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'We were kind of a novelty': Reflections on desegregating Ohio schools

Lloyd Smith, 66, helped desegregate an all-white elementary school in Lima, Ohio in the 1960s.
Matthew Rand
Lloyd Smith, 66, helped desegregate an all-white elementary school in Lima, Ohio in the 1960s.

Lloyd Smith, 66, grew up in Lima, Ohio.

He was among the first group of Black children to be bused across town to the all-white Westwood Elementary School in the early 1960s.

Smith said the other kids didn't know what to make of their new classmates.

"We were kind of a novelty," Smith said. “They had never been around children of color, and only had maybe seen people of color on television."

Sometimes, that ignorance translated to hostility.

“There were occasions in the beginning where some young students as young as 5, 6, 7 years old called us the N word, because they didn't know any better. And they didn't realize that it was something hurtful to us, because this is what they heard at home. And so to them, that's just what you were called,” Smith said.

Smith began attending Westwood Elementary almost a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which deemed segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

"You had the ruling in Brown, but there was not really a prescription for how to desegregate and integrate schools, and so it didn't happen," said Simone Drake, the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at The Ohio State University.

Drake said it took time for desegregation to reach Ohio.

“A lot of times we talk about integration or desegregation, people think of strictly of the South, and often don't register that, while there wasn't segregation by law in the North, there wasn't Jim Crow, but there was segregation by practice," she said.

Drake grew up in Columbus and started kindergarten one year after busing was court-mandated in the city, in 1979.

“It took Columbus a little while to figure out how to get this implemented," she said. “But it went pretty smoothly, both from what I can tell from historical record as well as my own personal experience, once they actually got it launched.”

Schools across Ohio are generally much more diverse than they were a half-century ago, but the struggles of the past continue into the present.

Lima City Schools Superintendent Jill Ackerman said today's challenge is staffing. She recalls a major district effort in the early 1970s to bring in Black teachers and administrators.

“I can remember when I was at North, and I taught there and I was assistant principal there, the principal was an African-American man. They had gone down and brought him up from Mississippi. Him and his wife came, there were several administrators and teachers that they had gone down south, and they had successfully brought them up here," Ackerman said.

"They're all gone, they've all retired, and moved on. And our challenge continues to be trying to have a staff that is as diverse as our student population.”

And of course, racial divisions still exist outside the classroom as well. Lloyd Smith has been thinking about what might bridge the gaps, and one answer he's come up with is music.

One of his favorites is a duet version of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" performed by James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti.

“Luciano Pavarotti is not a soul singer, and James Brown is not an opera singer. But guess what? They made beautiful music together."

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.