An exploration of systemic racism in UA.

BY CALLIA PETERSON, ’22 AND JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23.

Poised at her desk during an American history lesson, sophomore Ceylone Reighard-Brooks watched as the student sitting in front of her leaned over to a friend and told them confidently that the statistic on the board about the wide scope of slavery was false.

Reighard-Brooks is a student activist and co-founder of the Upper Arlington Equity Project (UAEP), a group that seeks to diversify UA Schools, restructure curriculum and spark conversations about racial injustice in the community. She also serves on the district’s Equity Advisory Board, where she advises district leadership.

Throughout her childhood in Grandview and Upper Arlington, Reighard-Brooks has witnessed and experienced many acts of racism, including microaggressions, racial slurs and exclusion on the basis of her race.

“I’ve had a girl tell me that her parents do not like Black people and that they are not allowed over at her house,” she said. “And as a Black person I was like, ‘Why are you telling me this?’”

Similar incidents occur in various contexts. 

“I remember being asked for the N-word pass when it would come up in a book,” she said. “If you bring it up to [a teacher], they [just say], ‘Oh OK, well I’ll talk to them next time.’”

These acts have followed Reighard-Brooks into the community as well. In grocery stores, for example, she said police officers follow her as she shops.

“I can tell you stories for days,” she said. “And I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced that here in Upper Arlington.”

Reighard-Brooks’s experiences speak to greater issues of systemic racism in UA, and they call into question what historical circumstances might have led to the racial injustices she and other students of color face every day.

TROUBLING TRADITIONS

One racist tradition in early UA was minstrelsy, a form of entertainment characterized by blackface, song and dance. These shows accentuated and reinforced harmful stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans.

The shows were popular across the nation throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Upper Arlington was no exception, and watching minstrels was a popular pastime in the city’s early days.

Troubling traditions. UAHS students perform in a minstrel show in 1951. These shows played a role in student life akin to that of todays musicals or football games. Photo courtesy Norwester yearbook.

Nor was UA Schools itself isolated from the practice; to the contrary, Arlingtonian archives indicate that these shows were popular among the student body and played a role in student life and culture akin to that of musicals and football games today. As a 1944 Arlingtonian headline proudly declared, “[UAHS] Has Part In Village Minstrel.”

The shows were often held in what is now Jones Middle School and were performed and put on by students. Various school choirs sang, while students would audition for various roles. 

Endmen, for example, were stock characters wearing blackface who exchanged jokes. In contrast, the interlocutor character, who was not in blackface, led the endmen and bounced jokes off them.

At times, UAHS minstrel productions were so popular that tickets came into short supply. “[A]lready the advance sale of tickets is hitting an all high,” warned Arlingtonian, then known as High Life, in 1944. “If you want a seat to view the best Minstrel ever presented at [UAHS] get your tickets now.”

Even in the 1960s, when minstrel shows had long waned in popularity across the nation, UA residents continued

A community affair. A minstrel show makes an appearance in Upper Arlington’s 1963 Fourth of July parade. These shows were common in 19th and early 20th century America. Photo courtesy UA Archives.

to enjoy them as a form of entertainment. In 1963, for example, a minstrel show made an appearance in the city’s Fourth of July parade.

Senior Elena Reim, a co-founder of UAEP along with Reighard-Brooks, was first introduced to the history of minstrel shows in her IB Language and Literature class.

“It was only briefly, but we discussed how that was something that everyone at our school was doing and was OK with—which is just insane, honestly,” she said. “I can’t believe that happened. It makes sense, but it’s just hard to wrap your head around sometimes.” 

Recently, in the 2016 UAHS production of Charles Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” students wore brownface to mimic dark-skinned foreign characters.

Alumna Kate Glaser was cast as an Englishwoman who takes on the appearance of a woman, named Helena, in the middle of the show. Glaser said that the directors gave her foundation darker than her natural skin tone for her to put on when she becomes Helena, a character of a different race.

“I was just a little confused by it,” she said. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, your first few scenes as an Englishwoman will be without the makeup and then you will put on the makeup when you become Helena.’”

The directors told her that this was something English actors would have done when the play was originally performed centuries ago. They failed to mention to her that this was an act of brownface.

“It absolutely is an inappropriate and racist use of makeup. The show is extremely outdated,” she said.

Glaser said she didn’t understand the implications of this use of brownface.

“At the time I don’t think I realized [what] we were doing because we kept getting reassurance from our directors that it was totally fine,” she said. “And as students, we felt pressured to just comply.”

Now a theater major at Indiana University, Glaser said that she regrets taking on the role.

“I’m very sorry to anyone who felt hurt or attacked by that production, because I can totally see how they would be,” she said. “It’s definitely something that I’ve had to come to terms with.”

Glaser said she would like to see change in the types of musicals the UA Vocal Music department decides to put on.

“I hope that the program can learn to do better in the future,” she said.

WHY SO WHITE?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90.1% of UA residents are white, while only 0.3% are African American. This was by design.

One way this was accomplished was through redlining, a practice whereby the federal government advised against or forbade property mortgages and community investment in “undesirable” areas.

To do this, the federal government created color-coded maps of American cities. These maps frequently warned of “encroachment” and “infestation” by minority groups.

In the Columbus map, published in 1936, UA was marked as green, or “best.”

While redlining was instituted by the federal government, other policies were homegrown.

In fact, racist restrictions on homeownership were often hardcoded into UA property deeds themselves. Starting in the 1920s, a few years after the founding of Upper Arlington, most properties could not be sold to or occupied by “persons in whole or in part of the Negro race or blood,” according to deeds reviewed by Arlingtonian. This restriction was “for the benefit” of homeowners and their neighbors, the deeds stated.

These deeds were undersigned by the founders of Upper Arlington, Ben and King Thompson, who in 1990 were inducted into the Upper Arlington Wall of Honor outside the municipal building for their “lasting benefit to the residents of Upper Arlington.”

These covenants were set to expire in 1999, but in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer case that these discriminatory provisions violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Undeterred, the Thompson brothers effectively circumvented the Supreme Court’s ruling by establishing that same year the Northwest Homeowners Association. 

Prospective residents had to seek membership in the association in order to buy property. “Thus Thompson ensured that only the ‘right’ people would buy into the area,” according to the “Planning for the Private Interest,” a doctoral thesis by Patricia Burgess about the history of zoning and urban planning in Columbus.

Only in 1971 did the practice end when a Black man who was denied membership—and thus homeownership—sued the association. The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas ordered that it be dissolved and that the man receive a settlement.

CURRICULA & CLASSROOMS

Some students, like 2018 alumna Cindy Tang, feel they were not adequately made aware of the redlining, deed covenants and other injustices in UA’s history.

“I mean, I never learned about any of these things as a student,” she said. “I learned about all of those things after I left.”

Matthew Boaz, the district’s new director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said that curriculum is important.

“It definitely plays a huge role,” he said. “Students who don’t see themselves in any examples that are used in teaching practices, or don’t feel like the curriculum addresses their specific identity, are more likely to disengage in the learning process.”

Beyond curriculum, Reighard-Brooks acknowledged a lack of conversations about these issues in the classroom.

“I do feel like we kind of tiptoe around it,” Reighard-Brooks said. “It went slavery, Jim Crow, and then it was all OK. We kind of sugarcoat it,” she said. “I get those conversations are uncomfortable, but I feel like it’s something that is a real world problem, and once we get outside this UA bubble, it’s unfair to the kids who go here because we aren’t preparing them for the real world.”

To improve this, UAEP has been working to diversify the curriculum.

“[We want to change] our curriculum to better allow for conversations about race and ethnicities and gender equalities and all these things that we feel have been brushed over,” Reim said.

Tang emphasized that any curriculum change should be institutional and not left to chance.

“If [a student has] one specific teacher, if they run into a specific type of friend, or they know specific people in the district, they may hear about these things. But it’s not something everyone’s going to learn about, because it’s not a part of the core curriculum—and that’s what it really should be,” she said.

Another sensitive topic comes with racial slurs. Last year, for example, Reim witnessed a white student use the N-word toward a Black student during her lunch period in the Learning Center.

“You could just see everyone else in the Learning Center kind of froze and wasn’t sure how to respond to that,” she said. “The two people who were talking just continued their conversation but everyone else around the LC just seemed sort of struck and not sure how they should say something, how to approach this topic.”

She also noted that this wasn’t an isolated incident.

“I think that it’s just very common to hear white students at our school using racial slurs, and teachers don’t know how to respond to that,” Reim said.

Misunderstandings and insensitivity when it comes to slurs can start in the English classroom.

“When I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, our teacher told us that we were not to use the N-word, but when one student asked why we weren’t able to—they weren’t trying to be racist, they were simply trying to understand—our teacher just shut down that conversation,” Reim said. “In that moment there was [a] missed opportunity. This was a student who was wanting to understand why the N-word was harmful and our teacher just didn’t allow for that.”

Reighard-Brooks said that she was brought to tears of happiness when one of her teachers engaged in a conversation about the N-word that was being used in a book the class was reading.

“When my teacher first brought that up, I literally cried,” she said. “It’s something that’s commonly missed, and especially in a predominantly white school where it should be taught.”

As recently as last year, some English teachers at UAHS allowed students to use the N-word in the context of reading assigned literature. 

Reim said this blurs the lines. 

“I think that anyone who isn’t Black shouldn’t be using that term because it is incredibly harmful,” she said. “If a teacher were to say it’s fine to say it in this context, it’s hard to draw that line.”

Both Reim and Reighard-Brooks also expressed interest in educating students and teachers about racial slurs and encouraged teachers to have these conversations with their students when the N-word is used in literature.

Reim said UAEP believes that more training would help encourage teachers to address the topic, despite its sensitivity.

“We also wanted to see more support for teachers in having these conversations, because they are uncomfortable,” she said. “I think that there does need to be [an] added layer of training for teachers [for] how to talk about books that were written when racial slurs were more widely accepted, or when any book uses a racial slur.”

DIVERSIFYING STAFF

Beyond curriculum changes, both Reim and Reighard-Brooks said that meaningful conversations about the use of racial slurs and systemic racism as a whole can be achieved through diversifying the UAHS teaching staff. 

“I do think there are some conversations that white teachers won’t be able to hit on as much or that they aren’t comfortable talking about as much because they feel like it’s not their position to talk about,” Reighard-Brooks said.

Reim explained that the current hiring practices of the district is one factor that prevents teachers of color from landing jobs in the district.

Currently, anyone applying who is already in the district has priority over applicants who are not in the district. Since the district is predominantly white, the district is limiting its pool to mostly white applicants.

This is something UAEP is trying to correct.

“It’s very difficult to say that you are trying to diversify your school while you’re limiting the pool to mostly white applicants,” Reim said.

Reim acknowledged that UA Schools Superintendent Paul Imhoff has been responsive to UAEP’s calls for systemic changes to the UA Schools hiring process, but that the hiring freeze due to COVID-19 has slowed change this year.

According to Reim, another obstacle UAEP faces in diversifying the teaching staff is misunderstanding among the white administrators that are hiring new employees.

“It’s been an issue trying to sort of bridge that gap of not trying to make people feel like they shouldn’t be here, but also trying to show that there is value to having more diversity,” she said.

Tang said that any plan to diversify the teaching staff shouldn’t stop at hiring.

“I hope folks are hired and they’re not tokenized,” she said. “I hope they’re hired with good support systems.”

After teachers have been hired, Boaz said that training and education are also important. 

“I think that would be a big piece, and that’s one of the things I want to work on in this district,” he said.

UAHS German teacher Tricia Fellinger, who leads a student activism group called Ambassadors of Change, said that, in addition to teachers, students also have a role.

“It’s a collaboration of the two, but student voice is the most important thing in telling us how to help,” she said.

Boaz agreed, adding that students are the common denominator for everyone involved in the district.

“Students are probably the most important piece,” he said. “The students have to be the key focal point of everything.”

COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS

Beyond UA Schools, these discussions have also found a place in the discourse of the broader UA community.

Since last summer, for example, the community has been polarized about the issue of police brutality and school resources officers (SROs) present in UA schools.

Even today, opposing yard signs displaying either “Enough” or “We love UAPD” continue to dot the city.

In fact, UAEP was formed after a group of alumni sponsored a petition to remove SROs from UA Schools. It got over 600 signatures. 

Reighard-Brooks said that the presence of SROs in UAHS makes her feel unsafe.

“It’s just something that’s extra intimidating, and it just kind of distracts you a little bit,” she said.

Some students have complained that one of the school’s SROs has a “Blue Lives Matter” flag and a photo of himself and former President Donald Trump in his UAHS office.

“Some kids [say], “Yeah whatever, that’s just his view, leave him alone,’” Reighard-Brooks said. “But for me, I’m like, ‘No, that’s either life or death for me.’”

Equal UA board member Catherine Kennedy provided her perspective on the issue.

“It never occurred to me that having cops in schools could make people feel less safe, because for me as a white person, safety aligns with police,” she said. “But [I didn’t understand] that people who don’t look like me might not see police as safe for them. And so I think it takes having that empathy.”

In recent years, a patchwork of loosely-affiliated community groups, including Equal UA, has been looking to further research and address issues of racism in UA as whole. 

“We want to build a community around equity and diversity and inclusivity and justice,” Kennedy said.

To do this, the group has hosted open discussions and seminars, organized book talks, sold yardsigns promoting messages of inclusivity and partnered with other city organizations.

For example, Equal UA recently worked with the Upper Arlington Historical Society and UA Schools to research the story of Pleasant Litchford, a Black man who owned much of the land that is now Upper Arlington.

Boaz sees this kind of coordination between UA Schools and the community as necessary.

“The two have to work hand-in-hand,” he said. “That relationship has to involve open communication back and forth.”

Tang feels that the community as a whole has been slower and less responsive than the school district with regard to racial justice issues.

“I think there’s a headstart in the schools,” she said.

To that point, Fellinger acknowledged that progress can be difficult for some longtime community members.

“I would imagine when you have been a member of a community for so many years and possibly generations, and you love your community so much, [that] it’s hard to come to terms with the problems that exist,” she said. “There’s a lot of learning that has to happen.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Moving forward, some students are optimistic about how UAHS will address issues of systemic racism.

Reim said that the entire community has a role.

“I think that Upper Arlington can change—it can become more diverse and more accepting—but that we’re all going to have to play our part,” she said.

Boaz acknowledged the challenges ahead, but said he is hopeful that UA Schools will eventually become a leader in DEI work.

“We have a lot of work to do, just as human beings and the way we interact with one another,” he said. “I believe that the Upper Arlington Schools can be a leader in showing people how to do that.”

Still, Reighard-Brooks said that the district has a long road ahead in making a more diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environment.

“We’re still uncovering things that were put underneath the rug,” she said. “So I think that [2020] is a blessing and a curse. We’re seeing all this awful stuff happen, but we’re talking about it a little more.”