests leading up to the ultimate fight for desegregating Cleveland public schools. In 1963, integration "efforts" were taking on by the school board. However, they ruled that black students enrolled in white schools would be limited in their rights, including how frequently they were allowed to use the restroom.
Ultimately, the integration agreement was not even honored... new schools were constructed in black neighborhoods despite under-enrollment in white neighborhoods. This, of course, would keep the schools segregated instead of assisting with integration. On April 6, 1964, the Cleveland Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) protested the construction of one such elementary school. Reverend Bruce Klunder, who had laid behind a bulldozer to stop its advancement, was accidentally crushed in the ensuing chaos.
Those new schools were still constructed nonetheless, but a passionate fight for desegregation was ignited.
As time passed, protests persisted. Ultimately, the battle came to a head in 1973 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stepped in and sued the Cleveland Public Schools. In the case, Reed v. Rhodes, they argued that the Cleveland schools had intentionally maintained segregation.
The trial judge assigned to the case was Judge Frank Battisti.
The trial, it turned out, would be complicated. On August 31, 1976, a decision was reached: Cleveland had intentionally maintained segregated schools, and the state and local education systems were ordered to draft and submit plans for desegregation. Both plans were rejected by the court, and so a Special Master was appointed to draft up a new plan.
In September of 1978, the trial defendants were officially ordered to integrate the schools... starting with improved busing.
To achieve integration, students were assigned to schools based on each school's "racial balance." When that balance was challenged by student enrollment numbers, students would be reassigned as necessary until that "balance" was maintained. As a result, bus rides could exceed 80 minutes as students were transported from the West to the East Side and vice versa. Though the change was largely peaceful, protests continued.
For six years, the court remained involved in local education initiatives... but locals still insisted their voices should be heard.
Ultimately, East Siders, West Siders, and everyone in between wanted the same thing: a conclusion to the turmoil and safety for the children. Whether or not they agreed with the judge's controversial ruling, the schools
were growing more integrated.
Eventually, by the late 1980s, evidence of discrimination and segregation had been totally wiped out of the Cleveland schools. By 1992, Judge Frank Battisti had urged Cleveland to reevaluate its student assignment program again. By 1998, U.S. District Chief Judge George W. White officially closed the case, so to speak, when he declared that the public schools had done everything possible to integrate its schools.
For nearly two long decades, Clevelanders fought to integrate their schools peacefully while improving academic performance... and many still debate the process to this day.
When the integration debate first reared its head in the early 1960s, the student body of Cleveland was 135,000 people strong. However, as time marched on, wealthier families began moving from the city to the suburbs. Ultimately, Cleveland integrated "choice" in the mid-90s, offering the remaining students the opportunity to select which school they wished to attend, even paying private school tuition with state money. Cleveland became one of the first major cities to integrate such a plan. Nonetheless, the school district struggled to excel in education. There was no standardized testing to demonstrate if the children were benefiting from the busing initiative, although it had led to the cost of operations rising in the local education system.
Today, many former students feel that the hours spent on school buses hurt them, while others insist it opened them to new ideas and experiences.
Nonetheless, many look to the busing situation as the reason so many families chose to leave Cleveland in favor of the suburbs. While this was likely just one of many reasons families moved out of the city, it is a topic of debate to this day.
The topic of Cleveland busing is one still discussed to this day. Did you ever hear of the 1960s and 1970s debates, or do you remember them? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!
Looking to learn more about local history? Check out these unusual
historical facts about Cleveland.