Mother’s Day is traditionally a holiday where mothers are shown gratitude for their roles as caretakers, nurturers and sources of wisdom. Traditionally, these maternal roles are thought of to be passive and confined to the home. But history shows us that mothers have played an outsized role in social change, particularly in Highland County.
The city of Hillsboro often takes pride in two historical figures: the “Marching Mothers,” who protested school segregation in the 1950s, and Eliza Jane Thompson (aka “Mother Thompson”), who crusaded for temperance in the 1870s. In Highland County, both desegregation and temperance were led by mothers who were animated by a concern for the welfare of their families.
After the Hillsboro Board of Education refused to integrate its elementary schools, the mothers of African American students marched daily for two years in protest. Today, Highland County proudly heralds these women as the Marching Mothers. Back then, the mothers were mocked, ridiculed and threatened with violence. Today, they’re heroes.
Despite their persecution, the mothers were victorious in their protest. Thanks to the Marching Mothers, Black students in Hillsboro attend the same schools as white students.
The local tradition of “marching mothers” traces back to the temperance movement. Hillsboro resident Eliza Jane Thompson grew concerned with the effect of drunken fathers in the family and society. Mother Thompson organized a series marches to saloons in Hillsboro, demanding that they close shop. Mother Thompson’s marches catalyzed the temperance movement and elevated her as the “mother” of the movement.
Nearly a decade before Mother Thompson began her crusade in Hillsboro, mothers in Greenfield revolted against a local liquor establishment. After young William Blackburn was killed by a stray bullet fired from a local saloon in 1865, the boy’s mother demanded that the mayor confiscate all the liquor in town. The mayor refused, and the murderer was never prosecuted.
Not taking no for an answer, Mrs. Blackburn rallied with other women who had also experienced abuses at the hands of alcohol. Armed with hatchets, the women broke into the saloon in question and began dumping barrels of liquor out onto the street.
The accomplishments of mothers in Highland County are no small feat. The temperance movement became one of the largest social movements in American history, gaining a constitutional amendment. And while the gains won by the civil rights movement are often attributed to charismatic men like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the movement would not have been possible without the organizing of Black women.
Moreover, women’s fight for racial justice in Highland County predates the civil rights movement. Many women of Highland County helped operate the extensive Underground Railroad network near Paint Creek, New Market, Sinking Spring and Buford.
Mothers are still at work today in seeking justice for their families. In response to the murder of Black Americans at the hands of police, mothers have organized for systemic change. Some of these mothers include Gwen Carr (Eric Garner), Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin) and Samaria Rice (Tamir Rice).
On this Mother’s Day, we also remember that George Floyd was calling for his mother during the last few minutes of his life.
Mothers are at the southern border, seeking a better life for their children. Mothers are fighting against the separation of children from their parents. Mothers are calling for “commonsense” gun legislation in the wake of increasingly prevalent school shootings. Self-proclaimed “mama bears” are seeking justice for their LGBTQ+ children who have been relegated to second-class citizens in their churches and schools.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, mothers bore the brunt of labor when classroom instruction moved online. Millions of working mothers have had to work a “double-shift” as they try to retain their jobs while caring for their kids at home.
In light of this knowledge that mothers are drivers of social change, what does it mean to show appreciation to our mothers on Mother’s Day? Perhaps appreciation should be more than a bouquet of flowers or a phone call. Perhaps appreciation for our mothers means joining them in their march and sharing in their struggle.
Stephen Crouch is a master of arts student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, New York and a former resident of Hillsboro, Ohio.