The Highland County Historical Society will host an open house and screening of Ohio Humanities’ revamped documentary “The Lincoln School Story-The Battle For School Integration in Ohio on Wednesday, Oct. 12, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Highland House Museum. It will include a public discussion.
Elsie Steward Young, who passed away at the age of 105 last year, and her daughters, including Virginia Steward Harewood and Carolyn Steward Goins, were interviewed for the film. Young was the only living “Marching Mother” at the time of the documentary’s filming.
Jeanne Speech Williams,, Joyce Clemons Kittrell, Myra Cumberland Phillips, Eleanor Curtis Cumberland and Teresa Annetta Williams were also interviewed as student marchers, whose mothers — Minnie Speech, Gertrude Clemons, Zella Mae Cumberland, Imogene Curtis and Sallie Williams, respectively — marched tirelessly with them in protest following the Hillsboro Board of Education’s refusal to integrate public schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
Others interviewed for the film included Hillsboro educator Carleen Alexander; Tammy L. Brown, Ph.D., of Miami University; and Melvin Barnes, Jr., Ph.D., of Ohio Humanities.
Barnes also co-wrote the cover story for the organization’s annual magazine, Lumen, which features original artwork by a Columbus artist Cody Miller depicting the story of the Marching Mothers.
With a run time of just 17 minutes, the Kati Burwinkel-produced documentary tells the story of the local school board and its “delaying tactics” of resisting integration. A fire set by then-Highland County Engineer Phillip Partridge at the Lincoln School, which had been designated as a black school under segregation, was an attempt by Partridge to force compliance by the district, which still refused to cooperate with the federal court ruling declaring racially segregated schools to be unconstitutional.
Separate but equal schools was a preexisting idea that had now been federally nullified, but enacting the legislation in Hillsboro public schools proved to be daunting and fraught with difficulty.
In the years that followed the students who were denied entry into the white schools marched indefatigably, petitioning the schools to integrate. Meanwhile, the school board attempted many delaying tactics at its avail, refusing to comply with the federal statute. The interviewees in the documentary discuss how they marched with their mothers, without fail, every day, “rain or shine,” according to Jeanne Speech Williams, a student marcher. “It was like a regular school day for me,” she said.
The marchers were by the school administration that nothing had changed. Once, some marchers momentarily breached the gate-kept halls of the since-demolished Webster Elementary in Hillsboro, only to be swiftly escorted from the premises, according to the report.
Rezoning is another way that the school board tried to avoid integration.
The protracted refusal of the Hillsboro School Board to desegregate schools and the resultant protests culminated in a court case.
Those interviewed for the film remembered the triumph of having successfully campaigned for the implementation of desegregated schools, a process that became a model for other schools that had been resisting integration, according to Brown.
Young said in the film that, “I was glad for this because they needed the education.”
The updated film was debuted in September in Columbus. The audience included a group of people from Hillsboro, including Shawn Captain, who founded HARD (Hillsboro Against Racism and Discrimination) and successfully lobbied the Highland County Commissioners two years ago to place a commemorative bench, honoring those who marched, on the Highland County Courthouse lawn.
True to its moniker, the organization that Captain founded has not only honored the efforts of precedents in the ongoing fight against racism and discrimination, such as the Marching Mothers, but has taken on new battles as its members speak out against a plethora of other contemporary sociopolitical issues affecting the area today. In an age of social media, the communications modalities have changed, but the message of determination and vociferous protest against inequity and discrimination has not, as Captain and others make organized and collaborative civic leadership relevant to a new generation of citizens.
The Highland County Historical Society has continually maintained a dedicated exhibit and section of its website devoted to the story of the Marching Mothers of Hillsboro. This is updated to document the myriad of adaptations that have been developed in the interim that keep the information alive and relevant to contemporary audiences.
Burwinkel, the producer of the film, described the evolution of the adaptation of the story, saying, “I was the project director seven years ago when a group from the historical society and five or six marchers agreed to tell this important civil rights story.”
From these humble beginnings, Burwinkel said the small assembled group collaborated, “every month for two years”, and after receiving grants opened the film at the Highland House Museum.
“That month, visits went from 60 to 600,” Burwinkel said.
In another unexpected development, fascination with the story extended well beyond its originally intended audience.
“It was meant for our local audiences, but it took on a life of its own,” Burwinkel said.
The story, which documented persistent vigilance and steadfast determination against adversity, has not not gone unnoticed.
Burwinkel said the documentary has been premiered at “The National Underground Railroad Museum, University of Cincinnati, The National African American Museum” and many other locations.
“Ohio Humanities, who was our largest grant funder,” according to Burwinkel, “came to me and offered to take it into the next level.” That included adding content and perspective from doctoral historians, including Barnes. The project will also be adapted for other media.
“Our next draft,” Burwinkel said, will alter “the film to the necessary time for a half hour PBS program.” This new development at the behest of Ohio Humanities is a collaboration between herself as producer and Andrea Torrice of Torrice Media, the original filmmaker.
“Fundraising for that change is currently being done for a 2024 release,” Burwinkel said, that will make the story more accessible to a national and potentially international audience. “We could not be happier about this partnership with Ohio Humanities and the recognition this important story is receiving and will continue to receive.”
The story is not only one that tells a local post desegregation story, but also narrates the importance of determination and fighting for family.
“You risk having the whole town turn against you. You risk physical violence. Despite the risks, they did what they needed to do to integrate,” said Barnes of the 19 Marching Mothers and 37 children who marched for integration in Hillsboro.
According to Teresa Annetta Williams, she is approached by younger generations who have said, “You didn’t have it so easy,” to which she reportedly replied, “I know that. But the fight was worth it.”
“I feel enormous pride in what we did. Enormous pride in my mother for standing up the way she did,” said Jeanne Speech Williams.
“The Lincoln School Story-The Battle For School Integration in Ohio”, can be accessed at the Ohio Humanities website at www.ohiohumanities.org.
Juliane Cartaino is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.