Marching On: The Fight for School Integration in Hillsboro, Ohio
When their school district refused to integrate after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, a group of Black mothers in Southwest Ohio marched their children to the white school, demanding admission, only to be turned away every day for two years. Their activism resulted in one of the longest sustained protests of the civil rights era. Today, their children remain committed to telling the story of their mothers’ activism and of Ohio’s role in the movement.
The story of the Hillsboro Lincoln School Marchers is an important one in America’s fight for racial justice. For years, it went largely untold. Ohio Humanities is proud to share this story in myriad ways, including a 20-minute documentary film, discussion guides and more:
In the summer of 1954, the nation held its collective breath as Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren took the center chair in the nation’s highest courtroom. America’s system of racial segregation hung in the balance as he prepared to read the Court’s unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
“Separate but equal,” he read, “has no place in the Constitution.”
School segregation was now, in theory, illegal. But as the Black community in Hillsboro, Ohio, knew, theory and practice are two dramatically different things.
Hillsboro was one of those Northern towns where officials approached integration cautiously. Although the community’s high schools were integrated by 1946, the elementary schools were still racially segregated. Black students attended Lincoln, and white students went to Webster and Washington. After the Brown decision, the school board announced that they would integrate the elementary schools only after they were finished remodeling the Washington school building, which they projected would take two years.
Lincoln Elementary School in Hillsboro
Although Hillsboro’s school officials were comfortable delaying integration, the Highland County engineer—a white man who believed segregation was wrong—was furious about the injustice. The week before the fire, Philip Partridge listened to his minister preach in defense of those who break the law in pursuit of just reforms. If there is no school for Black children to attend, Partridge surmised, then the white schools must allow the Black children in.
In the early morning hours of July 5, Partridge broke into Lincoln Elementary and set it on fire. He was eventually found guilty of arson and served nine months in prison. But he always defended his actions as justified.
Partridge, it turns out, had ignited not just a structure but also a movement that would eventually place this quiet, rural town at the epicenter of the battle to desegregate schools nationwide
Marchers outside Webster Elementary
Despite the Brown decision and Partridge’s arson, which had irreparably damaged Lincoln, Hillsboro’s school board still planned to keep Lincoln open for the town’s Black elementary students. The school board made minor repairs, slapped on a fresh coat of paint and declared Lincoln Elementary ready to welcome Black students for the year.
In response, a group of 18 Black mothers and 37 children marched to the white school, demanding admission. Upon being rejected, they woke up the next morning and marched again. And again. And again. For two years, they marched. Even their eventual win came at a cost. Theirs is a story of pain. Of passion. Of determination. And of love.
Many of the Lincoln School students who marched are still alive today. By sharing their story, the marchers hope to inspire other to remember their mothers and continue the work they started.
Their commitment to keeping the story of the march--and their mothers--alive reminds us of the importance of education and of how recent the civil rights movement is in our past.
Eleanor Curtis Cumberland, 79
Mother: Imogene Curtis
“People would come to my mother for a lot of different things, like if they were having housing discrimination or job discrimination or even problems with the courts. My mom wrote letters to prisons and lawyers and to judges on people's behalf. So I know what my mom did. With every fight, you have to have somebody leading it.”
Joyce Clemons Kittrell, 80
Mother: Gertrude Clemons
“At that time, the parents were very strict about learning. My dad always told me, ‘You do 100%. If you can do 150%, you do it.’ And so that kind of helped a lot, you know? We knew we had to do it because we'd have been right back where we were before if we didn’t—not allowed to go places and not allowed to do things.”
Myra Cumberland Phillips, 74
Mother: Zella Mae Cumberland
“We've still got a long way to go, but I hope children today learn what we actually, really went through. And really, I never sat down and explained it all to my boys until after this (documentary) film came out. I didn't think they would be interested. I never did explain it to them when they were little. I just would say, ‘You better get an education.’ ”
Teresa Williams, 79
Mother: Sallie Williams
“I have often been asked, how did we get along with kids after we got into Webster School. We would tell the difference from the kids who knew about the desegregation problem in Hillsboro. Because the kids who didn’t have a problem playing with us, it wasn’t being talked about in their homes. The kids who had a problem with the Black students knew about the desegregation problem in Hillsboro.”
Virginia Steward Harewood, 76
Mother: Elsie Steward Young
“I mean, two or three months (of marching) was something. But we went for two years every day, rain or shine. I thought, ‘Why do we have to continue to do the same thing over and over when we knew they weren’t going to let us in?’ So, at 8, you can imagine what that was like.”
Carolyn Steward Goins, 74
Mother: Elsie Steward Young
“(Being held back) wasn't nice. It wasn't fun at all. We already knew all that we had learned from the kitchen schools when they put us back. So we knew everything they were trying to teach us. It still bothers me. It makes me mad. But, you know, we met so many nice people. I wasn't fond of going back to school, but I enjoyed all the kids that I got acquainted with.”
Ralph Steward, 72
Mother: Elsie Steward Young
“I appreciate everything my mother did, because she made it easier for the Black kids to go to school. And we've had several that have graduated college. And it all stems from what happened in '54 to '56. I don't want people to feel sorry for me, but sorry for the way that we were treated. There's so many things we were not able to do because of our skin color. And it's not right. I would hope that they wouldn't ever want to go backward. We need to continually go forward.”
Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Why Busing Failed by Matthew Delmont
“Early Boycotts of Segregation Schools: The Case of Springfield, Ohio, 1922-23” by August Meier and Elliot Rudwick
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Sweet Land of Liberty by Thomas Sugrue
"The Long Walk" by Sara Stankorb
"Essay B" from This American Life
"Picturing Black History: Marching Mothers" by Jessica Viñas-Nelson
Self-Taught: African American African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams
"Fire of Justice: The Battle for School Desegregation in Hillsboro" by Pat Williamsen
What connections can you make between the Hillsboro march and the larger context of other social protests, past or present?