Editor’s Note — This story has been updated to include Shawn Captain’s comments regarding Saturday’s ceremony.
Hillsboro Against Racism & Discrimination (HARD) held a dedication ceremony on Saturday for a bench that honors Hillsboro’s Lincoln School Marching Mothers, Black mothers who protested the segregation of Hillsboro’s elementary schools from 1954 to 1956. The mothers only stopped marching in protest after they won an equity lawsuit against the Hillsboro Board of Education and then-superintendent, which allowed their children to attend the previously all-white elementary schools.
The bench is located on the lawn of the Hillsboro’s Courthouse Square at the corner of Governor Trimble Place and North High Street.
“For me, the ceremony went really well, and I was glad to be able to do something so meaningful,” HARD member Shawn Captain told The Times-Gazette Wednesday. “Being the great-grandson of Maxine Thomas, who was one of the Marching Mothers, made it even more significant to me. I was ecstatic over Ms. Elsie being able to attend. She’s 104 years old and to have her see this memorial bench was an awesome feeling. Huge thanks to Mayor Justin Harsha for making this possible and to my fellow members of HARD who helped me every step of the way.”
Captain, who also helped organize a Black Lives Matter march that took place in Hillsboro in early June, first presented the concept for a memorial bench honoring the Marching Mothers at the Highland County commissioners’ August meeting.
“After the march, I had people that came up to me that said they had lived in Hillsboro their whole life and had never heard of the Lincoln School marchers,” Captain said at the meeting. “And I got the idea for a memorial of some kind and it’s a bench.”
Captain said his grandmother, Lois Captain, attended the Lincoln School that was designated for black elementary students at the time of the Marching Mothers’ protest.
Captain proposed placing the bench in courthouse square due to the Marching Mothers’ historical significance.
“I think it’s just as deserving as the other monuments to be on the courthouse square,” Captain said in August. “It’s a huge part of American history, and to come from a small town like Hillsboro, it’s really significant.”
According to Captain, he discussed organizing a fundraiser for the bench with Hillsboro Mayor Justin Harsha, who decided to donate the bench when he learned what the fundraiser was for.
Harsha said Tuesday that he hopes the bench will help share the Marching Mothers’ story with those who have not heard it.
“I had conversations with a number of people around town, especially some of the younger people in town, and it was very strange that not so many people know about the story,” Harsha told The Times-Gazette. “I’m just glad to see that there’s a monument dedicated to them, and now people walking by will be able to look at it and learn a little bit about our history in our city and how important that was.”
Though Hillsboro High School was already integrated by 1954, there were still two all-white elementary schools, Webster and Washington, and one all-Black elementary, the Lincoln School.
County engineer Phillip Partridge set the Lincoln School on fire in the summer of 1954 in an attempt to end the segregation, but the Hillsboro Board of Education voted to repair the school instead of allowing the Lincoln School’s students to attend the all-white elementary schools. The school board also decided to designate new school zones, which ultimately forced some students to walk past one of the all-white schools to get to Lincoln.
On Sept. 9, 1954, the Marching Mothers and about 50 children began marching to Hillsboro’s all-white elementary schools in protest. They were denied entrance.
On Sept. 22, 1954, five mothers — Gertrude Clemons, Roxie Clemons, Norma Rollins, Elsie Steward and Zella Mae Cumberland — filed a suit with the help of the Dayton NAACP against the Hillsboro School Board and then-superintendent Paul Upp for the rezoning.
For the next two years, the Lincoln School Marching Mothers and their children marched to Hillsboro’s all-white elementary schools.
During that time, the mothers’ efforts caught the attention of NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, who had successfully won the Brown v. Board of Education suit in May 1954. Marshall sent New York NAACP attorney Constance Baker Motely to Hillsboro to help with the case.
By the spring of 1956, the case, known as Clemons v. Board of Education of Hillsboro, had gone back and forth from the U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit and even to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case on April 2, 1956, and rejected Hillsboro’s further attempt to block integration.
After the Ohio Board of Education threatened to withhold all state funding, a majority of the Hillsboro School Board voted to integrate. By April 17, 1956, 11 black students attended Webster Elementary. By the fall of 1957, nearly three years after the mothers began the fight for equal education, Hillsboro elementary schools were completely integrated.
The Marching Mothers were inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame in Columbus in 2017.
The inscription on the bench unveiled Saturday reads: “Early Civil Rights protest to desegregate Hillsboro, Ohio schools and legal victory in the first test case of Brown v. Board of Education in the North.” The inscription is accompanied by the dates 1954 and 1956 as well as the following names: “Marching Mothers: Zella Cumberland, Elsie Steward Young, Sallie Williams, Zora Cumberland, Selicka Dent, Alberta Jewett, Maxine Thomas, Francis Curtis, Joanne Zimmerman, Dellia Cumberland, Glea Clemons, Minnie Speech, Roxie Clemons, Norma Rollins, Alberta Goins, Rosa Kilgore, Gertrude Clemons, Imogene Curtis, Nellie Zimmerman, Della Blakey.
“Marching Children: Joyce Clemons Kittrell, Teresa Williams, Myra Cumberland Phillips, Virginia Steward Harewood, Carolyn Steward Goins, Mary Williams Steward, Peggy Williams Hudson, Glenna Dent Hennison, Billy Dent, John Curtis, Lawrence Curtis, Lewis Goins, Lee Curtis, Ralph Steward, Rev. Michael Hudson, Harold Joe Thomas, Delbert Thomas, John Cumberland Jr., Doris Cumberland Woods, David Butch Johnson, Marva Curtis, Rosemary Clemons Cumberland, Jennie Speech Williams, Howard Williams, Brenda Thomas Coleman, Winnie Thomas Cumberland, Debbie Rollins, Charles Johnson, Diane Zimmerman Curtis, Glen Dent, Lynn Dent, Evelyn Steward Bostie, Sarah Alice Clemons, Annabell Johnson Smith, Dorothy Clemons Ford.”
At the Highland County commissioners’ September meeting, commissioner Gary Abernathy stated that a retaining wall, similar to the retaining wall around the fountain on the other side of the square, will be constructed near the bench. Construction was set to begin in the spring, as of the September meeting.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.