Desegregation of Cleveland Public Schools

Beginning in the 1950s, segregation in Cleveland Public Schools was at the center of the city’s civil rights movement. The United Freedom Movement, a coalition of 50 civic, religious, and parent organizations, initiated demonstrations, sit-ins, and pickets, to galvanize the fight for equality. Desegregation in Cleveland’s public schools was fully implemented by 1980.

School Segregation in Cleveland

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, segregation in Cleveland Public Schools was at the center of city’s civil rights movement. The African American community mobilized as never before to end Cleveland’s reputation of a “behind the scenes” approach to race relations. The use of pickets, sit-ins, and marches was adopted largely from southern civil rights movement strategies to fight institutional racism and segregation. The most blatant tactics by the school board that drew protests were relay classes, intact busing, school construction, and abuse of the ‘neighborhood school policy’.

The Cleveland school board used the ‘neighborhood policy’ to justify school segregation because “…segregation in the North…resulted from residential patterns and informal practices (de facto segregation)” while “…segregation in the South was legislated, de jure segregation…” In the 1976 Reed v. Rhodes decision however, Judge Frank J. Battisti stated that the “requisite intent sufficient to find de jure segregation was clearly and independently established” in the institution of “intact busing and certain school construction…”

Black and White image of Cleveland's Board of Education Building, a 5 story Beaux Arts style building, in 1962
The building at 1380 East 6th Street in downtown Cleveland (today the Drury Plaza Hotel), designed by Walker and Weeks, served as the Cleveland Board of Education from its construction in 1931 to 2013. This photograph of the building was taken in 1962. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Unequal Opportunity in Education

Evidence of the school board’s practice of segregation occurred as early as 1929. East Technical High School, located in the heart of the Central district Black inner-city area, only had 4 percent Black students. In 1933, Black students who lived closer to other high schools were forced to attend Central High School, while white students who lived in that district could transfer to other schools. In the same year, the NAACP recognized unequal education opportunity for Black students in Central High School where over half the tenth graders had no mathematics courses. Instead, Blacks were offered courses in home economics that prepared students for low paying jobs while courses like Spanish, German and bookkeeping had been dropped from the curriculum.

An African American man and woman, with two children and a baby, demonstrating outside a stone building next to a statue. Their sign reads 'Segregated schools- root of hate'.
Cleveland public school desegregation picketers outside of the Cleveland Board of Education, September 1963. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

The school segregation crisis emerged as the result of the Second Great Migration (1940-1970) when over 5 million African Americans left the Jim Crow South to cities in the Midwest, Northeast and West. During this time, Cleveland’s Black population rose from 147,847 to 279,352. By 1965, the public-school population was 149,655 of which 54% was African American. Not only did enrollment increase, but also segregation and overcrowding in Black schools became apparent, mostly in elementary schools. In 1956, to address the overcrowding problem, the Cleveland school board instituted half-day, better known as “relay classes,” which offered 3½ instead of the state standard 5-hour school day. In 1961, Daisy Craggett and other Black parents organized Parents’ Against Relay Classes and picketed the board administration building. Just a few months later, they initiated Relay Parents March to Fill Empty Classrooms to push the school board to bus Black students to nearby predominantly white eastside schools with empty classrooms. The school board’s decision to implement “intact busing” of Black students to underutilized white schools in 1962-63 replaced one controversial strategy with a worse one. Total segregation within the schools included Black students staying in the classroom with their “sending school” teacher all day, banning students from eating lunch in the cafeteria and from assemblies, “physical education classes, and school-wide extracurricular activities” Similarly, Black parents under the leadership of Eddie Gill organized the Hazeldell Parent Association to protest this form of school segregation.

Parents and children holding protest signs outside Board of Education
Part of the group that attended the Parents March Against Relay in Our Schools, pickets in front of the Cleveland Board of Education Building in September 1961. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

United Freedom Movement

In June 1963, the NAACP’s executive secretary Harold Williams invited 27 civic, religious and leaders to spearhead the organization of the United Freedom Movement (UFM) that took the lead in mobilizing the Black community in fighting segregation and discrimination in Cleveland. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) played an active role in protests under UFM by leading sit-ins, picketing, and obstructing the construction of new schools. Among the demonstrations led by UFM was picketing the school administration building in protest of the school board’s refusal to “diffuse” Black students into the classrooms at “receiving” white schools. When the school board passed a resolution to address UFM’s demands by using the “fullest possible incorporation of transported students into receiving school organizations…,” Whites resisted the plan immediately. UFM picketed “receiving schools” and was confronted by white hecklers and attacked by a white mob. The protestors subsequently staged a sit-in in the administration building.

Cleveland public school desegregation sit-in demonstrators sitting in the hall at the Cleveland Board of Education.
Cleveland public school desegregation sit-in demonstrators sitting in the hall at the Cleveland Board of Education, February 1964. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

School Construction & the Death of Bruce Klunder

The school board hastily initiated a school construction program that angered UFM as the designation of sites would resegregate rather than integrate students. UFM called for a moratorium on construction, which William Boyd, the only Black school board member supported. CORE took the initiative to obstruct the construction by laying down in excavation ditches. On April 7, 1964, Reverend Bruce Klunder, vice president of CORE and assistant pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, was accidentally crushed to death by a bulldozer as he lay in the ditch. Klunder was only 26 years old and a graduate of Yale Seminary. In the June 1964 Ebony article, his wife JoAnn said she prayed that his death marked a “new beginning for racial justice in at least one American community.” Klunder’s death ignited a call by the UFM to boycott Cleveland public schools. On April 20, 1964, 85-95 percent of the Black students stayed home, which to UFM demonstrated solidarity in the Black community.

United Freedom Movement (UFM) demonstrators lay in ditch. Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
A funeral procession at nighttime, a group holding the casket of Rev. Bruce Klunder, with other holding protest signs.
Funeral procession for Reverend Bruce W. Klunder, April 1964. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Court Decisions Toward Desegregation

In 1964, the school board hired Paul Briggs as superintendent of the public school system. Former, superintendent of Parma city schools, Briggs shifted the educational emphasis from integration to quality education. Firmly supported by Black school board president Arnold Pinkney, Briggs’ tenure lasted through the desegregation case until he resigned in 1978.

In 1973, the NAACP, under lead attorney James Hardiman filed suit against defendants in the Reed v. Rhodes case that resulted in court-ordered desegregation of Cleveland Public Schools. Judge Battisti’s memorandum delineated over 35 years of deliberate segregation by the Cleveland School Board. The court examined the implementation of relay classes, intact busing, special transfers, faculty assignment, housing, and neighborhood school policy, all of which had a racial isolationist effect on Cleveland school students.

On August 31, 1976, Judge Battisti ruled that Cleveland Public Schools and the Ohio State Board of Education had violated plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the law by “intentionally fostering and maintaining a segregated school system within the Cleveland public schools.”

Cleveland initiated cross-city busing in 1978, and in 1998, Judge George White ruled that the Cleveland schools had met the remedial order. “In declaring the system “unitary,” the judge found that the state and district had done all that could be expected to remedy the harm created by past segregation in the changing urban district.”

An older caucasian man in glasses and a suit sits at a desk in front of a map of Cleveland.
Judge Frank Battisti, the trial judge assigned to the Cleveland public school desegregation case Reed v. Rhodes. On August 31, 1976, Judge Battisti decided in Reed v. Rhodes, that the State of Ohio and the Cleveland Public Schools intentionally created and maintained a segregated school system. Photo taken August 1976. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
A black and white photo of a large group of elementary school children outside holding and releasing balloons
Cleveland school children with balloons at Kenneth W. Clement Elementary School on September 29th, 1980, the year desegregation was fully implemented in Cleveland City Schools. Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Oral Histories

Richard "Dick" Peery

During his tenure at the Call and Post and Plain Dealer, Richard “Dick” Peery covered education. In this interview, he covers school desegregation, busing, student protest, and other topics concerning education in Cleveland.

The Craggett Brothers

Daisy Craggett was a reporter for the Call and Post and later served as president of the Hough Community Council. Her sons, Charles E. Cragget, Sr. and George Cragget, were named in a suit against the school district in 1966 to stop construction of schools.

Bob Ivory

Bob Ivory (who was bused to West Tech High School from the Glenville neighborhood

Louis Stokes

Louis Stokes was an American attorney, civil rights pioneer and politician. He served 15 terms in the United States House of Representatives, becoming the first African American congressman elected in the state of Ohio.

Charles Lucas

Rev. Charles Lucas was the president of the NAACP when the desegregation case was filed against the schools.


further readings

“Cleveland Board of Education Building.” Cleveland Historical

Dunn, Ronnie A, Donna M. Whyte, James Hardiman, Mittie Davis Jones and Adriennie Hatten, Boycotts, Busing, & Beyond: The History and Implications of School Desegregation in the Urban North. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.

Klunder, Mrs. Bruce W. “My Husband Died for Democracy.” Ebony, June 1964, 27.

Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Lanese, Jim. “The Desegregation of Cleveland Public Schools,” Cleveland Historical. 

Moore, Leonard N. “The School Desegregation Crisis of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963-1964: The Catalyst for Black Political Power in a Northern City.” Journal of Urban History, 28, no. 2 (2002).

“Paul Briggs, 76, Dies, Led Cleveland Schools.” New York Times, November 12, 1989.

Reed v. Rhodes, 422 F. Supp. 708 (N.D. Ohio 1976)

Whyte, Donna M. “African American Community Politics and Racial Equality in Cleveland Public Schools, 1933-1973,” Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 2003.

Make a stop at the next marker....