Exhibit commemorates historical desegregation of Hillsboro schools

HILLSBORO, OH (WCMH) — It has been more than 60 years since a small Ohio city made national news after dozens of mothers and children marched all the way to the high court to break segregation’s grip on northern states.

Time Magazine called the city of Hillsboro “Holdout in Ohio” for refusing to desegregate their elementary schools, even years after the US Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education mandated it.

NBC4 spoke with three of the families that marched into the history books.

The high court desegregated schools in 1954, but for two years the Hillsboro School Board of Education ignored the ruling for their two elementary schools. So during that time, Hillsboro mothers and children organized by Imogene Curtis, marched to a whites-only elementary school every single day, only to be denied access.

“I can tell you my mother was considered an instigator, a troublemaker,” said Eleanor Curtis Cumberland.

Unlike other cities, the marchers said Hillsboro did not react with violence, although someone did burn a cross on Walnut Street. Some mothers were told they would lose their jobs if they missed work for the march.

Curtis’s daughter Eleanor said they continued to march to the whites-only Webster Elementary School because it was the right thing to do.

“It was just sheer will and determination. It was going to be done, it had to be done. It had to be changed,” said Curtis Cumberland.

Joyce Clemons Kittrell was only 12-years-old when she marched down Walnut Street every day, during 1954 and 55. Her mother Sally told her the US Supreme Court case was filed in her name. All three women said they carry their parent’s legacy and want people to know about their struggle.

“The most important thing is you stand firm, have belief and let them see something special in you, not just your color,” Clemons Kittrell said.

Teresa Williams can be seen in pictures display in the exhibit marching with her mother, who was a teacher at the time, home-schooling African American children with Quaker’s help and lesson plans, during the two years they refused to go to the “blacks-only” school.

“I’m thankful that we had that experience because I think if we hadn’t  got the education that we did, we might have been kind of backward,” Williams said.

Kati Burwinkel, Project Director of the Highland County Historical Society said, we made history in Hillsboro with this case.” This was the first northern test case of Brown vs. Board of Education,” she said.

Burwinkel said the Hillsboro ruling, Clemons vs. Hillsboro Board of Education, was used to help desegregate other northern schools.

“The Lincoln School Project has brought a lot of people here that wouldn’t normally have come here,” Burwinkel said.

60 years later three of the marchers continue to walk the same sidewalk they did as children.

The Highland Historical Society has a permanent exhibit on the marches and Supreme Court decision overruling the Hillsboro school board.

On July 27 Curtis Lane will be dedicated to Imogene Curtis, one of the leading forces in the desegregation an Ohio schools.

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