Hillsboro Marching Mothers

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 The textbooks were outdated and many were missing pages.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!!

Reflections On The Rosa Parks Bus

When planning a day at the Henry Ford Museum, there was one thing I really wanted to do. I wanted to have a few uninterrupted minutes on the Rosa Parks bus.

To make this wish a reality, I was there when they opened and then headed straight for this exhibit.

For the benefit of my international friends, Rosa Parks was a pioneer in the American Civil Rights movement. In 1955, when segregation ruled the American south, she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. The police were called and this mild mannered African American seamstress was led off to jail.

She became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for over a year and forced the desegregation of the city’s buses.

The Henry Ford Museum confirmed the authenticity of the bus and outbid some major players (including the Smithsonian) to the tune of $492,000. However, after sitting outside for about thirty years, the bus required a massive restoration project that cost another $300,000. As you can tell, they really wanted to preserve this piece of history.

And honestly, they did a great job.

Sitting there, I kept thinking it could be 1955 just as easily as it was 2019. The bus is immaculate but it’s not just a museum piece. You are welcomed aboard and invited to sit a while. You can even sit in her seat.

The docent was good at his job, answering my questions and relating the story for me. He even took my picture.

However, he also gave me time to sit quietly and absorb the magnitude of this space and of the actions of one woman, who on that one day, said enough is enough. History was made with that split second decision, made under the glare of a white driver who was known for being unfriendly to his black passengers on a good day.

A hastily organized boycott crippled the city bus system and forced changes into law. She wasn’t seeking fame or money or publicity of any kind. She didn’t appreciate the attention she received but later said she was just tired of giving in.

With all that is happening in our country today and with leaders who seem to encourage the divide between races, there was something reassuring about sitting in her seat. It was a great reminder that a 42 year old seamstress could start a revolution because she was tired of giving in.

The moment felt both sacred and peaceful.

I had that bus all to myself for several minutes before anyone else arrived and I was grateful for every passing second. Still, it was gratifying to walk by later in the day to find the bus full of a diverse group of people who wanted to have the experience too.

The bus is part of a larger exhibit that covers segregation and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time the museum bought the bus, they also acquired a scrapbook containing a number of news clippings you can read. There are some interactive features here and some truly disturbing things including a flier for a cross burning that sounds like an invitation to a Sunday school picnic rather than a hate rally.

I felt sorrow that our country hasn’t advanced more than it has and I felt gratitude for the progress we have made, even knowing there are plenty of people who would look at such hateful materials and think they’re ok.

If you find your way to the Henry Ford Museum, make time for this exhibit. Read the materials, watch the videos, listen to the songs and think about what it all means.

Sixty-five years ago sounds like a long time but it isn’t that long at all. We have plenty of people living in this country today who remember all too well not being allowed to eat in a restaurant, drink from a water fountain or use a waiting room because of the color of their skin.

After Rosa Parks stood up for her beliefs by sitting down, close to another decade passed before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law changing all of that for good.

But while the law guarantees equality, racial divide is still far too great in this country. I’m as white as can be and I do not take responsibility for things that happened before me but I do think it’s my right and duty to contribute something positive to the world I live in now. I can’t change the past but I can help change the future by showing kindness and empathy and by celebrating our similarities rather than complain about the differences.

The last words today go to Rosa herself.

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.”