John T. Curtin, Judge Who Desegregated Buffalo Schools, Dies at 95

He excoriated the Common Council for cutting off money needed to help the Board of Education carry out its own modest integration plans, and he accused the Board of Regents of always trying to find the “route of least possible integrative consequence, hoping to stall until another day any meaningful integration.”

The Regents and the commissioner of education, he wrote, had failed to use their resources to enforce integration “and in so doing encouraged the city defendants to continue their own segregative actions.”

Judge Curtin’s court order came more than two decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared an end to the “separate but equal” system of racial segregation in public schools.

In Boston, it took until 1974 for a federal judge, W. Arthur Garrity Jr., to order the city’s schools to be desegregated. The busing of thousands of black and white Boston students to equalize the racial mixes in the schools led to racial turmoil and death threats against Judge Garrity.

“Outside the South, federal courts and the federal government wrestled with what constituted a de jure segregation violation, so it took longer to litigate some of these cases,” Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said.

Judge Curtin’s rulings in the case led to the closing of heavily segregated schools in Buffalo; the opening of numerous magnet schools to encourage black and white students to be voluntarily bused from their home districts; and the hiring of more minority teachers.

By 1985, only 15 percent of the 30,000 students being bused had been ordered to take part in the program by Judge Curtin. Magnet schools were considered the jewel of the schools’ integration efforts.

“I’m distressed by people who make statements nationally that integration doesn’t work,” Judge Curtin said nearly a decade after his first court order. “It does work. It’s plain wrong to say it won’t. It’s worked in Buffalo.”

He received hate mail and threats from people who objected to the changes his rulings wrought on their schools and neighborhoods.

“To many people in Buffalo, Judge Curtin had become an omnipotent authority figure, a man with the power to bless or befoul the community at his choosing,” Mark Goldman wrote in “City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York” (2007).

Judge Curtin lifted the desegregation order in 1995. But in 2014, using data from 2012, The Buffalo News reported that 70 percent of the city’s schools were once again segregated, defined as having student enrollments that were at least 80 percent minority or 80 percent white. That was about the same level of segregation as at the time of the judge’s first court order.

Still, Judge Curtin maintained that the case had been worthwhile, because families had ultimately accepted his court order to desegregate. “The school case was difficult but…

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