Eleanor Cumberland slid into a narrow chair in the corner of a cramped courtroom in downtown Hillsboro, the seat of Highland County, Ohio. Through the window behind her, the weak March sun glinted off the brown skin of her neck. As the county commissioners called the meeting to order, she steeled herself for a fight.
Truthfully, she was there for her mother, Imogene Curtis, who died thirty-seven years earlier, in 1985. “When she saw something that wasn’t fair, that wasn’t right,” Cumberland often said, “she did something about it.”
Beginning in 1954, Curtis led one of the longest-sustained community actions of the early civil rights movement: a two-year protest of the local school district by Hillsboro’s Black community. Starting in the fall of that year—four months after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation—Curtis and about eighteen other mothers and their children marched a mile from their houses to the white school to seek admission, only to be turned away. Yet they continued this routine each day for two years.
Despite the importance of the event to civil rights history, the story of these mothers and children largely went untold. Except for a few footnotes and brief mentions in dense academic texts, the story stayed within Hillsboro’s Black community for nearly fifty years. But recently, a small group of committed Hillsboro residents retold the story of their elders’ fight for an equal education.
To commemorate that struggle, in 2020, Cumberland and other Hillsboro citizens installed a marble bench inscribed with the names of every mother and child who had marched for integration in front of the Highland County Courthouse. Now there was talk that the bench would be removed from its plot to expand a water fountain. On that day in March 2022, Cumberland and many of her friends were at the commissioners’ meeting to protest. They had worked too hard—and their ancestors sacrificed too much—for the memorial to be shunted to a back alley.
As she sat in the crowded meeting room, Cumberland thought back to the summer her mom’s fight started. She was eleven at the time, preparing to start secondary school (which had been open to both Black and white students for decades, though very few Black students attended). But the educational future of her brother John, who was eight, was still unsettled. The elementary schools were racially segregated. White students attended either Washington Elementary or Webster Elementary, while Black students went to Lincoln.
In May 1954, after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schooling was illegal, the Hillsboro school district planned to delay integration of the elementary schools. The district was constructing new buildings at the Washington and Webster sites. The superintendent, Paul Upp, promised to integrate once the new building was completed, but he avoided setting a definite timeline.
That decision riled Curtis to action. She knew that Lincoln did not offer her children an education equal to those of the white students. Lincoln had historically lacked the resources of Washington and Webster. Lincoln was a small building, so classes were crowded. Only two teachers were assigned to the school of sixty students. First-, second-, and third-grade students all learned in one room. In the winter, the second floor was difficult to heat, so classes were often moved to the basement—until the boiler would overheat, sending steam and children streaming upstairs. Lincoln students used outdated and damaged textbooks, and they didn’t have access to the same educational resources, like maps, that white students had.
The school board’s choice to delay integration wasn’t all that unusual, according to Dr. Jessica Viñas-Nelson, a professor of African American history at Arizona State University. “The Brown decision did not fix anything,” she explains. “There was a slow walk to end school segregation, all across the country. And it was almost harder to dislodge in the North.” This was due, in part, to the vague language in the court’s decision around implementation. The law said that school segregation was illegal, but it offered no practical instructions on how to desegregate or penalties for failing to do so.
The indefinite delay also bothered Philip Partridge, the county engineer who was charged with maintaining roads and bridges. Partridge, a white man, was quiet and introspective, tall and sturdy. He had received a degree in mathematics from Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee before serving in World War II. In the early morning hours of July 5, 1954, he broke through the weed-choked alley leading up to Lincoln with cans of oil and gasoline. With a few splashes of fuel and a lit match, Partridge thought that he had set the city’s school district on a righteous path. The fire gutted an entire school room, destroying desks, books, and shelving. Lincoln would have to be closed and the classrooms integrated, he believed. (Partridge eventually served nine months in prison for burglary and arson.) Despite the damage, the district declared that students could return to Lincoln in the fall.
This news made Curtis dig in her heels. In August, along with her neighbor Gertrude Clemons and a few other mothers, she delivered to the school board a petition signed by 225 Black residents demanding immediate integration. Curtis exchanged words with the board, as she recorded in her personal notes:
“We have been good to our colored people,” one defensive board member retorted when the parents handed over the petition.
“Wonderful,” Curtis rejoined. “Like if you have a second-hand suit, instead of throwing it away, you give it to colored people.”
Still, the school board refused to budge. But Curtis knew that there was no official ordinance banning her child from attending one of the white schools, only the rhetoric of a few local officials. At the start of the 1954-55 school year, a handful of Black parents enrolled their children into the Webster school. In response, the school board held a special meeting to discuss the “forced integration” of the elementary schools.
In that meeting, the school board hastily drew up three new school zones. The Washington and Webster zones were split by the town’s north-to-south thoroughfare, High Street. But the board carved a third district out of two neighborhoods in the Washington school zone. Those two pockets were Hillsboro’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, and the students in this third zone were assigned to Lincoln. No white elementary children resided in the Lincoln zone. To add insult to injury, some of the Black students in the Lincoln zone had to walk past the Washington School building to get to Lincoln. Hillsboro’s News-Herald newspaper reported on September 9, 1954, “Board members said that actually colored youngsters would be in a better situation in Lincoln.”
“I’d rather be in jail and see my son in reform school,” Orvel Curtis, Imogene’s husband, told his wife, “than send him back to an all-Negro Lincoln.”
So on Friday morning, Curtis dressed her son John in dapper trousers and a carefully pleated shirt. In the house next door, Clemons dressed her daughter Joyce, age twelve, in her Sunday best—pretty dress, neatly folded socks, fancy shoes. A handful of other Black mothers across town did the same with their children, some as young as three. Many families congregated in the street for the mile-long walk to Webster Elementary, and others joined along the way. By the time they arrived at the school, there were a few dozen in the group.
Webster’s school bell rang at precisely 9 a.m. Joyce, John and the other Black children ran through the open doors. While the mothers stood together on the sidewalk, school officials sent the children back out.
The principal walked out, apologized, and explained that these students were no longer on the roster for the Webster school.
“The nation’s highest court says our children must be allowed to learn with yours,” Curtis argued, her full figure casting an imposing shadow on the sidewalk beside the principal.
He still insisted that there was no room for the children. They would have to go to Lincoln. He walked back in.
Clemons and Curtis exchanged glances, turned to their children, and in unison, sent them back. Moments later, they returned to the sidewalk. After a third failed attempt, the mothers wearily turned their backs on Webster and accompanied their children back home.
At the end of the school day, the superintendent announced that any child, regardless of race, who did not attend their assigned school on Monday would be considered truant. The school district, he warned, would mete out the appropriate consequences: a maximum of $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
Despite the superintendent’s ominous warning, Curtis and John, Clemons and Joyce, and some of the other Black families gathered again at the start of the next school day to walk the mile to Webster. They were, unsurprisingly, turned away again. They did it again the next day and the day after. Regardless of weather or physical injury, the march continued through the end of the school year.
The story was the same in the fall of 1955. When Curtis and the other families arrived on Webster’s doorstep for a new school year, they were again turned away. But this time the mothers had a new plan. That night, they painted large protest signs: “I can’t go to school because of segregation,” “The south has integration, why not Hillsboro?” and “If you were in our place, would it be different?” When they arrived at Webster the next morning, signs in hand, nothing was different; they were again turned away. The mothers knew that they couldn’t risk another year without quality education, so over the summer they had arranged for teachers from nearby Wilmington College to offer their children daily lessons. While the teachers would make the twenty-mile journey down to Hillsboro only once a week, four mothers took responsibility for the day-to-day instruction. Curtis called these “Freedom Schools.”
At the same time as they were marching, the Black mothers also guided a civil lawsuit through the federal court system. On September 22, 1954—just five days after they were initially turned away from Webster—the mothers filed an injunction against the Hillsboro School District with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Joyce Clemons was chosen as lead plaintiff. The case became known as Clemons v. Board of Education.
In the face of arrest threats, unemployment, verbal abuse, and cross burnings, the mothers persevered for almost two years as the case wound its way through the legal system. The parents became experts in dense legal documents while marching every school day, regardless of scorching heat or freezing rain.
Finally, in April 1956, after two long years of marching, homeschooling, and attending court hearings, the Supreme Court affirmed that Hillsboro’s school board must integrate immediately. The text of this new decision was clearer than previous ones: the school district had no choice but to integrate. Although the superintendent delayed as long as possible, he eventually relented. The mothers had won.
“Nobody ever talked about this,” says Carolyn Goins, one of the students who marched. “We didn’t even talk about it at home. Not really. Every now and then, something might come up and it would trigger a conversation, but it never went anywhere.”
The story of the march survived only in these broken conversations until the early 2000s, when a white journalist, Charlotte Pack, had a chance encounter with one of the town’s African American elders. Pack remembers, “He told me, ‘You need to tell the Lincoln School story. You need to tell the story of the fire and the marching mothers. No one in this generation knows about this.’ And he was right, because I had never heard about it.”
Pack knew this was an important story for the whole community to share. “What motivated me,” Pack says, “is healing toward wholeness in the community.”
Over the next twenty years, the story received a cascade of attention: a stage drama, a permanent exhibit in the local historical society, and a short documentary. Recently, Ohio Humanities, the state’s affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, expanded the documentary and provided educational resources designed to bring more attention to this history.
This growing recognition is an important corrective to the way that we usually talk about the civil rights movement. Events like the Hillsboro march, explains Viñas-Nelson, illustrate the power of small groups in establishing profound, lasting change. “If you think you have to be a Martin Luther King or a Rosa Parks to lead a civil rights movement, no one’s ever going to lead a civil rights movement, because they didn’t start from those high pillars,” she says. “All of these movements happen by local people starting them in their communities.”
In Hillsboro, that sense of community comes from the sacred connections between parents and children. “One of the reasons this story sticks and continues to be told is that there’s a basic universal message in it,” Pack explains. “Most, if not all, mothers and fathers love their children, and they want the best education and brightest future for them. If you take away the fire and the lawsuit, you’re left with parents who only want the best for their children.” The story of the Lincoln School Marchers is one that shows in heightened detail how the simple and instinctive love between parents and their children can translate into community actions that eventually drive large social change.
The former Lincoln students like to talk about the love, pride, and appreciation they have for their mothers. Their mission now, as they see it, is to celebrate their mothers’ central role in the civil rights movement. “I know who wrote the letters,” Cumberland insists about her mother. “I know who made the phone calls. I know who the newspapers contacted during this fight. My mom fought for other people’s rights ’til the day she died.”
For these women, the story is as much about the present as it is about the past. Now a grandmother, Joyce Clemons thinks of the story as a powerful reminder of how parents can lead children to understand racial differences. “We have to be able to explain to kids that you may be a little light, you may be a little brown, but you’re all the same.”
As the county commissioner’s meeting was called to order in the Highland County Courthouse on that mid-March evening, Cumberland drew a breath. She was prepared to admonish the three white men who sat at the head table. But before she and the other community members could protest, the commissioners briskly announced that the plans to expand the fountain—and remove the “Marching Mothers” bench—had been withdrawn. The bench would remain. Cumberland was, for the moment, satisfied. She quietly excused herself from the meeting, victorious and vindicated.
“That’s my purpose, to see that my mama’s work isn’t lost,” Cumberland insists. “And that this fight goes on, that this story goes on.”
Special thanks to the community of Hillsboro, especially the former Lincoln School students and local historians Kati Burwinkel and John Glaze. Thanks also to my colleagues Melvin Barnes and Alex Corpuz, who contributed much to the production of this story.
Aaron Rovan is a program officer at Ohio Humanities and a former writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.