Leading up to Black History Month, and hopefully long after February, members of the Racial Justice Ministry Team are sharing their personal experiences with race. For the next two RJMT articles, Sue Eubanks is sharing reflections on the impact of systemic racism through the lens of the Columbus City Schools.
“You can’t go there! You could be killed!”
Those are the words I vividly remember a group of neighbors saying to my mother in the summer of 1977. She had just accepted a job teaching English at Linden-McKinley High School. I was entering my junior year at Walnut Ridge High School on the Far East Side. They were scary words to hear about my Mom. All the more scary because one of the neighbors was the President of the Board of Education of the Columbus Public Schools and a close family friend. I think it was the first time I came to grips with ugly, naked racism in an otherwise ordinary middle-class childhood.
Fortunately, my Mom and Dad ignored the neighborly advice. My Dad was suffering from the cancer that would eventually take him, and my Mom was intent on going back to work to support my brother and me in the near-certainty that my Dad would die young. As she later recalled, “I needed a job. The job was at Linden-McKinley. I figured God had a reason to send me there”. She stayed for 20 years, about half of which was spent as Chair of the English Department. She directed plays; developed the initial “I Know I Can” site in the Columbus Public (now Columbus City) Schools which provides college scholarships/support to CCS students; taught every senior at Linden; and impacted hundreds of lives. At the time I graduated, Walnut Ridge was viewed as one of the best academic schools in the city. But some of the best teachers I ever encountered were at Linden-McKinley in the heart of the urban core.
I grew up thinking that the South had racial problems, but we Northerners were somehow better. It couldn’t happen here, because we didn’t have separate schools and restaurants and drinking fountains. Boy, was I wrong. Although my high school was slowly becoming more diverse, I clearly didn’t understand how pervasive our problems of race and racism were, and still are, in my beloved hometown. Until I started consulting with non-profits in the social services sector in the early 2000s, where I saw the impact of segregationist and racist policies on the people my clients served.
Almost 30 years from the day those neighbors told my Mom she might be killed if she took a job at Linden-McKinley, a 2015 study from researchers at the University of Toronto found that among America’s large metropolitan areas, Columbus had the second-highest level of economic segregation in the nation. Only Austin, Texas, ranked higher. Let that sink in! Columbus! Not Atlanta, not Boston, not New York. Our Midwestern-nice Columbus! How in the world could this have happened?
I have recently tried to understand why, and although there are a myriad of causes and reasons, the Columbus City Schools offer a perfect example of the consequences of systemic racism – meaning the institutional policies that over the years have had the cumulative effect of segregating us from our neighbors of color and creating two very different realities for people living just a few miles apart. I’ll mention some of them today…the ones that led up to Columbus Public Schools being under a federal court order to desegregate from 1979-1985. In the next article, I’ll talk about the policies that came after desegregation started, and the impact that the systemic decisions have had on us all across Central Ohio. This isn’t meant to be a definitive history…just my own attempt to understand how people who probably didn’t consider themselves racists propagated policies that fit the very definition of systemic racism.
Much of the story is the same as any other large northern city. As the Great Migration began after World War I, Blacks began arriving in Columbus in large numbers, driven by Jim Crow laws in the South and the expansion of manufacturing jobs in the North. Developers, Realtors, lenders and politicians all combined in various ways to determine where Blacks and Whites would most likely live, resulting in the same de-facto segregation that happened in many northern cities. Blacks were confined to the central city. Whites were further away from the urban core. Wealthy whites were increasingly in deed-restricted suburbs such as Upper Arlington and Bexley.
Where Columbus started to differ from other northern cities was its use of massive land acquisition efforts after World War II, which expanded the Columbus city limits far beyond the central city and inner ring. Most large northern cities have small land masses and lots of separate suburbs. In Columbus, the city limits extended outward, mainly all the way to what would become the I-270 ring. And although the 1940s and 50s brought an increased interest in desegregation and integration of many activities, the federal and local lending/development policies favored new housing in the new areas of the city, and those areas were increasingly only available to Whites. The Columbus Public Schools were charged with serving ALL these areas, and they did so with policies that exacerbated segregation.
In short, the Board of Education systemically diverted resources away from central city (Black) schools and into suburban (White) schools to help foster middle class economic growth within the city limits. Walnut Ridge, Whetstone, Northland and others were in White areas, and got new buildings and better resources. South, Linden, East and others were in Black areas and left with old, dilapidated buildings and fewer resources. Student boundary lines were drawn to ensure that Whites went to school with Whites and Blacks went to school with Blacks. These policies allowed suburbs within the city limits to attract white middle-class families. Columbus Public Schools essentially knowingly created two separate school districts, which were very much unequal. They ignored the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954. They ignored it until the mid-70s, when they were finally sued. My neighbor, the aforementioned School Board president, was the named defendant. After Federal Judge Robert Duncan ordered desegregation, the Board of Education fought it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and the decision was upheld. The Board decided to affect desegregation via forced busing, which started the fall after I graduated from Walnut Ridge in 1979. And then Columbus got even more segregated. More on that, and how it continues to impact us today, next time.
Sources: Although most of my reflections are based on years of reading, community conversations and personal experience, much of the data comes from two primary sources:
- Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros, Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander, University of Toronto, 2015
- Getting Around Brown: Desegregation, Development and the Columbus Public Schools, Gregory S. Jacobs, Ohio State University Press, 1998