On the 40th anniversary of school desegregation, a West Side native looks back at an experience that shaped her and thousands of her peers.
When I attended Kent State University in the late 1980s, all the students I met from Central Ohio were from the suburbs. Upon hearing I graduated from Columbus West High School, someone would inevitably (and snidely) ask if I’d ever seen a gun or witnessed a stabbing. While I knew my side of town had a reputation for high crime and poverty, it was also an area rich with tradition and pride, especially for its high school, where it is not unusual to have multigenerational alumni. Instead of explaining that I actually lived in a nice little pocket neighborhood with a great park, I would offer a joke: There was not a lot of knife and gun action around the choir and spirit week decoration committee. But the comments always left me feeling unsettled and defensive—even though I couldn’t yet articulate why.
My suburban college classmates and I came of age during the desegregation of Columbus Public Schools (as the district was known back then), part of a bruising era of racially tinged anger and resentment that has returned to the national spotlight thanks to the Democratic presidential debates, most notably the clash between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. In 1977, U.S. District Judge Robert Duncan ruled that Columbus school officials knowingly kept white and African American students apart in violation of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Two years later, Columbus became one of the first cities in the country to desegregate, forcing children to ride buses to schools outside their neighborhoods to improve the racial balance of the district.
Many tend to view busing in Columbus, which ended in 1996, as a failure that hastened suburban sprawl as wealthier white families fled the city, creating an even poorer and more racially stratified community. But that doesn’t take into account the other reasons for these changes—or the day-to-day experiences of the children, black and white, who crossed cultural barriers every morning when they stepped off their buses.
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I was one of those children. In 1979, I was among the 35,000 students who participated in the inaugural class of court-ordered busing. Looking back, I have to acknowledge that my memories are filtered through my own white, middle class lens, as well as a gradually developing awareness of the history and complexities of busing in Columbus. But whatever our backgrounds, busing shaped me and my classmates, offering us new perspectives and opportunities but also highlighting the limitations of the social experiment that the courts forced upon us. A bus can take you only so far.
My first experience with being bused out of my neighborhood took me to Mohawk Middle School, a large former high school. It was situated at the edge of Downtown overlooking the freeway, which made it seem ominous. Mohawk felt chaotic, although not necessarily as a result of desegregation. It was the tough-looking white girls from a rougher part of the Hilltop who gave me pause. Because of alphabetic assignments in our classes, I often sat next to one of the toughest. She once stormed into the cafeteria, stomping up and across two tables to punch another girl in the face. In shop class, she hurled an iron stool at a boy.
Her locker was next to mine. My strategy between classes was to avoid any attention that might agitate her. One day, she was worked up and unable to get into her locker. After a few failed attempts and frustrated pounding, she turned to me. “You! Open this for me!” I was terrified but not about to tell her no. She told me her combination, and I slowly turned the dial and slid open the metal latch. She looked me in the eye for perhaps the first time ever and said, jabbing me in the chest for effect, “Anyone mess with you, EVER, I’ll kick their ass!” I felt relieved, flattered and confused by the sudden attention. I can’t say that the moment made us friends. But I do believe it caused me to begin considering the complexity of lives different from my own.
The most significant exposure I had to black culture at Mohawk was in the gospel choir, the only choir at the school. The director was a large, exuberant black woman who liked to jokingly point out the obvious differences in the room. “Black kids, help sway the white kids,” was a common refrain. The pianist was a tall, thin black man in constant motion. As a brand-new piano player, I was in awe of his technique. Together, the teachers created an energy that was infectious. I still remember some of the songs we sang, as well as the elaborate walk we did from the back of the auditorium to the stage for performances. My friends and I later incorporated the “Mohawk walk” into high school dances and even wedding receptions and reunions.
Busing’s blunt strategy of transporting whole cohorts together from one neighborhood to another had some unexpected outcomes. A black student who grew up on the Hilltop, a friend of my brother, was also bused to Mohawk. There, he went from being one of the few minorities in his classes to reveling in having peers who resembled him. He recalled lunchtime dances where the playlist didn’t default to “popular white-kid music.” “Rappers Delight” from the Sugar Hill Gang and songs from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall were in heavy rotation. Likewise, I can remember being turned on to WVKO, then Columbus’ premiere R&B station, because the buses only had AM radio.
For seventh and eighth grades, my parents entered me in the lottery-enrollment middle school, Franklin Alternative. It also was desegregated, but students were bused in from all over the city, which I think helped avoid an “us versus them” attitude. I loved that school: its space-station architecture, the energetic teachers and an environment that fostered creativity. I didn’t realize until much later that I was likely responding to deliberate measures like limited class size and broader course offerings, as well as a more thoughtful integration of the student population than what I’d experienced at Mohawk.
If my parents had reservations about busing, they did not express them to me. Recently, I asked my mom for her perspective, and she said, “We thought we were doing the right thing; I’m still not sure if we did.”
In ninth grade, I was assigned to West. It was the high school my friends’ older siblings attended, the place where I’d spent many a Friday night awestruck as a kid in the stands at Magly Field, and even as a freshman, I tended to view my experience through a haze of nostalgia. The student body was generally self-segregating and, to my eyes, not overtly hostile to one another. The year I graduated, the homecoming king and queen were black and were undoubtedly the most popular students in the class.
Recently, I learned from a former teacher at West that many of her students who were bused from the East Side were profoundly disappointed not to be attending East High, another Columbus school rich with tradition and pride, where they had spent their own Friday nights as kids, cheering on their beloved Tigers. But at the time, it didn’t occur to me to consider the experience of those who rode the buses from the other side of town. If they missed out on activities or hanging out with friends after school, or had trouble getting up significantly earlier than me to catch the bus, were threatened because of their race, or if their parents found it difficult to connect with teachers across town, I didn’t notice or ask.
After many post-college years spent renting in Grandview, I bought a house in Westgate, the small community within the greater Hilltop neighborhood where I grew up. Over the last decade, it has experienced a renaissance of sorts, leading to continually rising property values and increased civic involvement. Unfortunately, this does not include its schools, especially West High. Alumni pride is still strong, but I can’t name a single person in the Westgate enclave who has attended the school since the early 2000s.
Not that I blame parents. I don’t have children but I understand the importance of choosing a decent school for your child. The Ohio Department of Education recently ranked Columbus City Schools 601st out of its 608 districts, and West High was ranked 710th of 800 high schools.
Today, diversity looks different in Columbus than it did 40 years ago. The city now is home to many families for whom English is their second language. Somali and Latino students who live in the Hilltop neighborhood make up a significant percentage of the West High student population.
A few years ago, a classmate bought a house in Westgate and invited people over to cook out before the West homecoming football game. It had been many, many years since any of us had attended homecoming, once a large-scale, multigenerational event. Walking to the school that night, someone wondered aloud if it would be safe. “Probably more sad,” someone else replied.
Standing in the bleachers, among a few hundred kids with whom I share a ZIP code and, perhaps once, a locker, I didn’t feel sad. What I felt and saw was the genuine enthusiasm of celebratory teenagers on a beautiful fall night. Yes, the size of the band was significantly smaller than its drive-down-the-field heyday, but the kids in the stands—made up of more cultures and ethnicities than were likely imagined by the officials who laid the plans for school desegregation in 1979—threw their hands in the air and spun around to the same drum cadences that engaged a neighbor, parent and grandparent standing in the same spot 15, 30, 60 years earlier. They squealed in delight at the announcement of their friend as homecoming queen. If any of those kids that night wanted to be anywhere else or felt the burden of a neighborhood’s pity or the weight of the city’s expectations, they didn’t show it.