Many of us know about the Marching Mothers of Hillsboro, Ohio. Much has been written about their undaunted courage and their stalwart stance against powers much greater than they, and how they persevered against racism in their community. And all those accolades are deserved.
But, how many know about the man who literally lit the spark that urged those freedom protesters forward? His name — Phillip Partridge.
In 1954, many of the schools in America were separated by race. The white children went to one school and the “colored” children went to another. The law called for separate, but equal – but it was rare that the school for Black kids was equal to the one designated for the white. And that’s the way it was in Hillsboro. The white kids went to either Washington Elementary or to Webster Elementary. Both those schools had superior facilities to the Lincoln School, which was established for the black children.
Then, in May of 1954, the Justices of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement. This landmark case helped establish that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all.
The leaders of the school administration agreed to follow the law and integrate the grade schools following the law’s dictate — “with all deliberate speed.” Unfortunately, the court left this speediness up to the individual states. No timeline was set. The reality was that one of the schools, Washington, was undergoing total renovation and that meant moving all the kids from there to the other grade school, Webster. There was no room. The Washington kids were herded into an all-purpose room (the gym/cafeteria) and left to basically just sit around. Little to no teaching happened. Later, what was the remnants of the original Webster school, known as “the Annex” was repaired enough to allow classes to be held there. So, that created an easy excuse for slowing down the integration process. The black families were told it would happen, but not when. Once again, the black community felt shunned, unwanted and unappreciated.
Enter Phil Partridge. Mr. Partridge, a white man, was the Highland County engineer. He had lived his entire life observant of the plight of those who did not have the privileges he had. He had lived his entire life harboring the notion that a day would come when he would don that coat of shining armor and step forward to help the downtrodden. He knew that time was now. On the 4th of July, 1954, Phil sat in church listening to a sermon on martyrs of the past. He prayed and asked God for a sign. He specifically asked God to awaken him that night at 2 a.m. and he knew if that happened what he would do. He was committed to action.
That night the area experienced a terrific electrical storm and Phil was startled awake as a thunderbolt hit near his home and woke him up. He looked at the clock. It said 2 a.m. Without hesitation he threw on his clothes and drove out to Rocky Fork Lake where he had a boat dock. He gathered up some oily rags, a can of gas and drove back into town. With a crowbar, he broke the lock on the front door of the Lincoln Elementary School, dropped the rags in a pile in the front foyer and doused them with gas. He lit the pile, watched for a moment and then turned and went home and back to bed.
He did not burn down the school, but there was enough damage to make attendance untenable. The next day, the enormity of his action hit him hard. He was both proud that, finally, he had acted on his plan to make a difference, that he had done something worthwhile and brave, and he was also fearful. He was afraid of the consequences; he had a wife and two young sons. He was also afraid the wrong people would be blamed for what he did. Already, rumors were flying around the small town. It seemed obvious that the fire bug must have been a Black person.
On Wednesday, Phil walked into the sheriff’s office and told his friend, sheriff Walt Reffitt, what he had done. He was not immediately arrested but told to go home until they could figure out what to do. He did. And he went back to work. When the news got around the community, the county commissioners, on Friday, asked him to resign his position. He agreed, but after some thought, recanted. He decided he was elected to his position and there was no one who could do his job at present, so on Monday he turned in a letter that explained his actions but said his conscious would not allow him to just give up.
The next day he was arrested and sent to Lima State Hospital for observation. After 30 days he was released, underwent a formal trial, was convicted and sent to the penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. On Aug. 24, 1955, after nine months, he was released and returned to Hillsboro. But the damage was done. He and his family were no longer respected members of the community. It was especially hard on his wife, a hospital nurse, and his two boys.
City leaders tried to fix up old Lincoln school, but no amount of new paint could cover the smell of charred wood. They told the Black families it was good enough to serve until they could get the Washington school finished and those kids moved back where they belonged. If you think it’s good enough, the Black families protested, why don’t you send some white kids over to attend Lincoln? Now there was an impasse. No one would give.
Enter the heroic Marching Mothers who defied the authorities and peacefully protested by parading each day, carrying signs and children up to the door of Webster school, only to be refused entry. They did this every day. Washington School was at last renovated and the kids who were packed into Webster were returned to new classrooms and integration began.
Phil Partridge and his family were never the same. He never got his prized job as county engineer back again. He moved around from job to job. He lived in New Mexico for a time, he lived in New York City for a time, but his act of chivalry was never rewarded. His place in history is more often than not forgotten. I, on the other hand, will never forget Phillip Partridge.
Anyone who might question my knowledge of how Mr. Partridge thought and felt, I can only say I knew him quite well in the years before he died and he gave me a huge binder that he called his “Memoir”. His feelings are exhibited quite well within those pages.
Garry Boone is a Hillsboro resident.