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Posted on 07/29/2014


Photo taken on September  1, 1905



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South School in Oxford, Ohio
circa 1905
School Segregation
All the black kids in the back ...


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South School

South School
The photograph above is a class photo, taken in about 1905 from what was then the sole public school in Oxford Ohio. The School was located at the corner of Spring and College streets, on the same parcel of land where the Stewart School now sits.

The photograph tells a number of stories about education in Oxford in the past, but perhaps the most striking story it tells is about race: seventeen white students stand in the front of the group accompanied by a white teacher, and eight African American students stand in the back row against the wall. It is not hard to imagine the racial bigotry and social exclusion that led to this divided group. Yet, ironically, the same picture also tells a story of racial progress and equity. While it is striking that the black students are all in the back row, what is more striking is that they are there at all. However internally divided was this classroom, the school was, in fact racially integrated. Given that the United State Supreme Court did not prohibit legally segregated schooling until 1954, how did this school in Oxford--a town so far in the south of Ohio that many of its residents supported the Confederacy in the Civil War--become racially integrated in 1905? What were the social, legal, and political barriers that African Americans had to cross to literally walk into that predominantly white school?

Although the Ohio constitution of 1803 prohibited slavery within state borders, the treatment of African Americans in Ohio was close to slavery through most of the 19th century. Ohio, as in many northern states, had what were commonly called Black Laws which were a series of state regulations that restricted the physical mobility, legal rights, economic opportunities, and social freedoms of African American residents in the state. Included in the laws was the prohibition of schooling for African American children, although to be sure, the state did not even begin public funding for white children until the 1830s and even the majority of white children did not attend more than the sixth grade well into the 20th century.

Ohio's Black Laws represented only one side of the state's vigorous debate over the rights of African Americans throughout the century. Ohio was the home of abolitionists and advocates for African American suffrage, as well as educational institutions like Oberlin College (founded 1833) that admitted both black and white students and the African American college Wilberforce University (founded 1856). Residents in many Ohio communities, including Oxford, offered stations on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to freedom and creating new communities for free African Americans. But there were also Ohioans who fought to expel all African Americans from the state, and tried to enact strict segregation laws in all social, political, and economic affairs. Throughout the 19th century, African Americans in Ohio faced persistent threats, including economic marginalization, social bigotry, exclusion from public services, and violence. Even after the law prohibiting the education of African Americans was repealed in 1850, a new law required racially separate schools, with the burden of financing those schools falling solely on black parents.

Black Ohioans organized their own educational systems nonetheless, generating their own funding to establish independent black schools in private homes and churches. But even these independent ventures were opposed by many white residents, who saw the education of African Americans as a threat to their own social power and control over jobs. So violent was white Ohioans antagonism to the notion of education for African Americans, that many communities actively prohibited even privately funded black schools by writing local law, and publicly harassing and destroying black schools.

When the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 conferred citizenship on former slaves, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 gave black men the right to vote, black Ohioans began to turn to the law to address their claims.

The Perry Gibson Case of 1887: In a Cincinnati court case of 1876, a black father filed suit for his son to attend the local white school which was near his home, instead of having to walk four miles to the "colored" school to which he was legally assigned. In some cities and northern communities, white school leaders opened their schools to African American students, but the rational was as much to garner African American votes, avoid legal challenge, and save the cost of building both black and white schools as it was to promote any notion of racial equality.

The increasing pressure to create what was then called "mixed" schools, led to the Ohio state legislature's decision on February 22, 1887 to repeal the separate school provision and allow for racially mixed schooling. In some districts, primarily in the north of the state, integration occurred quickly and peacefully, but there was violent resistance in other districts where white parents and educators physically prevented black children from entering local schools, closed schools to prevent integration, and gerrymandered school districts to create racially distinct districts.

Oxford's first school was founded in 1811, soon after the founding of the town, and it educated the growing number of white children in town who were the sons and daughters of teachers at Miami University and the growing town. A mission school for African American children was founded in 1840, with part of the tuition paid by parents. A few years later, a "colored school," also known as the North School and the School for Negroes, was built on North Beech St. between Withrow and Vine. In 1866, a white teacher, Mr. Grennan, began to teach at that school, and some years later, a black teacher, Mr. East, joined him. The school was a two room building filled with students, ages 5- 25, the older ones being former slaves who had been prohibited all education, including basic literacy, under slavery.

White children attended the Union School, built in 1855 at the corner of Beech and Collins. The school educated children through about sixth grade; by the 1870s, as secondary education developed across the country, a few classrooms were designated as the high school. In 1886, after years of vigorous debate, the town passed a bond (by only 17 votes) to build a new school to accommodate the increasing numbers of students. The new South School, was a large and impressive building with an inspiring tower on the corner of Spring and College.

By this time, there was a large black community in Oxford--up to one tenth of the total population of about 3000. The original black residents in the town were freed slaves; others came to work for Miami University (which did not admit African Americans as students until the early 1900s) as laborers, servants, custodians, cooks, maids, painters, and cleaners. There was no formal residential "color line" but most African Americans lived on the north side of town.

Of the 400 students in Oxford's two schools, up to one quarter were African American. The new South School housed about 300 white students (47 of whom were high school), and the old North School housed about 70 black children only in the elementary grades. The two schools were barely half a mile apart, but they were continents apart in terms of quality of facilities and curriculum. In April 1887, as white residents attended the dedication ceremony of their grand new school building (click here to see photo of building), African American residents whose children crowded into the two rooms of the old North School, heard that the state had passed a law abolishing racially separate schools.

Superintendent of Schools W.H. Stewart, asked the Board how the district would adhere to the new law; he was advised to prohibit any transfers of black students to the South School. The Board argued that to introduce racial "mixing" so quickly would upset the white residents. But black residents took the matter into their own hands and on the first day of school on September 14, 1887, 43 black children walked to the new South School, where they were enrolled. Some white children's parents withdrew their children from the school in protest, and some black children ran into the Town Marshall who tried to drive them away from the building with a whip.

White citizens organized two angry meetings on "the mixed school question" at Town Hall, demanding that the black students be expelled and go back to their school where "they ought to be satisfied where they are," as one resident stated. White parents claimed that black children had the disease of consumption, and that they smelled bad, and that the South School was too small for all the children anyway. On September 20, Superintendent Stewart told the 43 children to return to the North School, although they were advised that they would be free to return to the school if any of them wanted to attend high school.

Denied their rights by the Board, black residents of Oxford went to court. Perry Gibson, a father of six who lived in a house he owned just two blocks from the South School, took a buggy to Hamilton and filed a law suit against the Board of Education in the Butler County Circuit Court. On December 5, the Court decided for Gibson, and compelled the Board of Education to admit black children to the South School. The Court made no special claim to equal rights for African Americans, noting that although the North School was old, it was still adequate for the black children, and admitting that the introduction of black children to the South School would cause over-crowding. But equality was not the question before the court; rather, the question was whether a local Board of Education could make a decision that conflicted with state law. The Court said no: even though school boards had local control of their schools, they still had to abide by the legislature's ruling. The Board had the obligation to provide for all of Oxford's school aged children, and "to permit them to enjoy, without distinction on account of race or color, any and all benefits" of the local public schools.

The decision was appealed by the Board of Education on the basis that the court had ignored the devastating social impact on white residents. Some white citizens discussed organizing a boycott of African American services in town, and raising funds to start a private school, but no formal action came of either discussion.

Most African American students transferred to South School that winter, although some stayed in the North School. Indeed, across the country some African Americans opposed racially integrated schools, well aware that black teachers would not be hired by white school boards to teach white children. This was the case in Oxford. Mr. Grennan, the white teacher who had taught in the black school since 1866 was transferred to the mixed school, while Mr. East stayed in the North School until it closed in 1892 and all remaining students moved to the South School. It is unknown if Mr. East ever taught again; he died in 1909 at the age of 50.

Although now legally integrated, Oxford Schools took many years to be integrated in practice, and in this they shared the experience of many other American schools. Through the 1930s, school policy separated black and white children in Oxford's school. The school playgrounds, toilets, student clubs, dances, and parent organizations were designated as racially separate by the Board. School plays were designated "Negro" and "White," with at least one exception in 1929 when the two groups did appear on stage together in a Thanksgiving play, the black children playing the Indians. Although black and white boys played together on most athletic teams, the popular sport of basketball remained segregated for many years (see photo). In addition, most black Miami student teachers were not assigned to Oxford schools but to pre-dominantly black schools elsewhere. One exception was Nellie Craig, the first African American graduate of Miami University, who received her teaching degree in 1905 and taught in the Oxford schools for a few years before she moved to Cleveland.

So the photograph of 1902 tells a complicated story. That black children are in the photograph at all is a testament to the persistence of local African American residents who fought for the best education for their children. It also speaks to the power of the law in reshaping the racial landscape of communities. Across the nation, in the North and South, African American people fought thousands of such local legal battles for years, culminating in the Federal Supreme Court's decision 1954 banning racially designated schools across the land in Brown v. Board of Education. Perry Gibson's small case in 1887 predated the Brown decision by 67 years, thus reminding us of the many years of struggles that African Americans have led to achieve equal schooling.

Photo and Information: [Miami University, Ohio -- Kate Rousmaniere]

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