The Battle to Fulfill the Racial Promise of Shaker Heights
Laura Meckler on Belonging, Interracial Adoption, and the "American dream town" in Ohio
The shiny hallways of Shaker Heights High School were silent and the classrooms empty, students and teachers scattered for summer vacation, when Hubert McIntyre walked through the door. He had an urgent question on his mind.
He took the seat at one end of the table and folded his five-foot-eleven-inch frame into the chair. He looked me straight in the eye, the sort of look I imagined he had given many of his students over his thirty-seven years teaching high school here, the look that said, I’m on your side, but also, Don’t even think about messing with me.
McIntyre glanced down at the pages printed out in front of him. It was a copy of a newspaper article I had written about Shaker Heights, Ohio, my hometown. I could see he had marked it up with handwritten notes.
He zeroed in on one paragraph—one word, really.
I had been spending this July day inside one of the empty classrooms. Boxes from the school district archives sat on a cart, folders inside waiting to be opened, one by one, in a hunt for details that would shed light on the promise and problems of Shaker Heights, a place that for decades had been on a quest for racial equity. But the boxes could wait.
A few days earlier, I had spent hours with McIntyre, a lanky, soft-spoken Black teacher known by teachers as Mac and students as Mr. Mac. He explained how he had won respect from even the toughest kids, and recounted the pranks he and other Shaker teaching legends had played when they were young and bold. He talked through why Black students too often fail to thrive in this well-resourced, racially integrated community and about how he had helped a group of academically successful young Black men create the Minority Achievement Committee, a national model for positive peer pressure.He turned the word over as he put the question to me: What has to happen for students to feel like they belong?
I heard why he’s still hanging out at the school, still nurturing students nearly a decade after his official retirement. He hadn’t found all the answers, but he was still looking. “That’s a good question,” he would say. “I’ve asked myself that question.”
Now Mac was here again, and this time he wanted to ask me a question. My story, published in the Washington Post, centered on a controversy involving a young Black woman named Olivia and her Advanced Placement English teacher. It raised all sorts of questions about who was in these advanced classes and who was not, and why.
“Hearing Olivia’s story got me thinking about my own,” I had written. “I was in AP classes, and sometimes I struggled, too. Kids in my class were crazy smart, and it seemed to come so easy for them. But I never considered that my classmates might think I didn’t belong there. It never crossed my mind that I didn’t belong.”
“It never crossed my mind,” Mac read aloud to me, “that I didn’t belong.” Belonging. He turned the word over as he put the question to me: What has to happen for students to feel like they belong? What does belonging feel like to you?
Reporting this story for the Post had been eye-opening. So much was comfortable, familiar, even three decades after I graduated. The red brick school, constructed in 1931 as wealthy Clevelanders migrated to the growing suburb, sat on its grassy oval, iconic bell tower on top. Outside, the quiet road curved around the campus, a signature of this prototypical garden suburb, and testing ground for generations of student drivers learning to parallel park.
Inside, the air still carried that familiar scent of adolescent sweat mixed with a whiff of cafeteria food. The hallways were silent until the clanging of the bell, then filled with shuffling feet, laughter, shouts, and the banging of locker doors. And up and down, the walls were alive with student murals painted through the decades.
With each generation, new murals had been added to the tableau, so the faces of Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, and Ray Charles now presided over a row of lockers, greeting people as they walked through the front door. From an earlier age, Jim Morrison’s giant face still stared out, haunting an obscure corner of the second floor. A row of four cartoon Betty Boops, dating to 1985, still kicked their legs high in a chorus line.
The full-fledged planetarium was still tucked into the science wing, showing off the planets to elementary school field-trippers. Behind a wall of windows was the central office, where guidance counselors had for decades steered top-notch students to the Ivy League. And outside the office hung a tall plaque listing members of the school’s Hall of Fame: performers, politicians, business executives, judges, writers, and more.
Most famous was the actor Paul Newman, and for generations students joked that they had Newman’s locker, though in truth nobody had a clue which locker had been his, and once, when he was asked about it, he replied, “I had a locker?”
But while nostalgia often feels good, returning to Shaker was deeply unsettling. Shaker Heights—a suburb of about twenty-nine thousand people, located just east of Cleveland and situated high above the city—had a decades-long, nationally recognized track record of racial integration, but also a persistent achievement gap in education.
I had come back to better understand these contradictions. I expected to find some Black students who felt that Shaker was not supporting them academically. I knew there was systemic racism and bias. In America, with its vile racist history, how could there not be?
But I did not realize how widespread it was. Even as they appreciated much of what Shaker had to offer, virtually every Black student had a story. So, it seems, did every Black parent.
How did this happen?
Shaker had been founded as a wealthy and white enclave of privilege, an escape route for Clevelanders looking to flee the city. Housing covenants sought to exclude Blacks, Jews, and Catholics, and, until the 1950s, they were particularly effective when it came to Blacks.
Then things changed. Black and white families came together to create and maintain integrated neighborhoods. It started in one neighborhood called Ludlow and spread to other parts of town, with people of all races making a conscious effort to get to know one another, fight real estate agents intent on keeping neighborhoods segregated, and resist the forces of racism and white flight. Shaker won a national reputation as an integration pioneer, featured in the pages of Look magazine, Reader’s Digest, and the New York Times, on the airwaves of ABC News, and in countless academic papers.Shaker Heights had a decades-long, nationally recognized track record of racial integration, but also a persistent achievement gap in education.
The school district began voluntary busing to integrate its elementary schools in 1970, even as communities across the country, including Cleveland, right next door, were resisting doing the same. Later, boundary lines were redrawn to make the schools more integrated, while similar line drawing elsewhere had the opposite intent.
Student groups dedicated themselves to Black achievement, race relations, and cross-racial friendship. One, the Student Group on Race Relations, was still leading conversations about race more than three decades after it was created. Hubert McIntyre’s Minority Achievement Committee was still crowning high-achieving MAC Scholars after more than twenty years.
It’s almost a mantra for Shakerites Black and white: If any place can navigate the complex issues of race in America, it’s Shaker Heights.
While many inner-ring suburbs flipped from virtually all white to almost entirely Black over time, the city of Shaker Heights remained majority white, and the schools were about forty percent white and forty-five percent Black decades after the first Black families moved to the city. The community showed that racial integration was possible in housing, and Shaker became a national model for other cities seeking alternatives to white flight. I saw it up close.
Through it all, the schools built and maintained a reputation for excellence, sending large numbers of students to elite colleges and developing robust Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The theater and arts programs were top-notch. Students could take classes in French, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek, and Mandarin. It wasn’t unusual for the high school to sponsor a half dozen international trips for students. Taxpayers, including some of the wealthiest people in the Cleveland area, approved one tax levy after the next, driven by the slogan “a community is known by the schools it keeps.”
It was, in short, an American dream town. That’s how Cosmopolitan put it in 1963, when the magazine put Shaker Heights on its cover with the headline THE GOOD LIFE IN SHAKER HEIGHTS. The magazine reported: “The wealthiest city in the United States boasts practically no unemployment, no slums. Back-yard swimming pools are commonplace, nearly everyone belongs to a country club and most kids have new cars.”
“Here,” Cosmo announced, “is the inside story of an American dream town come true.” They were talking about the American suburban dream, of opulence and wealth, of excellent schools and fine services, of beautiful architecture and stately trees and picturesque lakes. To be sure, Cosmo’s description was an over-the- top exaggeration, but the overall tone rang true.
And yet for decades, Shaker had aspired to be another sort of American dream town as well. It was the dream articulated, a few months after that Cosmo cover, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking to some two hundred thousand people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to demand that this country live up to its ideals.
King, with a marble Abraham Lincoln towering behind him, spoke of what might be. “I have a dream,” he preached.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…one day, right down in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Shaker Heights was trying to make this dream come true, too.
Growing up, I was all in and on message. As a white child in a white family, I felt enormous pride that I was from Shaker Heights, imagining that I held a sort of superiority trump card in the category of race relations.
I grew up in a neighborhood called Sussex that was racially diverse then and remains so today. My first teachers about race lived right next door. Diane and Jim Lardie were white parents with six children—five adopted, four of them biracial or Black. Their daughter Betsy was my first best friend. Betsy laughed loudly and drew people to her with a natural charisma. She seemed scared of nothing, while I was scared of almost everything.
I remember as a very young girl asking my father why Betsy was half Black and half white. “Because one of her biological parents was Black and one was white,” he told me matter-of- factly.
Years later, I learned how the Lardies landed on Scottsdale Boulevard. Jim and Diane met in fourth grade, growing up on the east side of Cleveland, in a white neighborhood home to many Irish Catholics. One by one, Black families arrived. Jim recalled his grandmother taking him by the hand to greet one of the first, who moved in across the street.
She told him they were going to do what they did for every new neighbor—bring Irish soda bread. “I never read in the good book where you love your neighbor unless they’re colored,” his grandmother told him.She told him they were going to do what they did for every new neighbor—bring Irish soda bread. “I never read in the good book where you love your neighbor unless they’re colored,” his grandmother told him.
“The faith was real clear, and it was pounded into us,” Diane said.
They saw their neighborhood flip from white to Black before their eyes, spurred by real estate agents who scared white homeowners into selling. Diane said her parents were the second-to-last white family on the block.
Jim and Diane married and had a daughter, but Diane was unable to get pregnant again, so they decided to adopt, which is how a white infant named Jimmy arrived. Soon after, the Lardies told the adoption counselor they would like to adopt again and asked if she knew any children who needed homes. “I have some, but they are unadoptable,” she told them.
“That changed our lives,” Jim told me. The idea that any child was unadoptable was unacceptable to them. Jim ultimately quit his job and became a full-time advocate for children in need. The Lardies eventually adopted four more children—hard-to-place kids. Their multiracial family grew and thrived in their brick colonial on Scottsdale Boulevard.
For me, that’s what Shaker always was about. A place that would welcome the Lardies.
Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity by Laura Meckler. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2023 by Laura Meckler. All rights reserved.