About a year ago I stumbled into a story about the Hillsboro Marching Mothers that I struggled to believe happened here in Ohio.
This is what took me to Highland House in Hillsboro on Saturday. They have a nice exhibit about the topic in their Humanities Room. The centerpiece of this room is a short documentary that beautifully shows the human side of the events involving the Marching Mothers.
Here’s what happened.
In the mid-1950s many establishments in Hillsboro were segregated. For example, restaurants only allowed blacks to order takeout rather than sit at the counter or a table inside. While the high school was integrated, the elementary schools were not. In fact, black youngsters were forced to attend the Lincoln School, a building constructed not long after the Civil War.
The Lincoln School was subpar in every sense of the word. While it had been updated over the years to add indoor plumbing and electricity, the building was hazardous. They lacked basic tools like maps, globes and science equipment. The textbooks were outdated and many were missing pages. Multiple classes were taught in a single classroom.
These students didn’t stand a chance of learning as much as their white counterparts in the other two schools in town because they simply lacked the tools and resources to do so.
On May 17, 1954 (67 years ago this week), the US Supreme Court handed down their landmark ruling that established segregation in schools unconstitutional. Most school children learn about the case today and you may remember it as Brown versus the Board of Education.
This decision fell on deaf ears in many segregated school districts including this one. Instead, the school board flat out ignored the ruling.
That summer, Highland County Engineer Phillip Partridge took a remarkable, if not misguided step, to force the school board’s hand and to end segregation.
He set the Lincoln School on fire.
A few things happened as a result. First, Mr Partridge confessed to his crime as he feared the blame would fall on the folks of the black community. Second, he went to prison for his crime.
The school board’s answer was to fix up the building and send the children back to the 85 year old repaired school.
This set into motion a social movement the likes of which most American towns haven’t seen.
A group of mothers, disgusted by what they saw at their childrens’ school, said enough is enough. In 1954, they removed their children from the school and worked with Quaker teachers from nearby Wilmington College to offer their children a better education.
However, before engaging in school work every day, the mothers and about fifty children marched to the elementary school where they were turned away by the principal. Every. Day.
Over time, the NAACP got involved and a lawsuit was filed. The school board tried their hand at gerrymandering, redistricting in the most ludicrous way imaginable. A cross was burned in someone’s front yard. Some mothers had to drop out of the marches because their employers threatened their jobs.
And every day this group of determined mothers and their youngsters marched through the streets of town, likely terrified for their own safety.
The Hillsboro Board of Education finally relented, agreeing to integrate the elementary schools because the State Board of Education threatened to pull all their funding.
It just goes to show that many only do the right thing only when there’s money on the line. The fall of 1957 finally brought integration to these schools.
This sounds like stories I’ve heard out of the deep south. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that should happen in the north.
Yet, here we are telling this shameful chapter in our history. Honestly, I’m proud of the folks at the Historical Society for owning this story rather than try to sweep it under the rug. They handle it respectfully.
Talking about where we have come from can open a dialogue about where we are today and where we need to be. In these racially charged and tense times, these conversations can help us understand the complex system of racism in our country.
If you go, be sure to watch the film on this topic. It’s less than twenty minutes and it is powerful. The film interviews an elderly woman who was one of the Marching Mothers as well as her grown children who credit their mother’s bravery and persistence for helping them take their rightful place in local schools.
Cant make it to Highland House? They sell the dvd in their gift shop!!