1970-1979: ERA OF CRISES

Central High closed in effort to improve racial balance

Discussing desegregation
News-Sentinel photo by Brian Tombaugh

Discussing desegregation
E. Sharon Banks, a Fort Wayne Community Schools area administrator, recalls the early days of desegregation.
By LEO MORRIS, of The News-Sentinel

It's still a painful memory for E. Sharon Banks 28 years later.

"We had all these kids -- class presidents, ballplayers, club members -- who had excelled at our high school. And now they had to go to a different school and compete against different kids who had also proven they could excel.

"It really hit me when I saw our cheerleaders. They had their routines all down, and they were very rhythmic. Now they had to go try out all over again against girls who had a very different, herky-jerky kind of cheering style. It was hurtful to look in their faces and see the fear and uncertainty."

It was 1971, and everything was about to change in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

That was the year the Fort Wayne Community Schools board finally yielded to pressures from many in the black community to end de facto segregation in city high schools. The board closed Central High School, which all but a few of the city's minority students attended, and opened Northrop and Wayne high schools. District lines were redrawn -- and the buses rolled. Later would come pressure to do something about elementary and middle schools -- leading to today's magnet schools to voluntarily achieve racial balance -- but that was the first step.

Banks, fresh out of Ball State University, was in just her second year of teaching at Central when the school closed. She also had attended the school, graduating in 1965.

"That's why it was doubly hard on me to leave. I wasn't just leaving a close-knit group of colleagues. I was also leaving people who had been my

teachers, nurtured me and reassured me."

There was another reason it was so hard, too.

"The teachers were split in two -- about half would go to Wayne and half to Northrop."

But Banks wouldn't go with either group. She was pregnant and stayed out a year, returning to teach at Elmhurst High School in 1972.

"So on top of this feeling of sadness because we were losing this great thing -- nothing would ever be the same again -- I had all these feelings of loneliness and isolation."

It was that way for a lot of people -- 1971 marked the sad end of a very long story.

When Central opened in 1864 as Fort Wayne High School, it was the only public high school, competing with a slew of private schools, mostly parochial.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of this one, the school was not just an educational institution but a social and cultural one as well. At chapels held for half an hour once a week, students prayed and sang songs, and the school's various social clubs took turns putting on programs. The Friendship Club's programs were said to be the favorite, according to the Spotlight, the student newspaper.

As parochial schools began to lose their influence, attendance at the public high school burgeoned. A 1921 Spotlight story, noting that enrollment for the year was more than 1,500, said that "while formerly it required three years to increase the enrollment by 200, at present the same increase is obtained in one year."

The pressure was relieved with the opening of South Side High School in 1922 and North Side in 1927. Central lost some of its luster as a cultural institution, but athletic rivalries were born -- and something new called school spirit was found. And so it went for more than 30 years.

Things started changing in the 1960s. People began moving out of the central city, and Central High School's enrollment started shrinking.

In 1964, Central was about half white and half black, and there were only a few blacks at the other three high schools, mostly at South Side.

Banks, who is black, remembers those days at Central fondly.

"We had a bond then, the teachers and the students, a bond of trust and friendship. And we weren't just friends at school, but went to each other's homes. I didn't think of Cindy and Sherry and Andrea as my white friends. They were just my friends.

"It was a cocoon in a way. We thought it was going to be like that everywhere, so we went off to college thinking we were all of that and a bag of chips. So it was a shock when I got to Ball State and heard the word

'n-----' being used about us. I guess my having to deal with certain things was just delayed."

But however good the world might have seemed to the kids at Central, a larger world was demanding to be heard. Many in the civil rights community were calling, in stronger and stronger terms, for integration. A report commissioned by the school board recommended that in two years, 1966, after Central Junior High was removed to a separate building, the boundaries of Central High be expanded, both to ensure adequate enrollment and racial balance.

However, those who remember the times say, expansion would have gone into affluent neighborhoods, and those residents objected vehemently to being corralled by Central. The plan was dropped.

By 1968, Central's enrollment had dropped to 927, and the student population was 56 percent black. The calls for integration of the other high schools would no longer be ignored. In September 1969, black residents boycotted four central-city schools -- Hanna, Hamar, McCulloch and Smart. Classrooms had as few as one student per class because black parents took their children out to attend "Freedom Schools" in six black churches. That encouraged the state school superintendent to come to Fort Wayne and negotiate a settlement.

Also, the school district needed an existing facility for something it didn't have yet -- a vocational school. So, it was decided -- in 1971 Central would close (to later become today's Anthis Career Center), and Wayne and Northrop would be born. By the time it closed, Central's enrollment was barely 700.

The transition year was a tense one for FWCS, as black students fanned out from Central, where they had been the majority and felt at home, to the other high schools, where they were a minority and felt mostly unwelcomed. Disturbances broke out at Wayne, North Side and Northrop high schools.

Patty Martone, who had taught at Central until it closed and then was assigned to Northrop, almost got out of teaching.

"The first day I was there, a black kid threw a white kid through a plate-glass window," she said during a ceremony honoring Central last year. "At the very first assembly, a girl took a cigarette lighter and torched the hair of the girl sitting in front of her. And poor Paul Spuller (principal at Central, then at Northrop), who was always so upbeat, wanted to have a pep session to deal with it.

"But these kids -- about a third were from North Side, a third were from Snider, and a third were from Central -- they had no history as a school, no common experience. We all walked around every day wondering what was going to happen next."

Banks was at Elmhurst the next year, facing her own hurdles.

"For the first five years, I was the only African American on the staff -- not just among teachers, but the whole staff. So I had to not only do the best I could do, then go home and try to be a wife and mother, too, but all the students of color looked to me to be everything to them.

"I heard one of them ask another teacher for something and she said to him, 'Why don't you go see if the black Madonna can help you?'

"I started getting ulcers there."

As many now realize, it could have been worse in Fort Wayne. Nationwide, the attempts to bring black and white students together were creating turmoil. Courts were taking the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against "separate but equal" schools as a mandate to do anything and everything to forcibly integrate American schools. Students were bused all across American cities and, in some cases, from inner-city schools to different districts in suburban enclaves.

White and black parents alike began to question the wisdom of making mandatory racial balance, rather than education, the top priority. The nation was shocked in 1974 when violent confrontations over school integration took place not in the deep South but in Boston.

In Fort Wayne, a more voluntary path was chosen. As the high school situation settled down, attention was turned to elementary and middle schools. In 1977, the school board reached an out-of-court settlement with black parents over first-phase desegregation plans. There would be a new initiative called "The Summit Program." Schools would offer special classes to bring whites into inner-city schools.

Early in 1979, principals were appointed for the K-5 facility at Young School and the grades 6-8 school at Memorial Park, and Fort Wayne's first two magnet schools were born.

Banks is now an area administrator for FWCS. The high schools under her jurisdictions are South Side and Northrop -- where she almost was a teacher.

"I think we need kids to learn with those of other backgrounds -- they need to deal with the same mix of people they're going to encounter elsewhere in life," Banks said.

"But it seems such a struggle -- they're friends at school, but they don't really socialize outside of it.

"And I look back at Central and think: What they're trying so hard to do, we already had once."

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