Images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington and Bloody Sunday on Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge come to mind — and rightly so — when thinking about the American Civil Rights Movement. But Southwest Ohio, specifically Hillsboro, also hosted a key moment in African Americans’ ongoing quest for equality.
This incredible local story of the Lincoln School Marchers involves several African American mothers and their children, who gathered every day to walk to the racially segregated Hillsboro Elementary School in all kinds of weather — only to be refused entrance. These daily marches lasted for two years in the mid-1950s.
Civil rights attorney and later Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall learned about this protest in Hillsboro and sent his legal team and the NAACP, which represented five of the mothers in filing a lawsuit. This resulted in the first test case in the North of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark case that overturned laws allowing racial segregation in public schools, Brown v. Board of Education, which Marshall successfully argued in 1954.
At a March 31 ceremony on campus, Wilmington College honored and recognized the Lincoln School Marchers’ movement with the Art Brooks Diversity Excellence Award. Also, Kati Burwinkel of the Highland County Historical Society received the college’s Diversity Impact Award in recognition of her role in ensuring that this story from 60-plus years ago is immortalized and known to contemporary generations.
Three of the daughters of the Lincoln School Marching Mothers attended the ceremony and accepted the award on behalf of all those involved in the historic movement. They were Myra Phillips, Virginia Harewood and Joyce Kittrel, the latter of whom, as spokesperson for the trio, drew a parallel between their marching for rights regarding school integration some 66 years ago and young people today demonstrating against elements of systemic racism in American society.
“It’s so similar today,” Kittrel said in referring to the Black Lives Matter Movement. “We had parents who really cared and took care of their children. Children today need to know that there are people who will help them. If you work together and believe in Jesus Christ, things will work out.
Kittrel said, “I stand here for the mothers that led the march and their children who marched with them.”
She praised those willing to protest in nonviolent ways to ensure the rights of all Americans, because, she noted, “Inside, we’re all the same. We are all human beings and it’s up to us as individuals to make sure this is one nation under God. There is always something in life that we can make better if we live in peace together and stand together.”
WC President Trevor Bates expressed how impressed he was to learn the story of the Lincoln School Marchers.
“We thank you for doing what needed to be done,” he said, noting that in many ways, their struggle for equality continues to this day. “There’s a lot more work to be done and conversations to have.”
Chip Murdock, director of the Office of Diversity + Inclusion, organized the event after several of the Lincoln School marchers spoke in his community leadership class earlier in the semester.
“The story of the marchers is a great story and one that has ties to Wilmington College,” he said.
Indeed, during the two years while the children were marching each day, local Quakers and faculty members at the college were involved with helping teach them so as to ensure they would have the best education possible until they were able to attend integrated public schools.
Murdock said the Brooks Award honors each marcher for their part in “this tireless community change process. We thank them for all they have done for Ohio, equality and for sharing their stories with us. They are an inspiration to us all.”
The award, which will be incorporated into the Lincoln School Marching Mothers exhibit in the Highland County Historical Society’s Highland House Museum in Hillsboro, is named in honor of Art Brooks, the college’s first director of multicultural affairs, who served for 19 years through 2012. He was in attendance.
Randy Sarvis is the senior director of public relations at Wilmington College.