After the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic desegregation ruling in “Brown v. Board of Education” in 1954, schools across Ohio slowly but surely opened their classrooms to accommodate white and black students side by side, except in one small community – Hillsboro.
This marks the 60th year since Hillsboro became the last school in Ohio to integrate its elementary school in 1956, and only after being ordered to do so by the nation’s highest court.
While Hillsboro’s middle and high schools were integrated even a few years before the Brown case, its elementary schools remained separate, with black students relegated to Lincoln Elementary, white students attending the newly-expanded Webster school.
So notorious did the local situation become that it gained national attention. Time Magazine carried an article in its April 23, 1956 edition headlined, “Holdout in Ohio.”
The article began, “Almost daily since the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in the public schools, an odd ritual has taken place in little (pop. 5,100) Hillsboro, Ohio. Each morning before the Webster elementary school opened, a group of Negro mothers would march up to its main door, parade around for a while with placards reading, ‘Our Children Play Together; Why Can’t They Learn Together?’ and then return peacefully to their homes.”
The article includes a photograph of African American mothers and their children standing outside Webster school.
The Time article notes that nearly two years earlier, in the summer of 1954, “the white county engineer, Philip Partridge, a hot anti-segregationist, became so incensed over the board’s action (to fail to integrate) that he tried to burn Lincoln down.” Partridge was convicted of arson and sentenced to one to 15 years, but was paroled after serving nine months.
Hillsboro resident Teresa Williams told The Times-Gazette on Friday that she was 11-years-old and was one of the children who made the march to Webster school each morning with her mother, Sallie Williams, and her siblings, including her little brother, Lewis, who, at age 5, was too young for school but who was brought along with the others.
Teresa recalls that when the Lincoln school burned, “the city tried to charge a young black man for the fire,” but “Mr. Partridge turned himself in to the police and was charged and sent to prison.”
That episode from Hillsboro’s history was turned into a play called “The Hillsboro Story” by author-performer Susan Banyas, who was a white student in the third grade here when the events unfolded, and was always haunted by the memory of the black mothers and children marching briefly each morning outside her classroom window.
“Negro women in shirtwaist dresses and their children walk back and forth outside the classroom window, carrying signs. Then they disappear, then come back the next day,” said Banyas in a 2010 interview with The Oregonian newspaper of Portland, Ore. “Back and forth on Walnut Street, every day, outside the window, all year.”
Banyas’ play was presented at Southern State Community College in 2012, and a press release for the presentation noted, “This local event became the first test case for Brown v. Board of Education in the North.”
In a presentation she prepared for her church this month – Black History Month – Teresa Williams recalled that the mothers and their children made the walk to Webster five days a week for two years from 1954-56.
“There were a large number of mothers and children that started on this journey with us, but a lot of them had to withdraw their children due to the fact that the parents had day jobs working for the white families and were told that if they didn’t stop marching and take their children out, they would lose their jobs,” she wrote.
Her brother, Lewis “Louie” Williams, who later worked at Great Scot supermarket in Hillsboro for 45 years, recalls sitting on a stoop outside of Webster with “the white kids taunting us” through their classroom windows.
In later years, when he was permitted to attend school at Webster, he recalls teachers being hard on the black students, smacking their hands or even swatting them on their heads, while the white students were spared from such treatment. After playing with white children during recess, Louie recalls being brought into the office and told by the principal, “You play with your own kind.”
Lincoln v. Webster
Several individuals interviewed for this story who were involved in the segregation protest recalled that Hillsboro newspapers would not cover the story, and that news about it only came from larger papers in Cincinnati, Columbus or Cleveland. But a perusal of the archives of the Hillsboro Press Gazette show otherwise, with front page stories reporting extensively on the situation, at least by 1955.
For example, an item on the front page of the Press Gazette from Sept. 16, 1955 reported that “for the second day in a row, Negro mothers and children, assigned by school board regulations to Lincoln School, reported to the new school at Webster Thursday morning. Observers said there were 20 or 22 youngsters and seven or eight mothers in the group. They arrived with banners Thursday morning, asking, in general, for immediate integration of colored youngsters.”
The previous day, according to the story, saw a larger group with 47 children reportedly on hand. The article stated that 36 were turned away and “school officials merely told the others that they would not be registered.” The school board claimed it had a plan to integrate the elementary, but not until renovations were complete in a year or so.
Almost each following edition of the Press Gazette for the next several months includes front page pictures or stories detailing the ongoing marches to Webster, the demand for integration, court filings, and ultimately an appeal by the school board to the U.S. Supreme Court to ward off forced integration.
At one school board meeting in late 1955, according to a Press Gazette article, one of the mothers told board members that if black children could not attend Webster due to overcrowding – the school board’s excuse – then white children should be sent to Lincoln.
“If Lincoln is not good enough for your children, it is not good enough for ours,” said the mother, who was not identified by name. She added, “If you integrate Lincoln, our children will go back tomorrow.”
But a sign of the times is revealed in the fact that the Press Gazette was still publishing an occasional roundup of societal news about the African American community called “Colored News.” One item under that heading from Sept. 2, 1955 reported, for example, “Mrs. Augusta Williams and Mrs. Zella Mae Cumberland spent the weekend in Athens, Ga., with the former’s son, Paul Sherman.”
Teresa Williams described local African American mothers establishing schools in various homes around town. She said Quaker students from Wilmington College would come to teach in the homes.
When the school board required the black students to take tests in order to attend Webster – another artificial roadblock to integration, in the eyes of the black families – only one student passed, Teresa’s sister, Mary. But other children were deemed to have failed not because their answers were wrong, but because they were not following “the method” taught in Hillsboro schools. Instead, they were accustomed to the Quaker methods they had learned in their makeshift schools.
Was being turned away on a daily basis from enjoying an equal education with her white counterparts a traumatic experience for an 11-year-old girl? Teresa Williams replied, “We were all together,” referring to her siblings and friends who banded together with their mothers to make their daily trek to Webster.
Because she was in the seventh grade and allowed to attend school with white students when the fight over integration of the elementary school started, Eleanor (Curtis) Cumberland was not directly involved in the Hillsboro desegregation movement. But many have credited her mother, Imogene (Burns) Curtis, with being the leader of the group of mothers and children that marched to the Webster school each day.
The students trying to gain admittance were in grades 1-6, and Eleanor’s brother, John Curtis, was one of them.
“She got the fight started,” Eleanor said of her mother. “She wrote letters, knocked on doors and called people to rally them to join her in the fight. She thought the kids shouldn’t go back to a school that had just burned and had been patched up. She thought the kids deserved a better education.”
Eleanor said she’s proud of what her mother and so many others accomplished.
“Yes, I feel a sense of pride for the people that fought for what they believed was right, and I’m proud to help pass the story on,” she said.
Eleanor said her mother was totally against discrimination and believed that people should stand up for what they believe in. She said her mother “felt she had accomplished a victory” after the schools were finally desegregated.
In a speech she was recently asked to give about her mother, Eleanor said Imogene was “a person of strong Christian morals, conviction and willpower. She believed in finishing what she started. She also was known as a person who used words (a lot of words) to make her point and state her opinion. She believed every person, regardless of color, gender or economic means had a right to fair, just and equal treatment on the job, in the courtroom or in the classrooms.”
She said her mother was called “a troublemaker, an instigator, and even the ring leader of this well-known and documented case. Her efforts were well known. Her victories are still celebrated.”
She added, “Miss Imogene stood her ground and would not back down. She believed that segregation was wrong and she would not allow it to be used against her country, her community, or her children. She carried these feelings as she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. Aug. 28, 1963.”
Her mother served as “an advocate for many people in this community to receive public housing, assistance in legal matters and employment.” Imogene Curtis passed away Aug. 1, 1985.
Elsie Young still lives in Hillsboro and will turn 100 in June. She and Zella Cumberland are the two surviving mothers among the 18 who took part in the marches. Elsie had nine children and five of them marched with their mother and the other mothers and students – 36 students in all. She said that after Partridge set the Lincoln school on fire, it was repaired, but only three of the four former rooms could be used for students.
“I have always been taught in my life that if you have a fire in a building there’s a chance it could collapse, and I was not going to send my children in that building,” Elsie said.
She said that she did not teach or host the home school classes attended by the young black students during the years of the marches, but her children attended them. She said that the Quaker students from Wilmington College would drop papers off for the children on Monday, pick them up on Friday and grade them over the weekend, then drop off more papers for the students to work on the next Monday.
The marches, Elsie said, were mostly peaceful with few problems, but one time someone burned a cross on East Walnut Street where the group had to pass by.
She said that students at the Lincoln school sometimes got books from other schools in Hillsboro, but often many of the pages would be missing.
After protracted battles and a refusal by the school to obey a ruling by the 6th District Court of Appeals to immediately integrate its elementary school, the nation’s highest court got involved in the case, called Clemons v. Board of Education of Hillsboro, or, technically, “Joyce Marie Clemons, an infant by Gertrude Clemons, her mother and next friend, et al., Appellants, v. the Board Of Education Of Hillsboro, Ohio, a body corporate, et al., Appellees” – and ordered school officials to comply and proceed with integration, which they finally did.
A hard-fought victory was won after two years of legal battles, school board fights, and the daily marches to Webster.
How far have race relations in Hillsboro come since 1956?
“We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go,” said Teresa Williams. “There is still deep-seated stuff rearing its ugly head.”
She said even today, many black people who have grown up in Hillsboro believe they have to get away to be successful. But successful they have been, as Teresa notes by reciting a long list of relatives who have become doctors, ministers, teachers, medical professionals, managers and politicians.
Elsie Young, pondering the same question, said, “Oh, it’s come quite a ways, I think, because I have several wonderful white friends that come and see me all the time. But there’s still a lot that needs to be done. People need to have an open mind and realize they’re not the only ones in this world. We’ve got to recognize each other or it will just get worse.”
Eleanor Cumberland said that while progress has been made, racism and prejudice continue to exist.
“I see that we’ve come a long way from what it used to be like, but I don’t know that segregation will be cured. It’s just on a different level now. They can’t be as bold as they used to be,” Eleanor said. She said prejudice will probably not be overcome in her lifetime, or in the following generation’s lifetime.
“The story should be told over and over and over,” said Eleanor. “It’s time to shake the rugs and let people know what really happened.”