ISU education professor examines Ohio school district to trace education disparities between black and white schools

AMES, Iowa -- An Iowa State University education professor has written a book revealing how segregated and substandard schools emerged for a generation of black children in Ohio. The book tells the story of segregation and desegregation in a northern industrial city.

Patricia Randolph Leigh, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, said "Fly in the Ointment" portrays a microcosm of the educational system in 1950s America. She details the political, racial and monetary issues that resulted in separate schools for black students in the upper valley of Cincinnati.

She said the book takes its name from white racists who believed Lincoln Heights, a black school district, 'contaminated' the wealthy neighborhoods that surrounded it, like a 'fly in the ointment.' The book describes forces still evident today, and has stories that are missing from America's written history.

"The book uncovers intense resistance to racial integration and the equalization of educational opportunities, motivated by racial hatred and bigotry," Leigh said.

"It also underscores another type of resistance -- a force rarely recognized in traditional history books -- the counter resistance of black leaders against oppression," Leigh said. "It gives voice to the attitudes, perspectives and experiences of Lincoln Heights community leaders and educators."

Leigh asserts that, 50 years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education prohibited racial segregation in public schools, many American schools remain racially segregated today.

"The degree to which Brown has lived up to its promise in various parts of the nation largely is determined by the two types of resistance that are still at play," she said. "Other kinds of resistances going on now include residential, white flight/suburbanization, anti-bussing and school choice, vouchers and charter schools."

Leigh charts the creation in 1950 of Lincoln Heights and the political and societal nuances that left it a poorly funded, black district surrounded by more affluent white school districts.

Economic discrimination and gerrymandering (arranging electoral divisions so that one political party has more votes than the other) "robbed" Lincoln Heights of a potentially strong tax base by drawing district division lines to leave out several industrial plants that paid large taxes, she said.

Without that tax base, Leigh said, Lincoln Heights suffered inadequate funding.

"Tax revenues per student for Lincoln Heights schools were less than half the county average, and only one-tenth that of the richest neighboring school districts," she said.

The result was larger class sizes, poorly paid teachers, fewer books, limited course offerings and decayed facilities in Lincoln Heights.

By 1969, black school leaders initiated efforts to dissolve Lincoln Heights so the district's students could attain a more equitably funded education, Leigh said. Despite fierce resistance, Princeton, a predominantly white district, was merged with Lincoln Heights in 1970.

The merged district resulted in significantly more money for instruction, she said, and achievement improved among white students. Measurements of black students' academic performance were not recorded immediately before or after the merger.

"Despite the constant barrage of obstacles thrown their way, Lincoln Heights leaders fought for -- and finally won -- quality schooling for their children," Leigh said. "I found joy in telling the stories of these unsung heroes."

Leigh's research for the book was supported by a $37,500 postdoctoral fellowship from the Ford Foundation, awarded by the National Research Council.