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Chapter 5. Cleveland, 1973

Two weeks back from strike-torn Britain and it seems I’ve never been away. Cleveland’s schools are on strike. Surprise! Catholic schools last year, public ones this. Under main headline: “KISSINGER WILL GO TO HANOI” on January 31, 1973, is:


By Peter Almond

“A strike by 2500 non-teaching employees has virtually shut down the entire Cleveland school system in defiance of a no-strike order by the court.

“Most, if not all the 140,000 children were barred from entering the 190 school buildings. In many instances when they did enter they sat in cold classrooms or auditoriums for a while and then were sent home.

“Many teachers refused to cross picket lines in the first strike in the Cleveland schools’ history”.     etc

Ah, but was this actually a strike?  The five unions involved said they were withholding their labor, and anyway a judge who had issued a restraining order banning a strike had limited pickets outside the schools to just two people. A lot of teachers did sign in to prove they were ready to work – and then went home.

The legalities reached a point that Common Pleas Court Judge David Matia asked WKYC TV to send him news film of three school custodians overheard to say they would strike despite his anti-strike injunction. Press reporter Jim Marino wrote that none of the union representatives in the courtroom could identify the custodians, and since neither the school board nor anyone else had officially told him there actually was a strike there was nothing he could do.

Politics, of course. This is a heavily-unionized town, and judges are elected. So, if five powerful unions that cover schools say they have nothing to do with a strike, well………

There IS no money for higher wages, says Superintendent Briggs. And certainly no money – no local or state money – for what was about to land on Cleveland’s schools: desegregation, which would cause massive change by the end of the decade.

 The first shot in what would become a sociological, economic and educational war in Cleveland over the next decade was fired by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACPon Feb 8, 1973. In a letter to the school board it requested the board come up with a voluntary plan to desegregate the city’s public schools immediately, or at least over the next few months – or else it would file a case in federal court.

“1973 is going to be the year of the schools,” said the Rev James Stallings, Cleveland director of the NAACP, having just heard the federal court in Dayton, Ohio, was ordering the school board there to come up with a desegregation plan within 60 days.

Stallings told me that 85 of Cleveland’s 190 schools were 90 -100% black, and 72 schools were 90% white, or at least non-black. “It disturbs us that there seems to be no commitment from the school board to do something about it,” he said. “I keep hearing people say “it can’t be done,” but a negative attitude will solve no problems.”

Actually, there had been a mini-plan eight years earlier – in 1964 when Briggs became superintendent. Massive overcrowding of black schools in the Glenville area had led to black students being bused to mostly-white Collinwood schools nearby. But there was so much resentment from the white students and parents that three new schools were quickly built in Glenville, thus re-segregating it. In trying to stop that construction one white protester, the Rev Bruce Klunder, tragically fell under the tracks of a bulldozer at Stephen E. Howe elementary school and was killed.

But the ‘can’t be done’ lobby did have a point. Cleveland’s geography alone suggested a significant reason: the city is spread out for some 20 miles along the coast of Lake Erie, mostly black on the east side of the Cuyahoga River and mostly white on the west side. Over the next four or five years I would test out for myself what it would be like to be bused from one side to the other: mostly an hour or more each way, along routes heavy with traffic, and with after-school events curtailed by lack of time and parents unable to become heavily involved.

The fact was that ‘white flight’ was under way as smaller families, rising incomes, new freeways and new homes made the suburbs more attractive propositions to those who could afford to move. Cleveland school enrolment that fall was down 5,380 from 141,000 a year earlier. Most of those moving were white, leaving inner city schools more black.

The only real way to desegregate would be to involve all of the city’s suburban school districts, but that would have to be voluntary, since the NAACP wasn’t planning- or could  not afford – to file court cases against 26 school districts in just one county in the US. And no school district in Cuyahoga County was volunteering.

Briggs knew this, but he tried to push the concept of at least sharing specialist schools anyway, such as the new Aviation High School at Burke Lakefront airport, which taught aviation industry skills, or the Woodbine ship nearby which involved naval and engineer learning. There were also a number of metropolitan athletic contests, a school for the hearing impaired etc. All of them could accommodate suburban schools. In November that year he addressed 38 school superintendents from around the country, hosted in Cleveland by two suburban school superintendents.

But to no avail. By the end of the year the Cleveland School Board did not have a plan to desegregate its schools. The new year would move all the desegregation action into federal court.

Memory flash: Cleveland Playhouse, Spring 1973

 Anna and I have come to this theatre to see Pete and Dud, two of our favorite English comedians. It’s a bit heavy at work so it’s a real treat to escape for a couple of hours with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore making ridiculous fun of themselves and anyone else who might be a bit pompous or have ‘attitudes’ about ‘stuff.’ Especially as done with silly English voices.

There’s Tarzan, of course: “Mr Spiggot. You are auditioning, are you not, for the part of Tarzan, a role that is traditionally associated with a two-legged man. And yet I couldn’t help notice, Mr Spiggot, that you are a one-legged person – a uni-dexter.

 “Your right leg, I like. I like your right leg. It’s a lovely leg for the role. I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, Mr Spiggot, neither have you.”

 And more of the same.   Until the Shepherds in the Fields sketch.

 Dud plunks himself down next to Pete, both wearing biblical clothing. Dud asks Pete if he can interview him about the birth of Jesus, which he has witnessed as a shepherd abiding in the fields. “I have to say I can’t abide these fields,” complains Pete. He asks Dud for which paper he is working. “The Bethlehem Star’ comes the obvious answer. To which Pete says: “Bethlehem Star? My wife and I take that. Don’t think much of your racing correspondent. I had three shekels on that camel in the 3.30 at Galilee and its still bloody running!”

It’s all done in modern, cor-blimey style, to which there is general merriment from this Cleveland audience…… Until the pair break away to banter about “Jimmy Christ,” Jesus’ “younger brother” who Pete has just made up, who did all the ‘real’ carpentry in the family business. There is an exclamation or two of “Jesus!” as an expression of surprise. 

Now, Anna and I are used to that. Where we come from ‘Jesus’ and casual banter about His birth are not taken literally, or seriously. But we noticed people in the audience getting out of their seats and leaving.

Once again I am reminded of the deep-seated religiosity of a majority of Americans, which did not appear to change significantly until 2021, when polls showed that those declaring they have no religion had become the majority. The U.S. of A continues as the most religiously-declared nation in the western world.

Pete and Dud Shepherd’s sketch:


IN THE MEANTIME, Almond, what about the actual education of actual kids? How are they doing, without all this talk of school desegregation?

The old East Tech high school (all black) on E55th Str was knocked down and a new building now replaced it; 2500 bricks were saved, cleaned up and individually sold with the school’s Scarab symbol painted on them. The money would help buy two new buses for the athletes, of whom their most famous graduate was Jesse Owens, the black athlete who defied Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He would be guest speaker at an upcoming major celebration of the school and its community.

Indeed, some in Cleveland appeared to be doing quite well academically. Third graders, for instance, were as good at reading as anybody else in the country, if not better, according to new national statistics.

And “Mark Ridley” was getting help with his perception problems.

Mark, (not his real name) was a nine-year-old at a Cleveland elementary school I met who was getting help with his visual/reading problems because he watched too much TV when he was very young. According to Dr Morton Schomer, a Maple Heights optometrist and consultant specialist in perceptual development, “Mark” is now unable to tell the difference between b’s and d’s and “saw” and “was.”

“He is one of about 15% of all American school children who suffer what doctors and educators describe as “learning disabilities,” I wrote.  “This broad category of children is expanding at an alarming rate and is one of the most important problems facing American educators today.”

I don’t now recall how much attention learning disabilities received from newspapers in those days, but I felt obliged by a sub editor to spell it out – or at least inform parents or teachers how to identify it in a youngster, and how it progresses.  I didn’t know then that the first U.S. report of childhood reading difficulties was published by a Cleveland ophthalmologist, Dr W. E. Bruner, in 1905.  I did know that the federal government had got the message by 1969 and that Congress passed the first Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act in 1970. By 1972 it came with money.

Memory flash: Cleveland Public Library, May 1973

 My schools work also covers the Cleveland Public Library, so I’m here at the main library downtown to write a long caption to a photo of a newly-arrived collection of ancient Chinese vases. I won’t name the photographer, but he’s very experienced.

One vase in particular stands out in its striking colors, but it is not easy to photograph. I suggest moving it closer to the light by a window. The young library assistant is not so sure. She wants to wait for the curator. We wait. Five minutes, ten. No curator. Neither photographer nor I can wait any longer, we have other assignments. I assure her it won’t be a problem, that we can help her move it. She and the photographer start to move the vase on a tray towards the light.

You’ve already guessed the rest. It took quite a bit of negotiating between the library and the Press as to whose insurance company would pay the thousands of dollars in compensation for the smashed vase. I do remember I was not a popular visitor to the Cleveland Public Library for quite a while. I also remember overcoming that, slightly, by agreeing to write every PR puff piece that was sent to us – for the next year anyway.

The schools beat in Cleveland, in fact, was throwing up ever more challenges for youngsters in an increasing era of uncertainty.   Sex and drugs and rock and roll, for instance, were bothering more and more kids across the country.

Sex is acceptable to teens, study finds’”said the headline on one of my stories on April 18. “Go to bed with a friend,” quoted a bumper sticker from WNCR, a Cleveland rock radio station. “And many American teenagers are doing just that.”

According to an in-depth study, the first massive survey to be made of adolescent sexual attitudes in this country, 52% of all 13 to 18-year-olds have had sexual intercourse: 59% of the boys and 45% of the girls,” I quoted from the three-year 555-page academic study, whose author Professor Robert Sorensen had come to Cleveland, told me: “Sex, to teenagers, is a natural, acceptable fact generally between two persons who really like each other.”

“It finds teenage sex is grounded in a set of good personal values contradictory to the ideas many adults have about teenagers being interested in sex for purely physical reasons.” There’s a lot more to the story, including the finding that ‘there is no evidence that the availability of drugs leads to sex, or vice versa. “Drugs are sometimes used to enhance sex but are not the cause of it.”

Which is interesting, because since Woodstock in the late 1960s drugs were a growing phenomenum with almost everyone under the age of 25, and I was hearing about it more and more in relation to schools. “Go to bed with a friend” perfectly fitted a bumper sticker for a rock radio station in the city that coined the phrase ‘Rock n’ Roll” (Alan Freed, WJW Radio, 1954).

Memory flash: Press newsroom. April 10, 1973

I’m in a bit of shock, or confusion. In the letters page of the paper today are a couple of letters complaining about the publishing of a long story I had written a few days earlier. This was about a 15-year-old girl who had pulled a gun on a teacher at a well-respected, almost all-white high school in suburban Lyndhurst.

At the foot of the two letters is an EDITOR’S NOTE that suggests I have misquoted the girl as saying most students at the school had taken drugs of some kind.

I wasn’t expecting this.

My almost full page story – with drawn sketch – was primarily an interview in front of the girl’s mother and sister, during which she had conceded she had been taking drugs for more than two years. 

“I wasn’t on drugs that day. You can’t say I was high on drugs,” I quoted the girl at the  start of the story. “But I think the drugs I’d been taking regularly over the months must have had an effect,” (I called her ‘Judy’ in my piece, which wasn’t her actual name).

“I just pulled the gun out and pointed it her (the teacher). It was on safety. I told her I wouldn’t hurt her. Then we went out the door and out of school.  I don’t know why except to say it must have been the drugs. I couldn’t think straight. My awareness wasn’t good. I lost part of my memory.”   

I wrote this story at length primarily for the benefit of kids, parents and teachers who otherwise had only anecdotal information about drug taking by reading or seeing police or news reports of incidents involving drugs. When I talked to ’Judy’ she was awaiting trial after being confronted by a teacher who saw what appeared to be a gun in her waistband. As she was about to be searched by the female teacher in a girls bathroom she pulled out the gun – a small tear-gas pistol type – marched her out of the building past hundreds of students in the hallways, and ran into nearby woods, where she was found by police.

“Judy” went into considerable detail, starting two years earlier with a friend revealing marijuana in the hallways of her junior high school, and how this got her on to sopers, tuonol, reds, speed, almost all the soft drugs. But, she insisted, not hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Her parents fought at home, she said, and argued with her about her clothing and her declining school scores. They even argued in front of me. Mother and daughter agreed they had not had a family vacation for years.  She had been arrested several times, even after having drug education at school. But it didn’t help much, she said.

“The teachers were just reading from books. They should have had someone we could relate to, someone who really started like us and then told us what happened to them. That’s real.’

I concluded my story with her telling me that maybe she could be that person, who could help other kids.  “I don’t want to go through this again. Maybe some of the kids can learn something from me.”

“And maybe some parents” was my last line.

This story did not end there. In one line I quoted ‘Judy’ as saying “You know, all the kids are doing it. It’s not just me. I’d say just about everyone in the sophomore class at Brush has at least experimented with drugs, and that includes (my emphasis) the straights (non-drug-takers).”

The girl’s mother – and other students who wrote in – complained to the Press that her daughter should have been quoted as saying that most students ‘except the straights’ had tried a mild drug. By my ‘misquoting’ her, they alleged, I had damaged the reputation of more than 700 students and that of the school. Some students said they would boycott The Press. A teacher called up to cancel The Press, saying: “I’ll never buy that Goddam paper again”.

Heavy stuff for my editor. I no longer have my notebook of 50 years ago, so I can’t prove what she actually said. Maybe I misheard. Maybe I read my shorthand back wrongly (after all, my shorthand exam result back in England five years previously was only 98% accuracy). But I do concede she may not have MEANT it.

A teenager saying “but EVERYBODY is doing it”? C’mon! I used to pull that stunt when I was a kid!

Too late. The Press ran the two objecting letters along with an Editor’s note that said “Judy’s” mother, who was present at the interview, should have been quoted as saying most students ‘except’ the straights have tried a mild drug.

Which dodged the bullet and hopefully mollified the readers. Even if it left me hung out to dry somewhat. But let that be a lesson:

Get a tape recorder!

Oct 6, 1973: Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in Israel’s calendar, when the whole country was shut down, when Syrian and Egyptian-led Arab forces launched a surprise attack, seized swathes of Israeli territory, caused major casualties and severely damaged the economies of the Middle East and the West .

In the eastern Cleveland suburb of Beachwood on that first day of the 4th Arab-Israeli war I watched the area’s most prominent Jews gather together to express their outrage and to present a united front with Israel. I think U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew from Washington to address them.

I don’t remember much of that meeting, except for a lot of crying and shouting – and that by the end of the evening the Jewish community of Cleveland had raised £6 million (about $36 million value in 2021) to pay for emergency supplies of American aid and military equipment.  I remember it primarily because of the immense and passionate commitment of everyone there; A few of those raised hands I knew could well afford to give a hundred thousand dollars or more, but many – including two school teachers and a baker I knew personally – certainly could not.

Having twice stood in the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in Germany where hundreds of thousands of Jews had been murdered in World War II I could well imagine the torment of the Cleveland area Jews at that time of crisis for Israel.

So I didn’t really mind that my series on the upcoming Cleveland School Board elections started and stayed well inside The Press on its Community Page on Oct 15. Where else was it going to go when a major Middle East war was under way that would cost Americans billions in higher fuel prices, jobs lost and unsettled economies for years to come?

So humor me with this. Part 1: “Most Cleveland parents like their schools,” says the full eight-column headline. Wow! At least it makes more cheerful reading than “Biggest tank battle of all time in Sinai” with about 1,000 Egyptian tanks losing out to Israeli tanks and planes.

OK, I was a little bit miffed: It had taken me weeks to put together scores of interviews and analysis of data. Couldn’t those generals in Cairo and Damascus have given a little more attention to reading in The Press that over 57% of parents interviewed in Cleveland, Ohio, thought their children were getting a good education, that 15% thought their children’s education was poor, or that 27% said the education was indifferent?

Would they not have learned that 28% of parents (11 of those questioned) thought that discipline was a major issue, that 25% thought it was math and/or reading programs, that 10% thought there should be better English programs, that 20% thought the teaching was inadequate but that only 10% cited race differences as a concern?

The second part of the series was more fun: Do parents know who is on the Cleveland School Board? Or that it is the city’s biggest employer, with the largest number of staff, that spends the most of their tax dollars?  And who, anyway, is this man Arnold Pinkney (School Board President).

“He’s some kind of politician, but I don’t know what,” said the parents of a child at Charles H. Lake School.

“I don’t know what Pinkney does,” added a Mount Carmel Rd woman. “Who’s the School Board president? I don’t know. Used to be Briggs was on the board, but I don’t think he’s there now.”

There were, in fact, four board members up for re-election on Nov 6: Arnold Pinkney, George Dobrea, Gerald Sweeney and William Nagy.  Against 11 candidates, one of whom – John E. Gallagher Jr – was only 22, went to Catholic schools and had never been to a school board meeting. There was already a Gallagher on the board: Joseph Gallagher, a 20-year board veteran who wasn’t up for re-election that year.

If your name was O’Flaherty, you looked and sounded like a Leprechaun but hardly spoke a word you would probably be elected to the Cleveland School Board.

“It helps explain why some board members feel they don’t need a lot of publicity about School Board affairs to get into power or to stay there,” I wrote. “Another reason why the public generally knows little about its board members is that, unlike City Council meetings, School Board meetings are usually very dull affairs, with no speeches or arguments between members.

“Almost all disagreements are worked out in private caucus meetings. The public is discouraged from addressing the board directly at meetings. The result is that the school system appears to run itself, with complaints and questions from the public absorbed by ‘the administration.’ Even questions raised by members of the public at a hearing on the annual budget recently were not answered directly, but in writing, several weeks later.”

As expected, my series went down like a lead balloon in the administrative offices of the Cleveland School Board. It particularly irked Briggs, who was forever trying to sweep “discomforts” under the carpet and continue the public perception that he was in full control. I didn’t know until years later, however, that he tried to get me fired, but was frustrated by Press management.

“Almond clashed often with Supt Paul Briggs, one of the city’s institutional powers then,” Managing Editor Bill Tanner would write in February, 1980, in support of my application for a journalism fellowship at Stanford University, California. “Briggs, in fact, asked us on more than one occasion to find another education writer. We were happy to pat Almond on the back and send him back out there”.  

Fortunately, there was one candidate vying for election on the school board in 1973 who thought like me: that same outsider with no direct experience of Cleveland public schools, John Edward Gallagher Jr. And surprise, surprise, on Nov 6 he won a seat on the board.  Nothing would be quite the same on the Cleveland School Board again.

On Dec 12, 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed its case for desegregation against the State of Ohio and Cleveland School Board.


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From Across the Pond by Peter Almond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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