UC Professor Brings Living Civil Rights History to Classroom

Hillsboro witnesses discuss Ohio school segregation with Dr. Charles F. Casey-Leininger’s students

Date: 9/11/2017 12:00:00 PM

By: Jonathan Goolsby
Contact: Julie Campbell-Holmes
Phone: (513) 509-1114

CINCINNATI, Oh. — Like any good historian, UC professor Dr. Charles “Fritz” Casey-Leininger knows that gathering primary witnesses’ accounts is critical to understanding past events.

“When you bring people who were on the front lines into the class, it brings it home,” he said.

Last semester, Casey-Leininger facilitated a panel on racism and civil rights, focusing on an oft-forgotten fight against school segregation: the case of Hillsboro’s “Marching Mothers.”

An insidious, Northern version of Jim Crow.

Classroom discussions of pre-Civil Rights Era segregation often focus on injustices endemic to the traditional South. It surprises some students today to learn that segregation was also common throughout the North.

Whereas Jim Crow laws made segregation de jure in the post-Reconstruction South, “in the North, it was almost always de facto,” Casey-Leininger explained. “There’s this really strong connection between school segregation and residential segregation.”

Northern communities often built separate schools in black and white neighborhoods, then limited enrollments to just those students living in the immediate vicinity of each. Hillsboro, Ohio — the Highland County seat — did just so.

After the turn of the century, the town stood divided along strict racial lines. Black families were concentrated into two enclaves: one on the east side and another in the northeast corner of town.

Photograph of the Lincoln School

The Lincoln School

In the early 1950s, Hillsboro’s black schoolchildren were still relegated to dilapidated, unheated Lincoln School, which had been built in the latter half of the 1800s. Washington Elementary and newly-built Webster Elementary served Hillsboro’s white children. To get to Lincoln, black children from the eastern section had to walk past Washington.

By 1954, the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education had affirmed “separate but equal” laws were unconstitutional.

Although that ruling seemed to clearly repudiate racial segregation in any form, Hillsboro’s board refused to close Lincoln School. It was a districting matter, they said, not a legal one.

Marching Mothers

Phillip Partridge, Highland County’s elected Engineer, wasn’t willing to put up with the status quo any longer. On Independence Day, 1954, he torched the Lincoln School to force the district’s hand. He served 9 months in prison.

Still, the district wouldn’t yield. It patched Lincoln’s roof and walls and resumed schooling black children there.

African-American families disenrolled their children and arranged home-schooling by Quaker tutors from nearby Wilmington College. Every morning for two years, a group of black mothers and their children marched across town to Webster Elementary to demand equal enrollment. They filed a federal lawsuit, Casey-Leininger said, “and helped to lay the groundwork for civil rights lawyers to attack school segregation in the North.”

Photograph of the mothers involved in the Hillsboro case, with their lawyers

The mothers involved in the Hillsboro case, with their lawyers.

The Marching Mothers, as they became colloquially known, endured jeers, crosses burned in front of their homes and even a judge’s threat to place their children in foster homes.

They lost suit after suit. Each time, they appealed. They received legal assistance from the NAACP and attracted national attention to their cause.

In January, 1956, in Clemons v. Board of Education, the US Court of Appeals’ 6th District found that Hillsboro’s school officials had attempted to circumvent the Brown ruling and, thus, violated the children’s civil rights.

The town’s schools were at last integrated.

The ruling would have important repercussions for future civil rights cases, Casey-Leininger said, including a 1970s fight against race-based school gerrymandering in Cincinnati’s Clifton neighborhood.

Accordingly, the Marching Mothers will be inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Commission’s Hall of Fame on October 5, 2017, at 10 a.m., in the Statehouse’s atrium.

Advisor to the Lincoln School exhibit and documentary.

In 2016, the Hillsboro Historical Society (HHS) received an Ohio Humanities Council grant to create a permanent exhibit and 10-minute documentary about Lincoln School and the Marching Mothers. It asked Casey-Leininger to serve as advising historian.

Last semester’s panel developed out of that relationship. Casey-Leininger brought several of the now-grown Hillsboro children — and the last surviving “Marching Mother,” now over 100 years old — to UC’s campus to present their firsthand testimony.

“My students loved it,” he said. “Here were real, live, flesh-and-blood people who went through hell to fight for their children, and children who went through hell to help change things for the next generation.”

Casey-Leininger recalled reactions to the panel being overwhelmingly positive. One of his students, a Pharmacy major, was so inspired by hearing the Hillsboro mothers’ story that he began volunteering with the HHS’s project.

The exhibit opened June 3rd at the society’s Highland House Museum, on Hillsboro’s Main Street. It’s open Saturdays and Sundays, 1 - 4 p.m. Admission is free; cash donations are encouraged.