Forty years ago, Akron parents, educators and organizers saved Robinson Elementary — and nearly integrated Akron schools by court order

by H.L. Comeriato with research support from Salvatore Comeriato

In a modest brick ranch, in a quiet neighborhood, Mrs. Doris Bell pads across a carpeted living room. She’s wearing a pair of pink polka-dotted socks. She’s slower now than she used to be — she uses a cane and takes small, careful steps.

Mrs. Bell sinks into the corner seat of a worn sectional and flips through a scrapbook of newspaper clippings.

“That’s it,” she says, tapping a finger against the cellophane. “That’s the picture that started everything.”

Second-grader Patrick Bell is wearing a bathrobe, the belt pulled tight around his skinny waist. His sister, Stacy, sits behind him on the living room floor, smiling for the camera. Their father, Maynard, is slumped over the arm of a couch. Doris Bell sits next to her husband, unsmiling, hands folded neatly in her lap.

Mrs. Bell is white. Her husband, and their children, are all Black.

In 1966, one year before the Supreme Court case that federally legalized their marriage, Mr. Maynard Bell got down on one knee in the waiting room of the Summit County Health Department and asked Mrs. Bell to marry him.

For 53 years they slept and woke next to one another. They raised kids and paid bills and did the hard and quiet work of building a community.

The Bell house at 436 Chittenden Street, two blocks east of South Arlington Street, had a fenced-in yard, three bedrooms and a big front porch. The Bells fostered children through Family Services, and Mrs. Bell ran a Title 20 daycare program. In a community where parents often struggled to find reliable childcare, the Bells were a safety net.

“People just knew,” Mrs. Bell says. “You need childcare? You go to the white lady on Chittenden.”

In the fall of 1978, Stacy and Patrick Bell were in first and second grade at Robinson Elementary School three blocks away. Robinson had been slated for closure by the Akron Public Schools Board of Education as part of a proposed decommissioning plan in 1976.

To fight that closure, in 1978, Mr. And Mrs. Bell were named as plaintiffs in a historic lawsuit.

The Bells joined the suit in an effort to save Robinson, their beloved community school. But in the minds of the East Akron Community House and a team of attorneys working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, who supported the Bells’ case, the suit had the potential to do far more: Not only to save Robinson, but to integrate Akron schools via court order, link discriminatory housing policy to school segregation, and provide a legal precedent that could change the way government organizations and officials outside of school systems are held accountable for segregation in schools.

Though common in inter-district desegregation suits — suits that address school districts comprised of multiple systems, often spanning counties — Bell v. Board was the first intra-district, or single city district, lawsuit in the country to explicitly link the segregation of public schools to institutions and individuals outside of the school system, pointing to decades of housing discrimination sanctioned by local, state and federal agencies.

The suit alleged that Akron Public Schools had become racially segregated as a result of intentional and identifiable segregative acts by the school board — acts that used already racially segregated housing patterns to help segregate schools. Further, it alleged that the eight schools slated for closure under APS’s 1976 plan had been selected, at least in part, based on their racial composition — an illegal method of selection under a decommissioning plan.

The Bells joined two other sets of parents, Jacques and Paulette McGregor and Anne and Cecil Benoit, in naming the Akron Public Schools Board of Education, Superintendent Conrad Ott, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and the Ohio Real Estate Commission as defendants.

When the Akron Beacon Journal called and asked to photograph the Bells for the paper’s morning edition on the eve of the suit’s filing, Mrs. Bell pulled her sleeping kids from bed.

The issue hit newsstands at 6 am on the morning of January 13, 1978. The Bells were overwhelmed by racist, threatening phone calls within the hour.

“We’d never experienced anything like that before,” Mrs. Bell says. “Our biracial marriage had its good and its bad, but we were never denied buying a car or a home.

“We didn’t think anything about the picture,” Mrs. Bell continues, waving one hand at the scrapbook. “We had no idea people would be so angry.”

“We had no idea people would be so angry.”

Mrs. Doris Bell

By the mid-1970s, Akron Public Schools faced a drastic drop in student enrollment and abrupt shifts in racial and socioeconomic demographics. Nearly 10,500 students left the district between 1967 and 1975 — nearly all of them white.

“It’s not easy for administrators to really deal with the many different realities of demographic changes,” says Malcolm J. Costa, president and CEO of Akron Summit Community Action, an anti-poverty nonprofit organization based on the east side. “It’s difficult to directly manage those things because there are a lot of forces at work.”

In 1929, at the cusp of the Depression, more than 75 percent of all tires made in the United States were made in Akron. Forty-nine years later in 1978, Akron’s Goodyear Plant 2 closed, and The New York Times declared: “The boom is over for Akron.”

A slow and painful change in Akron’s collective identity was underway. Urban renewal projects like Opportunity Park and the Innerbelt demolished whole neighborhoods, most of them low-income and predominantly Black, relocating thousands of residents and leaving already vulnerable communities irreparably fractured. According to a history self-published by the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, Opportunity Park alone displaced 1,414 people— 65 percent Black.

In 1976, as Akron struggled to reconcile these social, cultural, and economic changes, Superintendent Conrad Ott presented the Akron Plan.

The culmination of a year-long study, the Akron Plan proposed eight school closures staggered across five years:

  • Grace Elementary and Henry Elementary in 1977
  • Bryan Elementary in 1978
  • South High School and either Crouse Elementary or Robinson Elementary in 1979
  • Lane Elementary in 1980
  • Thornton Junior High School sometime between 1978 and 1980

In the fall of 1977, seven of these eight schools were more than 83 percent Black. Five of the schools—Robinson, Lane, Crouse, Bryan and South—were more than 90 percent Black. Henry, the only predominantly white school selected for closure, had an overwhelmingly poor and low-income student body.

According to internal documents produced by Akron Public Schools, the proposed plan would reassign nearly 3,500 students to 33 receiving schools in an effort to improve racial balance within the district.

Ott and the board expected community resistance, and held nine public hearings over two months. In each of the clusters affected by the proposed Akron Plan, residents aired fears and concerns. At a public hearing in the South Cluster, Ott assured residents that schools were selected to close based on a building’s age, condition and enrollment.

“[The board suggests] the decommissioning of these buildings where the enrollment was dropping and facilities were old,” Ott told residents. “The racial minority/majority was not the prime concern.”

“Although the closures conform fully to law, they do not represent a plan of desegregation,” Ott wrote in a 1977 letter to state school officials. “However, they do provide the opportunity to improve the racial balance in as many as 23 schools.”

Ott presented the Akron Plan as a decommissioning plan that might also increase racial balance as a byproduct.

But for people living in neighborhoods with schools slated to close under the Akron Plan, the closures felt targeted, intentionally racialized, and deeply unfair. In communities where most people had little economic mobility, fighting the plan seemed impossible.

“It’s hard for lower- and moderate-income people to have a voice,” says Cazzell Smith, a social worker and community organizer. “When you talk about citizen participation — loosely defined as non-elected, non-appointed, citizens having an impact that affects their lives — [low-income people] have very little impact on the decisions that affect their lives.”

Smith was born on the east side. In 1978, he was working as a community organizer for the East Akron Community House, focused on building the kinds of programs and relationships that keep neighborhoods vibrant and connected.

He organized against the Akron Plan, claiming that it placed a disproportionate burden on Black students.

In 2019, Smith leads the way through a maze of non-descript hallways at the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation on South Arlington Street. He moves with quick confidence.

In his own office, a painting of a mother cradling her child hangs crooked above a desk scattered with paperwork. Propped awkardwarly against office chairs and cardboard boxes are half a dozen presentation boards covered in newspaper articles, hand-drawn flyers and typed correspondence, all browning with age.

Moving from one board to another, running an open palm across the documents, Smith tells the story of East Akron in the 1970s — of cultivating community networks and facilitating social action, of losing federal funding for a neighborhood revitalization plan designed to preserve and stabilize housing on the east side, of the Akron Youth Congress circulating a petition demanding the school board to address racial isolation in the public school system before the federal courts intervened.

“It was at a time where the strong friendship and kinship ties helped us to organize,” Smith says, thumbing a patch of greying hair at his chin. “We had one of the most powerful citizen participation networks in the state of Ohio.”

Robinson, and the neighborhood that fed it, was mostly comprised of low and moderate-income Black families. Robinson Elementary School functioned as a social anchor in a community struggling to maintain social and economic stability.

When the Akron Plan was proposed in 1976, Smith called it unconscionable. In the Akron Beacon Journal, he claimed that the Akron Plan targeted communities that had few resources, and were unlikely to pose serious threats of resistance — some of Akron’s “most vulnerable neighborhoods.” The Akron Plan “put the burden on low-income people who were all minorities in terms of power,” Smith said.

“The [school] board is geared toward making things convenient and comfortable for middle class whites,” Smith told the Akron Beacon Journal in a 1988 story about the legacy of the Akron Plan. “There is no doubt in my mind that [the Akron Plan] was racist.”

“I do recognize that we had too many schools and not enough students,” Smith tells The Devil Strip now. “[But] the schools were selected racially,” he insists, gesturing toward paper copies of the original Akron Plan and documents that list the racial composition of each of the eight schools selected for closure.

Smith folds his hands in his lap. He leans back in an oversized desk chair. “I’ll never forget when that decision was made to close Robinson. I went home and just sat there,” he says. “It did something to me. It was more than just a defeatist kind of feeling.”

If Robinson closed, the Bells’ neighborhood stood to lose the center and soul of its community. Hundreds of Black elementary school students would be bused into unfamiliar communities to attend school, and then bused back to neighborhoods still struggling to find new footing in the wake of urban renewal.

Cazzell Smith couldn’t let that happen.

From a sun-drenched condo complex in San Diego, 96-year-old Dr. Juliet Saltman pens a heartfelt email that calls the struggle for integration in Akron “long and arduous.” It was, for nearly 50 years, her life’s work.

In the early 1960s, Akron City Council had voted to prevent itself from approving any ordinance that regulated the sale or lease of housing based on race without approval from Akron voters. In effect, this allowed private companies and organizations to restrict housing by race, knowing the city was unlikely to interfere.

Dr. Saltman, who was a professor of sociology at Kent State University, founded the Fair Housing Contact Service and began conducting audits on local real estate firms. They documented hundreds of instances of racial discrimination in their first three years. In 1967, Saltman told the Akron Beacon Journal: “Realty agents are consciously and deliberately trying to direct, for their own gain, housing patterns in Akron.”

Housing segregation and school segregation, according to Saltman, were linked in an endless, reciprocal cycle: segregated neighborhoods created segregated schools, which, in turn, served to further segregate neighborhoods. Housing discrimination created social segregation, she argued. This was never merely de facto — the result of private, unofficial acts of discrimination. It was also du jure — the result of decades of official, government-sanctioned, segregative practice and policy. It was institutionalized and insidious.

“If it had not been for the racially discriminatory actions of governmental agencies at all levels, none of the schools in the Akron system would be racially identifiable,” Dr. Saltman wrote in a 1980 reflection.

Further, Dr. Saltman believed Akron was merely a microcosm of the race-based zoning built into the frameworks of urban landscapes all over America. Across the country, segregative housing patterns were created and reinforced by the strategic placement of public housing. According to historian Richard Rothstein, it was common for real estate agents to drum up racialized fear among white residents, encouraging them to sell their homes at reduced prices in a frantic scramble to flee integrated neighborhoods. Then agents sold those same homes to Black families at inflated prices, turning a profit and creating clusters of Black communities locked into high mortgages.

Redlining — the systemic refusal of institutions to grant financial resources, including bank loans, based on an applicant’s race — had long kept Black families living in certain neighborhoods and Black children attending certain schools.

As Akron’s population steadily declined, white families began leaving the city for the suburbs, and a cyclical relationship between schools and housing developed: white or integrated schools became increasingly Black, and white families became less and less likely to move into those neighborhoods. Surrounding property values dropped. Black students were left to attend racially isolated schools in racially isolated communities.

In 1965, Dr. Saltman was a plaintiff in an NAACP lawsuit alleging that the Akron Public Schools system had committed intentionally segregative acts in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education — the United States Supreme Court decision that mandated nationwide desegregation in America’s schools.

In 1968, a federal judge ruled in favor of Akron Public Schools, clearing the district of allegations of intentional segregation.

In 1969, the Akron City Council decision that had inspired Dr. Saltman’s housing activism was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

But Saltman’s work had just begun.

Over the next decade, racial isolation within the district only increased as discriminatory housing practices and urban renewal projects kept Black students attending predominantly Black schools.

According to Saltman, by 1973, “63 percent of Akron’s Black children and 58 percent of Akron’s white children attended racially isolated schools (i.e. 50 percent or more Black for the Black children, and 90 percent or more white for the white children).”

Dr. Saltman built Bell v. Board over long weekends and late nights, piles and boxes of maps and documents strewn across her dining room table. On Saturdays, the Bells, the McGregors, and the Benoits all sat around the table too, helping Saltman construct a case that would hold up under public pressure.

The legal precedent that a case like Bell v. Board might set, should the decision fall in its favor, was monumental.

In 1978, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school systems in inter-district desegregation cases were required by law to remedy school segregation.

“[School districts],” read the Indianapolis decision, “cannot allow governmentally-produced residential racial segregation to result in school racial segregation.”

If the court found links between government-sanctioned discriminatory housing practices and policies and racial isolation in Akron schools, then individual city school districts across the country could also face a legal obligation to address the reciprocal cycle of segregated residential patterns and racial isolation in schools.

According to Saltman, if that contention held up in court, no American city would escape its effect: “For what American city does not have a history of racial discrimination in housing, zoning, and land-use practices and policies?” Saltman asked.

In the fall of 1977, after more than a year of preparation, Dr. Saltman mailed her findings to Kentucky, addressed to a young attorney named Robert Sedler.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that mandated the integration of America’s public schools. In dozens of cities, Brown v. Board’s implementation was met with resistance efforts, ranging from town meetings in school gymnasiums to violent protests. Many districts were forced into compliance.

In 1975, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ordered such integration in Jefferson County, Ken.

In Louisville and Jefferson County, court-ordered desegregation birthed an inter-city school system that bused students between the city of Louisville and Jefferson County suburbs. Court-ordered school desegregation spanned all of Jefferson County, eliminating the possibility of white flight to surrounding cities and towns.

Akron Public Schools Superintendent Conrad Ott had previously worked in Kentucky. He witnessed firsthand the struggle to integrate under court order and became convinced that a multi-district approach could save Akron Public Schools from the destabilizing effects of forced integration.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Ott “championed the idea of a metropolitan approach to school racial balance,” and in 1976, submitted a multi-district desegregation proposal to the board along with the Akron Plan.

The Metropolitan Perspective proposed a multi-district approach to increasing racial balance that would allow students to move between Akron schools and the city’s overwhelmingly white suburban districts by enrolling in special programs.

“If [Akron is] to carry the burden attendant to racial isolation, we must develop a solution that looks beyond the boundaries of the cities,” Ott told state officials in 1976.

“If [Akron is] to carry the burden attendant to racial isolation, we must develop a solution that looks beyond the boundaries of the cities.”

APS Superintendent Conrad Ott to Ohio state officials, 1976

Sam Salem, who was then president of the Akron Public Schools Board of Education, agreed that a multi-district approach to integration offered the only real solution to racial isolation in Akron schools. The Metropolitan Plan would have decreased racial isolation on a county-wide scale. It would have eliminated the problem of white families fleeing to the suburbs, which could have kept the district from resegregating.

Further, both Salem and Ott had long anticipated legal action against Akron Public Schools, and they hoped the Metropolitan Plan might provide legal protection against allegations of non-compliance with Brown v. Board.

“If the day comes when the school districts in Summit County are faced with the prospect of a [court-]forced situation, what then do we tell our angry constituents,” Salem asked school officials. “That we took the easy, convenient, comfortable, and popular route of doing nothing and hoping for the best? That we ignored the lessons we should have learned from the bitter ordeals forced upon school systems throughout the nation?”

Ott’s Metropolitan Plan never gained significant support from Akron’s suburban districts. And without their cooperation, achieving county-wide integration in Akron proved impossible.

“Any attempt to redress overall racial imbalance will fail if one loses sight of the fact that Akron is ringed by white school systems that, so far, have done nothing to cooperate in a multi-district endeavor,” wrote Ott in a 1977 letter to state school officials defending the Akron Plan.

But in Louisville — where county-wide integration was implemented via court order — the newly formed district survived initial eruptions of violence and committed to integration in a way few other cities have done before or since.

The school system Robert Sedler helped desegregate in 1975, when he was an attorney working for the American Civil Liberties Union, is still one of the most integrated districts in the country.

From his office at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he has taught Constitutional Law since 1977, Robert Sedler places Bell v. Board’s allegations within a larger context.

“There were 17 southern border states that required segregation by law pre-Brown. In those states, the constitutional violation was the state law requiring segregation,” he says. “Outside of the South, where segregation was not required by state law, we had to show intentional racial segregation, which was much harder to prove.

“But in many northern districts the court did find intentional racial segregation, and they had to desegregate in the same way as schools in southern states,” Sedler continues. “[Northern cities] wanted to keep whites in the district instead of [losing them] to the suburbs. So in order to do that, they tried to limit Black enrollment in predominantly white schools and avoid sending white students to predominantly Black schools. And that was our case in Akron.”

In October 1977, Robert Sedler agreed to be the plaintiffs’ Chief Counsel in the Akron case. When the case was officially filed three months later, a letter was “hand-delivered to the Akron board of education,” according to Dr. Saltman’s records. The letter requested an out-of-court settlement, which the board declined to negotiate.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, the suit alleged that:

  • The Akron Public Schools Board of Education aided directly in the creation of racially identifiable schools through the drawing of attendance zone boundaries, the creation of optional attendance zones, the race-based assignment of teachers, and the approval of the Akron Plan, which selected predominantly Black schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods for closure.
  • The 1965 amendment to Akron’s city charter that banned fair housing legislation — the one that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1969 — had an identifiable affect on housing segregation, which, in turn, further segregated Akron schools.
  • The urban renewal projects of the 1970s allowed the city and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority to funnel Black families into west side neighborhoods, which created a segregated school cluster on the west side — an area left purposefully untouched by the Akron Plan in an effort to contain most of the district’s Black students.
  • The refusal of state, federal, and local agencies to grant loans to Black families or insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods — and the Ohio Real Estate Commission’s refusal to investigate the discriminatory behavior Dr. Saltman uncovered through her audits with the Fair Housing Contact service — all contributed school segregation in Akron.

In a brief statement to the press released before the trial, Superintendent Conrad Ott expressed surprise at the suit’s filing. Sam Salem told the Akron Beacon Journal that he believed the board to be “in good enough shape, legally,” to avoid such a suit.

John Glenn, the board’s Chief Counsel, outwardly denied Bell v. Board’s allegations, telling the Akron Beacon Journal: “Akron schools are not segregated.”

Robert Sedler had petitioned the courts to keep Robinson open while the case was decided, but couldn’t produce the necessary bond. As a result, Robinson closed for the 1978-79 school year, and hundreds of students were bused to predominantly white schools in predominantly white neighborhoods while the case was heard.

Patrick and Stacy Bell were bused to Hotchkiss Elementary for their second and third grade years. Hotchkiss, which was just over a mile from Robinson, was 97 percent white.

The Bell kids were nervous, and so were the other kids and parents faced with busing.

“Most of these kids came from Joy Park,” an Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority property originally constructed as temporary, segregated war housing for Black Akronites in the 1940s, Mrs. Bell says.

“So many of the Black women didn’t know what they were going to do,” Mrs. Bell says. “They were sending their kids into an area they didn’t know — and I’m talking about little kids. They were uncomfortable with it.”

Kids from Joy Park couldn’t afford to dress the same way as their new peers, Mrs. Bell says. As new students, they stood out. Stacy Bell often arrived home from Hotchkiss feeling small and inferior. Further, most Robinson parents didn’t own cars, and it was difficult for parents to reach their children at school if they were sick or hurt. Parents couldn’t easily attend school programs or parent-teacher conferences and struggled to find and afford childcare in other neighborhoods.

When their kids were bused to schools in other neighborhoods, Robinson parents were effectively barred from participating in their children’s education. Mrs. Bell didn’t want that for herself or for anyone else in her community.

“One of the reasons that there was such intense resistance to the closing of Robinson, and to closing other schools, was because those children ended up being bused to places like Ellet,” says Malcolm J. Costa. “That contributed to the challenges and difficulties that the students faced… Even though, in many cases, the educational opportunities may have been greater at those schools.”

“In my opinion, [desegregation] was not really what we were fighting for,” Mrs. Bell says. “We were fighting for our kids to be able to stay in the neighborhood.”

Paulette McGregor — the second mother named as a plaintiff in the suit — was furious that her children were being bused while other students remained comfortably in their own communities.

“[My children] should be able to get quality education where they live,” she told the Akron Beacon Journal. “Why should they tell me that in order for my children to get a good education, they have to go to white neighborhood?”

In the weeks leading up to the trial, the Bells experienced increasingly disturbing instances of racist harassment.

Mrs. Bell sent her son for a haircut, no more than a few blocks from home, and received an anonymous phone call. Do you know where your boy is, Mrs. Bell? The caller asked. I wonder if he’ll make it home safe?

Another anonymous caller claimed to have attached a bomb to Patrick and Stacy Bell’s school bus.

There was no bomb. But that night, after their children had gone to sleep, Mr. and Mrs. Bell discussed pulling out of the case. The harassment seemed unmanageable.

Every night for months, around 2 am, a stranger called the house on Chittenden asking for Mrs. Bell. He whispered into the receiver over the clatter of machinery, calling her names; telling her she had gone against God.

Eventually, an unmarked car stationed at the laundromat across the street stopped a car full of white men on their way to the Bell house.

“I don’t know what they were gonna do,” Mrs. Bell says. “All I know is I’m glad I never found out.”

When Mr. and Mrs. Bell arrived for the first day of the hearings, they came through the back doors of the courtroom. They didn’t want another photo.

Judge Leroy Contie heard Bell v. Board over three weeks in October and November of 1979. Appointed as a federal judge by president Richard Nixon in 1971, Judge Contie had just finished hearing another desegregation case in which he ruled against the NAACP’s push for the integration of the Youngstown public school system.

Dr. Saltman took the stand as Robert Sedler’s expert witness, and testified to the intimate links between housing discrimination, attendance zone boundaries, and school segregation.

“The school officials in Akron, and other places, did everything they could, both then and now, to keep whites in the school district,” Robert Sedler told The Devil Strip. In Akron, that meant ensuring that white students could stay in predominantly white schools.

“The evidence [shows] that the board has carved away attendance zones to permit white students to go to white schools, and this made black schools blacker.” Saltman testified, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

On the stand, Dr. Saltman testified that South High School was used to contain a large Black student population, and, conversely, that Firestone High School was built to “encourage whites to settle in West Akron,” and accommodate white flight from the Buchtel Cluster. Further, Saltman alleged that the board shifted Buchtel’s attendance zones, resulting in an increasingly Black student population.

In a 1976 letter from ACLU Akron Area Chapter, Chairperson Marion Stroud addressed the Buchtel Cluster’s situation within the context of the Akron Plan.

“After careful study, it definitely appears that the [Akron] Plan actually increases racial concentration at Buchtel High School and West Junior High School,” wrote Stroud. “It is our unanimous opinion that the Plan should be modified to decrease the number of minority students at Buchtel High School.”

According to statistics published by the Akron Beacon Journal, Buchtel High School and South High School held 52 percent of the district’s Black high school students during the 1976-1977 school year. Other organizations, including the Akron Urban League and the West Side Neighbors, had expressed concern about the Buchtel Cluster long before Bell v. Board was filed.

If certain schools held the majority of the district’s Black students, white parents were more likely to stay in the district knowing their children could more easily attend predominantly white schools, Saltman and Sedler argued in the courtroom.

On the stand, Dr. Saltman detailed a list of small, seemingly insignificant attendance zone shifts — often augmented on a road-by-road or block-by-block basis — stretched out across decades. She argued that these shifts allowed white students to stay in predominantly white schools and kept Black students in predominantly Black schools.

According to a March 1978 article in the Akron Beacon Journal, the plaintiffs alleged that “[Black students] living near Wooster Avenue and Greenlawn Cemetery were shifted into Buchtel or South from Kenmore,” allowing Kenmore to remain predominantly white.

Further, the plaintiffs alleged that “[White students] living in apartments along Mull Avenue were given the option to attend Firestone,” while white students in the residential area north of Collier Road were allowed to attend Kenmore instead of Buchtel.

“They played games,” says Cazzell Smith, referring to a 1971 movement of an optional attendance zone boundary between South and Buchtel that increased Buchtel’s Black student population. That same year, attendance zones shifted around Thornton Junior High School, and, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, “[cut] into the West attendance zone, picking up [Black students] who had attended that school.”

In leaving the Buchtel Cluster untouched, Dr. Saltman argued the Akron Plan would accelerate the process of racial isolation on the west side.

In court, the Bell’s legal team sought a decision that would recognize the Akron Plan as an intentionally discriminatory act on behalf of the board — one that had placed a disproportionate burden on Black students. They also sought a decision that would enforce the assignment of Black and white teachers at an appropriate ratio and acknowledge the intimate connection between housing discrimination and school segregation.

The Bell’s team hoped for a decision that would mandate the integration of Akron’s school system through the redrawing of attendance zone lines and minimal busing.

And, of course, they hoped for a decision that would save Robinson.

On April 7, 1980, Judge Leroy Contie ruled Conrad Ott’s Akron Plan unconstitutional, a violation of the plaintiffs’ equal rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

“Based on Superintendent Ott’s testimony, the Court finds that the race of the students was a factor in considering which schools should be closed under the Akron Plan,” read the decision. “Looking at the schools closed and those scheduled for decommissioning, the Court must find that the burdens of school closure fall more heavily on Black students. The great majority of students being reassigned to new schools, often some distances from their former school, are Black.”

The Bells were ecstatic. The news arrived on Chittenden before they did. All of Joy Park was waiting for them on the front lawn.

The Bells celebrated through the night of April 7 and well into the next day. It was a raucous observance of self-sufficiency, of a battle well fought and hard won.

“We partied on Chittenden that day,” remembers Mrs. Bell, laughing, still tucked into the corner of her worn sectional.

“They actually bombarded my house… I had a house full, backyard, front yard. Literally, women were crying because we won,” says Mrs. Bell. “They were going to have to reopen our school.”

I had a house full, backyard, front yard. Literally, women were crying because we won. They were going to have to reopen our school.

Mrs. Doris Bell

Looking back, Mrs. Bell’s only disappointment is that Robinson’s efforts didn’t spread to other neighborhoods. She and Cazzell Smith mounted numerous efforts to meet with parents from other schools slated for closure under the Akron Plan, but none showed significant interest.

“I wish they would’ve come out and fought for their kids,” she says, glancing up at a framed 50th anniversary portrait of her and her husband. “I guess they just thought nobody would care. Or that you just couldn’t buck the system.”

Mrs. Bell taps the photo of her young family with an index finger, the scrapbook still lying open on the coffee table. “I tried to tell people, you can buck the system,” she says. “It doesn’t happen very often, but I know you can. You just have to do your homework.”

Judge Contie ordered the board to produce a new plan by May — one that would be reviewed by Contie himself and approved by the plaintiffs. Contie also stipulated that any proposed closure or consolidation proposed by the board over the next five years would be required to come before him for approval.

But that’s as far as the decision went.

Contie found no evidence of discrimination in housing on the part of the Ohio Real Estate Company or the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. He found no evidence of intentional racial segregation in the assignment of teachers and no racial discrimination in the board’s drawing of attendance zone boundaries.

“Everyone knows Akron has had problems with segregation,” Paulette McGregor told the Akron Beacon Journal. “But if you listen to [Contie’s decision], segregation just accidentally happened. How can they say things weren’t intentionally segregated when the whole country went through this?”

Cazzell Smith expressed tempered excitement at Judge Contie’s decision. He was disappointed by what he referred to in the Akron Beacon Journal as a partial ruling, one that “declined to address busing.”

But Dr. Saltman called the Contie decision a great victory.

“If the Akron Plan has to be modified, and if it results in a more equitable distribution of racial balance, and if it also removes the burden of busing of black children, then it is a great victory,” she said.

“More positively, we have won something very basic: A heightened awareness of the need for racial balance in our schools.” Dr. Saltman told the Akron Beacon Journal.

But Robert Sedler didn’t celebrate. He called it a loss, and began immediate preparations to file an appeal.

“Under Judge Contie’s ruling, there will be no desegregation in Akron schools,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal on the day of the ruling. “It’s as simple as that.”

In April 1980, the school board presented a new plan for approval by Contie and the plaintiffs. Only one school closure was reversed: Robinson was to remain open, with nearby Fraunfelter Elementary closing in its place.

The neighborhood that fed Fraunfelter, just a mile north of Robinson, was made up of poor, working-class whites who had already been affected by the closing of Henry Elementary under the Akron Plan in 1977.

The board’s decision to close Fraunfelter shifted the target to another vulnerable community, and as details of the new plan were made public, Fraunfelter parents expressed unbridled outrage.

“Rather than bus blacks, we’ll just bus poor white trash,” one Fraunfelter mother told the Akron Beacon Journal, mocking the board with bitter sarcasm.

Under the new plan, white students attending Fraunfelter would be bused to Robinson. Many of the Robinson students who had been bused out of their neighborhood under the original Akron Plan would continue to be bused to Betty Jane, Barrett, Hatton, Mason, and Windemere.

In the fall of 1980, Robinson reopened, and some of its original students returned, including Patrick and Stacy Bell. Buses brought former Fraunfelter students to their new school in several practice runs before the school year began.

For Cazzell Smith, who was there on the day of Robinson’s reopening, it was a celebratory moment. Robinson had been saved, in spite of everything — a magnificent little victory.

Akronites did not collectively choose to reject court-ordered integration or the Metropolitan Plan that might have produced county-wide integration. Nor did Akronites decline to hold people and organizations accountable for the practices and policies that intentionally and systemically segregated Akron’s schools and neighborhoods and kept them that way for decades. A federal judge, and Akron’s suburban districts, chose those things.

“It would have been easy to desegregate Akron because the predominantly Black schools were in close proximity to the predominantly white schools,” Sedler says. “It would have involved some redrawing of lines and a bit more busing. But it could have been done.”

Instead, in the summer of 1982, the Akron Beacon Journal published an article detailing Bell v. Board’s failed appeal in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Contie’s decision and the Sixth Circuit’s decision to uphold it effectively eliminated the possibility of desegregation on a multi-district, metropolitan scale, or the re-litigation of racial balance within the district.

“If someone were to bring a case today, they would have to show recent activity on the part of the board to increase the actual racial concentration,” Sedler told The Devil Strip. “You’d have to show actions intentionally segregated post-1981. That’s a hard thing to prove. No one is going to undertake it.”

The Sixth Circuit’s decision shifted accountability in a seemingly endless loop. Bell v. Board “place[d] too heavy a burden on the schools to remedy the wrongs for which they are no more or less responsible that the plaintiffs, the courts, the churches, the Congress, or other institutions,” read the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

In other words, the institutions that were responsible for interlocking systems of discrimination — segregating and re-segregating Akron’s neighborhoods and schools for decades — could not be held individually accountable by the courts because they were, in fact, mutually responsible for segregative trends in schools and housing.

If no single group or person could be held individually responsible for systemic discrimination, none of them could be held accountable at all.

If no single group or person could be held individually responsible for systemic discrimination, none of them could be held accountable at all.

In the four decades since the Bell v. Board decision, the Akron school system lost more than 53 percent of its white students to private schools, charter schools and surrounding suburbs.

The Akron Plan did decrease racial isolation in schools as the district began busing Black students to predominantly white schools. In 1988, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that the Akron Plan’s implementation helped decrease the amount of Black students attending predominantly Black schools in the district by nearly 25 percent. The decrease in racial isolation within the district can be attributed, at least in part, to ongoing reductions in white enrollment.

But the Plan delivered irreparable blows to already vulnerable, predominantly Black neighborhoods, leaving them without vital community resources and institutions — a loss that still lingers, and can’t always be quantified.

“Schools are a unique public resource,” Malcolm J. Costa says. “The schools that closed as a result of the Akron Plan represented not only the educational part of it, but also a lot of other resources to the community — including jobs, facilities where there could be neighborhood gatherings. The impact was really just tragic.”

Even as Akronites displayed a resurgent interest in the causes and effects of busing and attendance boundaries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was little they could do to address their concerns in the wake of Contie’s decision.

“If we had won the case, there would have been court-ordered desegregation [in Akron],” Robert Sedler told The Devil Strip. “The whole history would have been different.”

In 1993, Akron Public Schools received a $3.5 million federal Magnet School Grant, which allowed the district to establish magnet programs at Perkins Middle School and Buchtel High School. These curriculum enhancements were meant to draw students of all backgrounds to the Buchtel Cluster. As part of the grant’s approval, Akron Public Schools adopted a voluntary desegregation plan that allowed them to consider race when assigning students to new schools.

Further, under Ohio’s new open enrollment statutes, students and their families would be able to choose which school best fit their needs and then enroll there, regardless of the school’s location — meaning no student would be required to attend a racially isolated school simply because it was closest.

Open enrollment and the district’s federally approved desegregation plan gave Akron Public Schools an opportunity to legally revise the Akron Plan nearly 17 years after its authorization.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, of the 4,000 students affected by eight school closings under the original Akron Plan, 3,200 were Black.

In several memorandums circulated in 1993, Akron Public Schools acknowledges many of Bell v. Board’s allegations concerning the original Akron Plan in simple, unobstructed language. In a memo structured to provide simple answers to frequently asked questions concerning both the history of the original Akron Plan, and a new, revised proposal, the district maintained that schools selected to close under the Akron Plan were chosen “based on age, condition, and accessibility.”

“[But] because the oldest buildings were in the inner city,” the memo continues, “most of the reassigned students were African-American.”

“The Akron Plan in its present form was found to be legal by the federal courts in 1980, despite its disproportionate impact on African-Americans.”

In 1993, the Akron Public Schools Board of Education proposed the Modified Akron Plan — a revised version of the Akron Plan that, according to internal documents, “grew out of the need to enhance and stabilize school desegregation, to reduce cross-town student transportation, to reduce satellite attendance zones, to create more logical attendance patterns, and to maximize the benefits of the Magnet School Grant.”

Before the Modified Akron Plan approval in December 1993, Akron Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier consulted with H. Larry Winecoff, chair of the Department of Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of South Carolina, for more than six months.

In a letter to the superintendent, Winecoff described how the Modified Akron Plan would not only reduce cross-town busing but also “reduce satellite and ‘gerrymandered’ attendance zones.”

“The plan is administratively feasible and academically sound,” wrote Winecoff.

In December 1993, the Board of Education authorized the Modified Akron Plan. When the administration began implementing the new plan in January 1994, it directly affected 18 of the 60 schools in the district, including 30 percent of all students already affected by the original Akron Plan.

“[The Modified Akron Plan] will primarily reassign students from East and Firestone Clusters to Buchtel Cluster Schools closer to where they live,” reads a 1993 internal memo produced by Akron Public Schools. According to the memo, non-white students living on the west side were reassigned from Hyre and Ellet to Perkins and Buchtel, and some “minority students” living on the east side were reassigned to Hyre and Ellet in an effort to maintain current levels of racial balance while subjecting fewer students to cross-town busing.

But because Akron Public Schools now sought to prevent segregative enrollment patterns, and was now permitted to take race into account in the assignment of students to new schools and programs, some Black students were unable to enroll in the magnet programs at Perkins Middle School and at Buchtel High School.

“Open enrollment is not available to African-Americans who might seek to transfer into those buildings since the buildings are majority non-white,” reads an October 1993 internal summary of what would become the Modified Akron Plan. “Unless their Akron Plan assignments are changed, large numbers of such students will thus be denied the choice of participating in magnet programs in their own communities.”

Before the Modified Akron Plan was authorized, Cazzell Smith wrote to the board, both out of thanks and concern.

“Although the modification can never, ever make up for the destruction of neighborhoods, the lost opportunities of youngsters that could not adequately participate in extracurricular activities in perceived hostile environments in receiving schools, and the lost opportunities for parental involvement, the Plan now offers some new opportunities,” Smith wrote in November 1993.

“From the very beginning, there should be a concise and precise citizen participation—that is, non-elected, non-appointed citizens having an impact on the decisions that affect their lives,” Smith continued. “The persons who were directly affected by the Akron Plan had no voice.”

According to data published by ProPublica in 2016, there are still disturbing gaps in educational achievement between white and non-white students in Akron schools. Black students are, on average, nearly two full grade levels behind white students academically, and nearly three times as likely to be suspended.

In 1977, Akron Public Schools enrollment was 67 percent white. Now, the number of white students attending Akron schools is between 33 and 34 percent.

In 1962, Buchtel High School had some of the highest achievement scores in the state, according to Cazzell Smith. Now, Buchtel is among the lowest performing schools in the state, with a graduation rate that hovers between 65 and 69 percent.

“If [the west siders] could have won, and some sort of remedy could have been reached, I think the school system out in West Akron would be a lot different,” Cazzell Smith tells The Devil Strip, referring to the concern over the racial isolation of the Buchtel Cluster during the late 1970s and 1980s. “But for whatever reason people don’t want to deal with the deep-seated problems. If you don’t deal with the root of a problem, it runs a prescribed course. And that’s what’s happening in West Akron.”

Mark Williamson, director of communications for Akron Public Schools, said the root of the problem lies not in racial isolation but in the kinds of systemic learning obstacles students experience, which depend on a set of intersecting factors — many of the very same structural inequalities that Dr. Saltman and Cazzell Smith sought to link to segregation in Akron schools in Bell v. Board.

“This is a complex issue that should not be reduced to a discussion about race,” Williamson says. “Students of higher poverty rates and with other socioeconomic risk factors generally have greater struggles with learning.”

At-risk factors can include hunger, homelessness, witnesses to or victims of violence, lack of a strong family structure and lack of consistency in living arrangements, Williamson adds.

“Too often schools are blamed for social problems, violence, etc., whose origins go back a few steps before schools are even a consideration,” Williamson told The Devil Strip.

In the Buchtel Cluster in particular, Williamson is quick to establish poverty as a defining factor.

“Students living in poverty with all of its risks tend to need more interventions and attention to catch up,” Williamson says. “It has been proven time and again that poverty adversely affects learning.”

Akron Public Schools is classified as high-poverty district. But because Black students have faced generations of systemic discrimination and inequality, they are often more likely than their white peers to experience the kinds of risk factors Williamson describes. Decades of housing discrimination sanctioned and facilitated at the local, state, and federal levels have made it more difficult for Black Akronites to own homes. According to an April 2013 study published by the Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research, only 38 percent of Black Akronites owned homes in 2010, compared to 64 percent of white Akronites.

According to the same study, Black Akronites are much more likely to experience poverty than their white counterparts. In 2010, the poverty rate for Black households in Akron was 31 percent — nearly triple the poverty rate for white households.

In Akron, race and poverty display an intimate connection — in much the same way as housing patterns and racial isolation in schools.

When asked about connections between race, poverty and the lingering effects of the original Akron Plan, Williamson says that the busing and attendance policies created by the Akron Plan existed long before current board members and administrators ever had a hand in decision-making.

“This is a different age,” Williamson said. “And it is more enlightened as a natural result of the evolution of our society and culture. If there was some determined effort long ago to experiment with different demographic plans, in the wake of federally mandated, nationally implemented court-ordered busing, those plans were abandoned at APS many, many years ago.”

In 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that considering race alone in the assignment of students is, in fact, unconstitutional, effectively reversing Brown v. Board and invalidating more than 50 years of voluntary and court-ordered desegregation plans across the country.

Under the Supreme Court’s new ruling, not even the Modified Akron Plan was constitutional. Akron, and thousands of other American cities and towns still grappling with racial isolation in public schools, were barred from addressing race entirely.

It is impossible to know what could have happened socially or economically if Judge Contie’s decision had gone further, or if Conrad Ott’s Metropolitan Plan had gained enough support.

In Detroit, where the United States Supreme Court denied the district the opportunity to desegregate schools on a multi-district level, white flight from the schools closest to the inner city made Detroit’s public schools exponentially Blacker over the course of two decades.

But in Louisville, which integrated on a multi-district level, property values evened out county-wide, as integration via busing made it less and less important for parents to buy homes based on which schools their children would attend.

In 2005, APS demolished Robinson Elementary and built Robinson Community Learning Center on its site, as part of an $800 million strategic plan to provide neighborhoods with public spaces that function as schools during the day and community centers in the evenings and on weekends.

“These community learning centers are busy places,” Williamson says. “[They are] a good investment by our community for everyone, not just young people.”

Malcolm J. Costa agrees.

“[The district has] done a little better by implementing better strategies and better ways to develop resources,” Costa says. “There are a lot of bright spots. There’s a lot of work to be done, but there are a lot of things that are very promising.”

There are a lot of bright spots [in APS today]. There’s a lot of work to be done, but there are a lot of things that are very promising.

Malcom J. Costa

Williamson is optimistic, too, and proud of the diverse racial, cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds in Akron schools.

“We embrace diversity in our community and our schools and even speak and educate in 43 different languages,” Williamson says. “We cannot stress enough how much consideration we give to educating every student in this rich, culturally diverse district. Homeless children, special needs kids, high achievers, students with profound disabilities… we are here to enrich their lives as much as possible. We educate every child who comes to us in the best, most advanced way possible.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bell moved away from Chittenden 12 years ago. In a single-story brick apartment, Mrs. Bell sits at the edge of her couch.

“It hurt me to have to go through all that,” she says. “But you have to do what you have to do.”

For a moment, her face folds into grief. She blinks away tears.

“He was a good man,” she says, glancing toward her anniversary photo. “He was a good, good man. And we did a good, good thing.”

Mr. Bell died in 2017. Men flew in from across the country to attend his wake at Stewart & Calhoun — men who had been only boys when Mr. Bell sat them in a circle on the living room carpet and taught them Black history. “Not from some book or anything,” says Mrs. Bell, “but from his own mind.”

Once at a school event, the principal of Robinson Elementary pulled Mrs. Bell aside. She’d come to the program to watch her daycare kids. Their own parents couldn’t miss work, so Mrs. Bell showed up in their place.

The principal had read an article linking school attendance to situations at home. He told Mrs. Bell that kids from single-parent or low-income households missed a significant number of school days every year — far more than their peers from more socially or economically stable households.

“He asked me how the hell I beat the system,” Mrs. Bell says. “He said every single kid at Robinson who came to me was on the honor roll. They’re here every day. They come in smiling. I told him, it’s because somebody cares. You could be the poorest little church mouse in town, and if somebody back there cares enough to help you, you’ll make it.”

In her apartment, Mrs. Bell keeps boxes of photos stacked in her closet, of all the kids she cared for. They’ve grown up and built lives of their own. But every now and then, they call Mrs. Bell just to check in.

“I wouldn’t give nothin’ up for the world,” she says. “I loved every minute of it.”

The house at 436 Chittenden is different now — a cluttered porch and a muddy yard. In the seven minute walk from there to Robinson, painted plywood signs dot vacant lots.

Robinson kids walk a narrow stone path between the signs.

It’s okay to be different, the signs say. Work hard. Dream Big. Welcome home.

H.L. Comeriato is a writer in Akron. Photos by H.L. Comeriato and Rosalie Murphy.