Race matters

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Judge Allen Sharp
U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp

I think Carl was my first black friend.

Mom, Dad and I were living in Latty in northwest Ohio, an easy drive to Fort Wayne where both parents worked. Earlier, when we lived in Defiance, there was only one black family. The Dad ran a shoe repair shop, the son, Gene Derricotte, was an All-American halfback for the University of Michigan.

Anyway, living in Latty one fall, Carl and I had skipped school. We set off early that day to hunt pheasant. We only managed to shoot at pigeons flying in and out of a grain elevator. But we had lots of fun. Carl’s occasional absence to hunt didn’t seem to have hurt his position on the Blue Creek Local’s basketball team. Maybe coach Ned Jay didn’t pay a lot of attention to the attendance.

When my parents moved us to Fort Wayne where I attended South Side High School, I had a number of black friends at this urban high school. Then I had more black friends in college and graduate school. All those years, I don’t recall any feelings of racial prejudice. In fact, at South Side, I started to jump on some big guy who had called a young black student a “jungle bunny.” I was spared a beating when the band director, Mr. Drummond, came walking toward us. the big guy went one way, I went the other.

It was the fall of 1969 when black parents kept their children home from school those first days of the school year. I had returned that fall from the Cincinnati area to teach at South Side, my alma mater. What a time it was. Leaders in the black community had complained of how segregated the schools had become. They held public meetings and demanded to be heard at school board meetings.

Over the next few years, district leaders did agree to integrate the upper grades. But they left the elementary grades untouched. With only a couple of exceptions, these 35 schools were overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly black. They remained so.

In late 1973, I joined The Journal Gazette to write editorials. Now I had a chance to try to change things. For years, I wrote opinion pieces that condemned the racial isolation of elementary students and criticized that failure of school leaders to provide programs to improve race relations in the upper grades.

Evidence from a few other cities was clear. Black kids did better academically in integrated schools. Racial attitudes of black and white students improved. And, as the U.S. Supreme Court declared unanimously in 1954, “Separate is not equal.”

By the mid-1980s business leaders began taking note of the paper’s complaints. One, Ian Rolland, CEO of Lincoln National Corporation, took up the cause. He and local attorneys met with school officials and their attorney over months. Negotiations, however, failed to produce an agreement.

For my part, I not only continued prodding the school district on the race issue. I met privately with school board members and the superintendent. Still no movement.

Then I suggested to Rolland and others that meet with one of the pre-eminent civil rights attorney in Washington. I joined them for the meeting in Bill Taylor’s Washington office.
Yet even his negotiations in Fort Wayne failed. A parents group filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court.

In 1984, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, had issued an exhaustive study of race in Fort Wayne schools. That study found the district, despite the improvement at the upper grades, “extremely racially imbalanced.” That was the basis of the lawsuit.

By February 1989, the district agreed to settle the lawsuit. The district would create magnet schools and assign many black children to formerly white suburban schools. School officials would create an extensive choice program and keep all schools within a 15 percent to 45 percent racial mix.

Meantime, U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp approved an outside group to act on his behalf to monitor the district’s compliance. I must say, in all the years since the settlement, I’ve heard almost no complaints about the school district’s desegregation program. The community has moved on.

Indeed, when I spoke this week with Krista Stockman, public relations officer for the district, she cited racial balance numbers that pretty much track those numbers set forth in the 1989 agreement. Still no big community controversy.

Years ago, Gary Orfield, the nation’s pre-eminent desegregation expert told me, that once in integrated schools, the kids wonder what the big deal was. I’m sure I would have wondered, too, when Carl and I skipped class to go hunting.

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