Museum Shows Hillsboro’s Segregationist Past

'The Lincoln School Story' at the Highland House Museum tells of Hillsboro’s strange history (considering it was an underground railroad stop) as the first Northern test case of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education

Aug 9, 2017 at 11:26 am
click to enlarge Marching to integrate Hillsboro schools in the 1950s - Photo: Courtesy of the Highland County Historical Society
Photo: Courtesy of the Highland County Historical Society
Marching to integrate Hillsboro schools in the 1950s

History museums in small cities have their charms — a chance for residents to see how their hometown grew and changed, an opportunity to glance at artifacts from the homes and businesses of former prominent residents. The Highland House Museum in Hillsboro, Ohio fits that bill — besides old dental equipment, it has the childhood desk of Milton Caniff, who went on to fame as the cartoonist for Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates. And the building, itself, is special: It’s a former tavern and stagecoach stop in the heart of this old Highland County city of some 6,600 people (according to a 2010 census), 57 miles east of Cincinnati in southern Ohio.

But a new permanent exhibit up since June — the first major one in years — could well bring this museum, and Hillsboro, some attention far outside the immediate area. That’s because The Lincoln School Story tells of Hillsboro’s strange history (considering it was an underground railroad stop) as the first Northern test case of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered an end to sanctioned school segregation. In the South, state-sanctioned segregation was the norm.

Hillsboro’s school board had been placing its African-American elementary students in Lincoln School, built as a “colored school” in 1869 and which had aged resources. In some cases, its students even had to walk by a better-equipped elementary school to get to Lincoln. (The high school was integrated.)

The school board gerrymandered the elementary school districts to keep black students going to Lincoln. A group of Lincoln School mothers and children started boycotting and marching to one of the white schools in protest. During the two years that this continued, the children were taught by Quaker teachers from Wilmington College. 

Concurrently, five Lincoln School mothers and children filed suit in federal court against the school board, with NAACP support. Eventually, courts found Hillsboro’s system contrary to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision. By 1957, the school system was fully integrated and Lincoln School was sold. 

As dramatic as all that is, the Lincoln School Story even had a radical figure, County Engineer Phillip Partridge. He was so opposed to segregation that in July 1954 he broke into Lincoln School and set it on fire, hoping to destroy it and all it represented. He later surrendered so the black residents wouldn’t be suspected. He went to jail; the school board authorized $4,000 for repairs.

Around Hillsboro, this story isn’t exactly secret. There is a historical marker placed at the school site (the building is gone). There’s even been a play about it, Susan Banyas’ The Hillsboro Story, and it’s been in books, like Carol Cartaino’s It Happened in Ohio.

But the new Lincoln School Story exhibit, supervised by Kati Burwinkel of the Highland County Historical Society, raises the visibility and general awareness. It is being heavily promoted on the website, The display includes the nameplate of Paul Upp, school superintendent at the time; the petition signed by the Lincoln School mothers requesting integration; some books from the school; wall-mounted photographic images of the marches and more. 

The centerpiece is a new film that uses archival material and features interviews with those involved. One subject is Elsie Steward Young, one of the “Marching Mothers,” who also was one of the five mothers to file the lawsuit against Hillsboro’s school board. Two of her daughters also are interviewed, as are the daughters of four other mothers, including Eleanor Curtis Cumberland, whose mother — Imogene Curtis — organized the protest. 

The film was made by Andrea Torrice, a Cincinnati filmmaker who has made documentaries shown on public television. This one has already had a special screening at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center here, with interview subjects present.

At just 17 minutes, its impact beyond museum viewing probably is limited. But Torrice reports that one of the original funders — Ohio Humanities — has shown interest in providing a grant for a 30-minute version. If so, you might see The Lincoln School Story film on public television.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]