RICHMOND HEIGHTS, OHIO (WJW) – Sitting in her office turning the yellow pages of her hand-crafted high school scrapbook, Renée Willis is instantly transported back to 1981. The year of her desegregation notice to report to South High School in Cleveland.

“It was more of the anxiety of the unknown,” said Willis. “Maybe it was a fear of the unknown. I had never gone to school with white students.”

The year would prove to be transformative for Willis, the current Superintendent of Richmond Heights Local Schools. Willis, an honors student in high school, said her class witnessed involuntary desegregation in Cleveland. She saved her letter from the Desegregation Department of the Cleveland Board of Education and glued it to her scrapbook.

The effort to desegregate schools was a decades-long battle with varying timelines of accomplishment nationwide. 

In 1954 segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional in the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. However, integration was not implemented overnight across the country. 

The Little Rock Nine, Black students integrating a white school in 1957 were initially blocked from entering their Arkansas school by the National Guard and met by angry crowds while trying to enter the building. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated her elementary school amid much protest in Louisiana in 1960.

“I always say it was the best of times and it was the worst of times because there were some ugly days,” said Willis. “I remember vividly softball and being chased down Fleet. I do remember another incident. Our bus was hit with balloons that we thought were filled with water, but it was not, it was urine our bus was just bombarded with these balloons.”

Willis was bussed from her Garden Valley neighborhood to South High School. The result of a 1976 court order to integrate. However, it would take several years to implement across the school district.

“The tension was great,” said retired Cleveland Public Schools teacher Terry Butler and mentor to Willis. “There were organizations that were actually working against bussing in Cleveland schools.”

Change, although slow at first, Butler said, led to a swift reaction, including white flight. Where white families opposed to integration often moved to communities with little to no Blacks or people of color.

“It taught me resiliency,” said Willis of her experience. “It gave me grit and I’m a walking testimony of that…you will face adversity in life, but you will always overcome it.”

Willis said her busing experience served her later in life during her job at NASA before redirecting her career back to the classroom as a math teacher, then administrator eventually earning her PH.D. and working for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

Although the experience does include some awful memories, Willis said she remembers more good days than bad as a teenager during desegregation.

“That experience taught me perseverance,” said Willis. “Perseverance despite all odds.”