HILLSBORO, Ohio (WCMH) — Although the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, Jim Crow remained the law of the land at elementary schools in Hillsboro, Ohio.
A group of Black mothers and children in the southwest Ohio town, deemed the “Lincoln School marchers,” were determined, however, to provide their kids with an integrated education. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court decision was handed down, the marchers kicked off what became “one of the longest sustained protests of the civil rights era,” according to Ohio Humanities.
“The Lincoln School march, if you think about it, it started a full year before the Montgomery bus boycott and lasted twice as long,” Rebecca Asmo, executive director of Ohio Humanities, said.
While Hillsboro’s high schools were integrated by 1946, its three elementary schools remained segregated. The doors of Webster and Washington schools opened only to white students, Ohio Humanities said, and Lincoln only to Black students.
Determined to send their children to one of the “whites only” schools, the Black mothers woke up, dressed their children, and waved picket signs as they marched to Webster and Washington — only to be turned away, forced to homeschool their kids in what they called “kitchen schools.”
The daily protests lasted for two years until school board officials conceded to the Lincoln School marchers’ demands — which became the “first northern test case of Brown v. Board of Education” — integrating their elementary schools, Asmo said.
“When you think how busy your life is, imagine taking on, before I start my day, I’m going to dress up my kid, walk two miles, receive some humiliation and go back home, set my kids up for school,” Kati Burwinkle, a historian at the Highland County Historical County, said. “That was a big commitment for two years, amazing commitment.”
It was an incredible effort and a story that hadn’t really been told, in part because of a fear of repercussion at the time and in later years a fear of perception, according to Burwinkle, who helped bring the Lincoln School marchers’ story to light.
“What I was told was that some people were concerned about bringing back the past and upsetting part of the past. And they did not want to ruffle any feathers,” Burwinkle said.
Once the Black children were allowed to integrate the white schools, many of them were held back one or two grades without merit, Lincoln School marcher Myra Phillips said. They were often falsely accused of things and experienced segregation in the classroom.
“When I first went in there, they made me sit back by the bathroom — I couldn’t sit with the other kids,” Phillips said. “At the time, I just figured, ‘I’m Black; I’ve got to sit back here.’ I thought that way, but I never said it, I just thought that way.”
For the marchers, the realization of what they had done didn’t set in until years later. Eleanor Cumberland’s mother Imogene Curtis was an organizer of the march, and she said she hadn’t realized the gravity of her mom’s efforts.
“As a child, I never dreamed of the importance of what she was doing and the impact that it might make someday,” Cumberland said. “She just didn’t like to see people treated differently.”
Marchers who spoke with NBC4 had two important messages to share: First, a deep gratitude for their mothers who tirelessly advocated for a fair, integrated education. The second message, while cautionary, calls on Ohioans to ensure history is not repeated.
“I think the thing for right now is to understand that what we went through we want to make sure that other kids don’t have to go through the same situation” said Joyce Kittrell, a Lincoln School marcher.
You can learn more about the marchers by visiting Ohio Humanities and watching the full documentary about the Lincoln School marchers and their impact on the nation.