The Long Walk
When a group of Black mothers in Ohio were told to wait for school integration, they started marching every day in protest. They kept going for nearly 18 months.
It started with fire.
July 4, 1954 fell on a Sunday, and Philip Partridge went to church that morning. A father of three and an engineer, Partridge was a white man with an evident cowlick that clumped boyishly over the middle of his forehead. He was also a man of conscience, and he believed in civil rights. When the church congregation bowed their heads to pray, Partridge asked God to show him how he could help his Black neighbors.
Two months prior, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In Hillsboro, Ohio, where Partridge lived, there was a single, combined junior high and high school, attended by all the older students in town, but the elementary schools were still segregated by race. Black children attended Lincoln School, while white children went to Washington or Webster. Partridge was worried that the district would delay integration indefinitely, so as his pastor preached about martyrs, he struck a spiritual bargain: If God would wake him up at 2 a.m. the next morning, he would set fire to Lincoln. No separate school, his logic evidently ran, no segregation.
Divine intervention or not, in the early-morning hours of July 5, a thunderous electrical storm woke Partridge. He got up, dressed, and collected two cans of fuel and some matches. Later his attorneys would call Partridge “deeply religious” and an “idealist.” They would compare him to “Saul on the way to Damascus.”
Partridge broke into the basement of the brick schoolhouse and poured fuel all over the walls and floor. He lit a match. When he left Lincoln, the building was ablaze.
Hillsboro was like other small cities in southwestern Ohio—an island of neighborhoods with a Main Street, surrounded by a sea of farm country. The Ohio River, about 40 miles south, had once been the dividing line between the free north and the southern slave states. Racism and Jim Crow leaked over. Hillsboro had a movie theater where Black and white patrons sat separately. At restaurants, white diners were welcome to eat in, but Black customers had to take their ten-cent hamburgers to go. Among stories about the hospital auxiliary and the 4-H Club, the city’s newspaper ran ads for a minstrel show, and its society page had a separate section for “Colored News.” As in many northern cities, whether because of government redlining or habitual segregation, Hillsboro had a few neighborhoods where Black people’s homes were clustered. Everywhere else was mostly white.
Gertrude Clemons and Imogene Curtis lived in one of Hillsboro’s Black neighborhoods, and as one did in a time when kids ran freely between yards, the two women made a habit of chatting over their shared fence on Baker Street. The day of the fire at Lincoln School, rumors circulated that a Black youth—the sort of kid who was always in trouble—was responsible. But then, to general astonishment, Partridge confessed so that his crime wouldn’t be pinned on the young man. Local officials tried to get Partridge, who was employed by the county, to resign from his job, but he insisted that he’d “done nothing wrong in the engineer’s office.” He was sent to Lima State Hospital for a 30-day mental-health evaluation.
Imogene wrote him a letter offering some solace. She was that kind of person. Raised in a log cabin by her grandmother, who was five years old when slavery ended and who worked for the white family on whose land the cabin sat, Imogene had graduated high school and attended classes at Ohio University. Her husband, Orvel, was an associate pastor at Hillsboro’s New Hope Baptist Church. She was constantly reading and knew just whom to call, or at least who to ask about whom to call, when people in need came to her—people in pain, people with problems in the courts, people struggling to find a job or housing. Reporters would later describe Imogene, who had round cheeks and a permanent crinkle around her eyes because she smiled with her whole face, as “light skinned” and “plump.” Some people would say she was the “ringleader” of what happened after the Lincoln fire. No doubt she was already busy organizing as she talked over the fence with Gertrude.
Gertrude was beautiful. She wore store-bought dresses and rings on almost every finger. She’d left school in the eighth grade to help raise her 11 siblings, but she was naturally astute. (She eventually parlayed her modest education into a career in finance at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and became a licensed minister.) Like Imogene, Gertrude had serious concerns about Lincoln. The school was built in 1869 to serve the Black children of Hillsboro, which back then had de facto segregation. In 1939, the school board—due to overcrowding, it claimed—formalized the racial divide by transferring the few Black students attending Webster to Lincoln. “That’s when we should have raised a rumpus,” Imogene once told a reporter. The fire Partridge set badly damaged Lincoln, which hadn’t been in good shape to begin with. The building was dilapidated to the point that, in winter, snow blew inside. Six grades were split between two classrooms and shared two teachers. There weren’t any maps on the walls for learning geography. The students inherited books, often with pages missing, discarded by the white elementary schools.
While the women talked at the fence, Gertrude’s two daughters played close by. The younger one, Joyce, was a careful eavesdropper, and she heard what her mother thought about the situation at Lincoln. What Joyce didn’t immediately understand Gertrude explained to her later. For a few years, vocal Black parents had been asking the school board to integrate the elementary schools. Now the Supreme Court had ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. Gertrude and Imogene believed that their children should not have to go to Lincoln anymore. They’d talked to other mothers who agreed.
With the school year approaching, Imogene joined a citizens’ committee to fight for integration. She typed up a petition asking “the Board of Education of Hillsboro, Ohio, to admit the colored children of our community into the other schools of the community, namely Webster and Washington schools.” The petition argued that “the conditions at Lincoln School are of such as to not warrant our children the proper training and education.” Failure to integrate, the petition warned, would result in legal action. It was signed “Imogene Curtis, President of P.T.A.” in big letters and black ink. Gertrude volunteered to gather signatures from other parents, mostly mothers.
In mid-August, Imogene and Gertrude delivered the petition at a school-board meeting. It didn’t go well. “Negroes are asking the impossible,” one board member insisted. A school levy, which local voters rejected several times before it finally passed, had just gone into effect. Superintendent Paul Upp promised that, once the tax money was used to fund major renovations at Washington and Webster, the young children of Hillsboro would be integrated. He anticipated completion of the project in 1956. “Why can’t they hold out for perhaps two more years?” a board member asked, referring to the city’s Black population.
The school board formally rejected the mothers’ petition. It then accepted an insurance adjuster’s offer of $4,295.50 to patch up Lincoln. Integration could wait.
Around the time of the meeting, Imogene received a letter from Partridge. He’d been deemed sane after his stay at the state hospital—even if, as the doctors determined, he possessed “some unusual and strong ideas.” He thanked Imogene for what she’d written, saying that it had been a great help to him and his wife in their time of uncertainty. “Many people seem to think I made a mistake,” Partridge wrote. “If so, I earnestly hope that it has not harmed the cause of colored people in Hillsboro or elsewhere.”
The harm that Imogene wanted to remedy was the school board’s vote. Unwilling to take it as final, she traveled to the Columbus office of the NAACP to ask the group to intercede. She and other parents turned their citizens’ committee into a local chapter of the organization; Imogene became vice president of the new branch. Russell Carter, a regional legal representative for the NAACP, agreed to stand by, ready to go to court if the district refused to integrate Washington, Webster, and Lincoln once the school year began.
The first day of classes was September 7, a Tuesday. There were at least 67 elementary-school-age Black children in Hillsboro, and that morning most of them reported to Washington and Webster, walked there by their mothers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that, despite the school board’s decision, Superintendent Upp had instructed teachers and students to accept Black children if they showed up at the white schools. “We do not anticipate any trouble at all,” Upp said. The children were allowed in. Their names were taken by teachers. They were shuffled into classrooms, where chairs were added for them.
Whatever triumphant feelings the first day brought, however, were soon dashed: Upp told the press that he wasn’t sure where the Black children would be assigned permanently—they might be sent back to Lincoln. School went on break after that, for an extended weekend holiday that would allow Hillsboro residents time to attend and show animals at the county fair. On September 13, when classes resumed, the school board met to approve the city’s first residence-based zoning plan.
At first glance, it seemed like a logical enough arrangement. An imaginary line bisected Hillsboro north to south; all the children who lived east of that line would go to Washington, while those who lived west of it would go to Webster. However, there were two discrete areas carved out of the Washington zone. They were the city’s Black neighborhoods. The children who lived in them were the only ones designated to attend Lincoln.
The man in charge of establishing the zones was the city solicitor, James Hapner, a bespectacled white man with neatly trimmed hair. The segregation he proposed was obvious but incomplete, since a handful of Black children whose families lived in predominately white neighborhoods would go to Washington or Webster. Zoning individual homes, perhaps, would have been too blatant. Hapner and the school board defended the plan by insisting that it addressed overcrowding conditions at Washington and Webster while also reflecting existing attendance patterns as much as possible.
News of the zoning plan ran in a local paper under the headline “Most Negroes Sent Back to Old Building.” The story sat directly above an item from Lewisburg, West Virginia, where strikes by white students had led the board of education to halt integration at two schools. In other news, a grand jury had charged Philip Partridge with arson and burglary, the latter for forcibly entering Lincoln with intent to commit a felony. He was out of jail on $2,000 bail.
Hillsboro parents received a typed letter from the school board detailing which of the city’s streets were in each zone and noting that, after Thursday, September 16, failure of any parent “to send his child to the proper school will result in the child being withdrawn from the school he is now attending.” Imogene, Gertrude, and other concerned Black mothers met at a church to hatch a plan. Together, they prayed, they would get through this somehow.
Early on the next school day, Black mothers in neat dresses and children wearing crisply ironed clothes and shined shoes stepped out of their homes into the bright morning light. The kids, as ever, were under orders to use their manners. Together they walked the tidy streets of Hillsboro, where parked Chevys with finned taillights signaled midcentury prosperity. The group carried signs that read, “We pay taxes. Voted for school bonds. For what?” and “If you were in our place would it be different?” Some of the mothers and kids headed to Webster, others to Washington.
Imogene, her hair pinned back and her bangs ironed into a single prim curl, held her protest sign boldly aloft. Gertrude stayed at the rear of her group because Joyce, who was 12, was shy. Gertrude’s sister Zella Cumberland marched, too, holding her daughter Myra’s hand. The little girl was just entering school for the first time, and she thought she was on a fun walk with a bunch of neighborhood kids. Zella, pretty enough for the movies, had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work in tomato fields. “Get your education. They can’t take your education away from you. Learn everything you can,” she often told her daughters. Another mother who joined the protest was Elsie Steward, a widow with nine kids. After the fire at Lincoln, Elsie became worried that the building’s second story would collapse on her children. “So I said I wouldn’t send mine back,” she later recalled.
When the group bound for Webster arrived at the school, they stood out front, waiting. At 9 a.m., when the bell sounded, about 20 kids broke from their mothers and headed inside. The three Black children who’d been zoned for Webster were allowed to stay, but the rest were sent back out to their mothers, who were still standing on Walnut Street. Within minutes the mothers sent the kids walking right back in. The school sent them out again.
The mothers talked to their children and then sent them once more through the door. School officials still refused to take the children. Out they walked. Finally, the mothers and their children headed home.
The same thing happened at Washington. Some of the 14 children who walked in at the first bell were allowed to stay, because they happened to live in the predominantly white neighborhood zoned for the school. The rest were turned away.
The press quoted Upp saying that any children who weren’t in their assigned classes the following Monday would be counted truant; school officials would take their parents to court. Defiantly, the mothers dressed their kids for school that day and walked them to the doors where they weren’t welcome. At Webster, the principal met them at the threshold. “Nothing’s changed. You’re not assigned,” he told the group.
At a meeting with parents, the school board kept up the truancy scare tactics, trying to get the protesting mothers to reenroll their children at Lincoln. “You need to send your kids to Lincoln School, or we’re going to come and take them,” one board member snapped. “I’ll tell you what,” Gertrude replied, “you let me go home, get my washing and everything done, and you want to send me to jail? You send me to jail, but my child will not go to Lincoln School.”
The other parents marveled at Gertrude’s nerve. Some were worried that local authorities might actually take their kids. No one came for Joyce.
Imogene stopped by Gertrude’s one night with good news. The NAACP was firmly in favor of the mothers’ campaign. At the Ohio chapter’s annual convention, which happened to be in mid-September, delegates had contributed $101.50 to a new Hillsboro Legal Fund.
The NAACP’s lawyers told Imogene that if the mothers wanted to fight the school district in court, there had to be a lead child plaintiff, just like in the Brown case. It’s unclear why the attorneys didn’t pick one of Imogene’s children. Decades later, her daughter Eleanor would point out that Imogene “got enough publicity not being the plaintiff.” Maybe not being named in the suit would allow her to be more of a rabble-rouser, troublemaker, and instigator—words that observers of the case would use to describe her.
“Well, you use Joyce,” Gertrude offered to her friend, “because there’s no way they take her away from me—there’s no reason for it.”
That’s how the mothers’ lawsuit, filed in federal court on September 22, 1954, officially became Clemons v. Board of Education. There were other plaintiffs: Dorothy Clemons and her mother, Roxie, who were related to Joyce and Gertrude; Myra Cumberland and her mother, Zella; Deborah Rollins and her mother, Norma; and Elsie Steward and her daughters Evelyn, Virginia, and Carolyn. But Joyce Clemons was the name people around the country would see when they read about the first test case of Brown v. Board north of the Mason-Dixon.
The NAACP petitioned for a temporary injunction against the Hillsboro school board and Upp, which would allow integration to begin at once. Federal judge John H. Druffel denied the motion, saying that the defendants hadn’t been properly notified that the suit would be filed. That was how he always handled these things, he added. Druffel scheduled a hearing for September 29. The mothers prepared to go to court.
They had an up-and-coming legal star in their corner, a woman named Constance Baker Motley. Raised along with 11 brothers and sisters in New Haven, Connecticut, she could trace her lineage back to slaves on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Motley was in her early thirties and had been hired at the NAACP in New York City by Thurgood Marshall. She had drafted the initial complaint for what became Brown v. Board and was the only woman to work on the landmark case.
After celebrating the Brown decision—“those who knew Thurgood knew that ‘party’ was his middle name,” Motley later wrote—the NAACP decided to start bringing desegregation cases to court in border states such as Missouri, Maryland, and Ohio. The odds were better there than they were in the Deep South, which was under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, known for its hostility to civil-rights claims. The NAACP’s strategy was to start in the north and work its way down, enshrining the rights of the Brown case as it went. Given Hillsboro’s location, the mothers’ case was the right fight at the right time in the right part of the country.
The first hearing was held in Cincinnati, and Motley was there with two local lawyers: Russell Carter, who was Dayton’s first Black judge, and James McGee, who would be elected Dayton’s first Black mayor. The Hillsboro Board of Education was represented by Hapner, the city solicitor who’d drawn the controversial zoning map. The school-board members, white men in muted suits, sat wide-legged in their seats at a hardwood table, upon which sat a single file folder, a few pieces of paper, a book, and one manila envelope. The plaintiffs looked twice as good and twice as ready. Their table was heaped with legal books, folders, and handbags. The mothers wore dresses and skirt suits. Motley looked like she could have been one of them: She was around the same age, clad in a dark dress with a flared white collar. Her curled hair hung just over her ears, a style similar to that worn by Zella Cumberland and Gertrude Clemons.
The mothers were stoic. Elsie Steward had taken a precious day off work to be here. Gertrude peered through spectacles. The women’s demeanor suggested that they had no intention of leaving until they got what they came for.
Motley began her opening remarks by noting that the NAACP was prepared to share the facts of the case and proposed conclusions under the law. Judge Druffel, a plain-faced man who’d been appointed to the bench by Franklin D. Roosevelt, said he didn’t want to hear any of that—just give the evidence, he said. He told Motley to watch her time. He seemed like a man who’d already made up his mind.
Motley defined the facts anyway: The child plaintiffs, she said, had registered in person at Washington and Webster at the beginning of the school year, and the district was trying to force them to go to Lincoln solely based on the color of their skin. Throughout the proceedings, she would hang her argument on points that, within a few years, would be distributed to NAACP branches nationwide as a blueprint for identifying segregation in public schools: acquire a map (or draw one) showing school zones and residential patterns; indicate any instances of gerrymandering around segregated neighborhoods; enumerate student enrollment and school capacity, as well as the “number of white and Negro students … number of empty classrooms, and number and type of any special rooms (art or music rooms, lunch rooms, health room, etc.) being used as classrooms to help relieve over-crowding.”
Hapner told the court that, due to overcrowding at Webster and Washington, the school board had decided to rezone. “Strictly upon residential lines, the infant plaintiffs were required to attend the Lincoln School building,” Hapner noted. Pointedly, he mentioned that there were “students of Negro race” at Webster and Washington. Segregation, therefore, couldn’t have been the goal. That there were no white students living in the Lincoln zone Hapner framed as happenstance.
The plaintiffs’ side called an expert witness, a professor at Ohio State University who specialized in educational administration. He had recently conducted a study of the Hillsboro school system and found that the district operated “two so-called white schools” and “the so-called Negro school.” Superintendent Upp verbally confirmed to him that the neighborhoods included in the Lincoln zone “had been selected because they did include the Negro population.” If the plan was indeed designed to achieve a better balance of enrollment across schools, it had failed: The professor had found on September 8 that a total of just 17 children were attending Lincoln, down by 53 from the previous year. Meanwhile, there was an average of 35 kids per class at Washington and 38 at Webster.
Next, Motley got Marvel Wilkins, the school-board president, on the stand. Wilkins had a button nose and the prominent forehead of a balding man. He denied that there were any racial differences among Hillsboro’s elementary schools. When Motley inquired whether there had ever been any white children at Lincoln, he said he couldn’t be sure. “There were certain children that you cannot state which race they belong to that went to that building,” Wilkins explained. Motley pointed out that there was a white family that lived right next door to Lincoln. “Isn’t it true that they go to Washington only because they are white?” Motley asked. Wilkins said no. Since the rezoning, he emphasized, “we have colored children going to the Washington building.”
When it was his turn on the stand, Upp was asked to draw the Lincoln school zone on a map of Hillsboro. Upp, who had a hawkish mien and wore black-framed glasses, said he didn’t think he could. Despite working in the district for 32 years, Upp claimed, “I don’t think I am possessed of enough facts to do it.” He said that the zones had been drawn on the advice of legal counsel—Hapner, that is—“based on a residential area, of trying to continue the pattern of operation that we have had in Hillsboro.”
“Then your zoning was very convenient along the racial lines?” asked Russell Carter, who was questioning the witness. Carter raised the fact that hundreds of white kids—525 total—from the surrounding countryside were transported into Hillsboro to attend school. If space was such a concern, Carter said, why didn’t the district assign some of those students to Lincoln? “The spirit of the community in which I live would not indicate to me that to be a wise thing to do,” Upp admitted. “I have started into this program of integration with a very clear conscience and a desire to accomplish it in a smooth, intelligent, sane manner.”
In a scene that would beg the credulity of anyone familiar with a courtroom TV drama, Carter’s next task was questioning his opposing counsel. He got Hapner on the stand and asked him to mark up the new school zones on a map of Hillsboro.
“Will you … draw for us, in red pencil, the Lincoln zones?” Carter asked.
“I prefer to use another color,” Hapner replied.
“You don’t like red?” Carter asked, too innocently for a man who fought civil-rights cases and knew the dramatic potential of a city official redlining a map in a courtroom.
“No,” said Hapner.
“I don’t blame you,” Carter said.
Hapner outlined the Lincoln zone in blue. He designated the Washington and Webster zones by drawing an orange line between them. Carter asked why two neighborhoods were excluded from the Washington zone on the map, as if they’d been sliced out. Hapner claimed confidentiality as the school board’s attorney. He denied that race had been a motivating factor—after all, a few Black families now had to send their kids to Washington and Webster because of the zoning. As for Lincoln remaining all Black, Hapner now claimed, “It would be disastrous to attempt to assign children—white children—to what was considered in the minds of the community to be a colored school.”
The defense had witnesses it wanted to call, but Druffel said that he’d heard enough. He determined that a ruling in the case would be premature: He didn’t want to make any judgments until the U.S. Supreme Court decided how much time schools around the country should be allowed to integrate. The school district, Druffel said, could proceed on its own terms, delaying integration until renovations at Webster and Washington were completed.
In a battle of bureaucratic machinations, it was another roadblock—a big one. Outside the courtroom, photographers asked the protesting mothers to line up with their legal team. They clutched their handbags and stood for the flash. They had no reason to smile, so they didn’t.
The NAACP attorneys soon appealed to a higher court, arguing that the judge abused his discretion and seeking a definitive ruling in the case. It criticized Druffel’s decision for seeming to conclude “that it is not yet certain what the rights of the plaintiffs are.” In the meantime, the mothers had a choice: They could send their children to Lincoln and wait for integration to happen, or they could resist.
Life, as it does with children, found a routine. Each morning in what had been delineated as the Lincoln zone, some 20 mothers and their nearly 40 combined children got ready to walk to school. Elsie Steward’s house in the northeastern corner of town simmered with the barely contained chaos of nine hungry kids trooping downstairs. Elsie stood at the stove making fried flatbread to serve with butter and jam. Her husband, James, a bricklayer, had died a few years prior from a heart attack; he went to bed one night and didn’t wake up. The Steward kids knew their daily responsibilities, a division of labor that put one or another of them in charge of sweeping, dishes, taking out the trash, and other chores. For the most part, Elsie could keep her kids in line with a stern look. A snap of her fingers meant that you’d pushed it too far.
Chores done and mouths fed, Elsie would leave her house with Evelyn, Virginia, and Carolyn, her elementary-school-aged children, all plaintiffs in the NAACP’s case. The Stewards, who lived just up the street from Lincoln, walked more than a mile to Webster. They joined other women and their kids along the way. A second group walked to Washington. Collectively, they became known as the marching mothers of Hillsboro.
In the early days of the march, Carolyn Steward, who was seven at the time, saw some white construction workers along her route pull down their pants, exposing themselves to the kids. “So the parents decided this is not the way to walk,” she recalled. The mothers opted instead for a street that took them past a garage where men stood outside to scowl at them. At one house, an old man sat on his porch swing every morning, glaring at the marchers. At least the garage guys and “Swing Man,” as one of the children dubbed him, kept their pants on.
Fathers didn’t march. They were working, “which was a good thing, because it was a peaceful march,” Carolyn said. It might not have remained so if men were involved. “The way people talked and the way they acted while we were marching,” Carolyn explained, “it would have been a really bad scene, I’m sure.”
Sometimes the marchers sang silly songs to keep the children occupied. The kids played skip-the-crack along the sidewalks. As they approached Webster, the window blinds in the classrooms would draw shut, keeping the white children inside from seeing the marchers. At the door, the principal went through his routine. “Nothing’s changed. You’re not assigned,” he’d say. With that the marchers would go home.
Day after day, the same walk, the same refrain. No one expected it to suddenly change. That wasn’t the point.
Sometimes newspaper people came and snapped photos of the mothers and children being turned away at the door. The battle drew press from around Ohio and was picked up by the wire services; Imogene handled many of the interviews. One article claimed, “The average citizen of Hillsboro seems singularly unaware of any conflict over the integration problem.” The average white citizen, anyway.
Teresa Williams, whose mom, Sallie, took her on the march, grew up playing with white kids from a big family that lived near hers on East Walnut Street. Teresa was taught that people weren’t born racist. In her view, if her white playmates “didn’t know what was going on” with the march, it was “because it wasn’t talked about in their home.”
Myra Cumberland approached her mother, hoping to understand why she couldn’t go to school. “Why don’t they want us there? Just because we’re Black?” she asked. “You just don’t worry,” Zella told her. “Let me worry about that.” But Myra knew it had something to do with the color of her skin. Every once in a while, she heard adults talking about people who wanted “to hold Blacks back.”
Occasionally, the NAACP attorneys visited, “big shots coming in all dressed up,” as young Joyce Clemons saw them. She was especially taken with Motley, who was tall and carried a briefcase—a woman in a position of power. One day the lawyers came to march with the mothers and children; they wanted to follow the path and experience the rejection, to know what the daily ritual felt like.
In mid-October 1954, a large photo of a defeated Philip Partridge, his wife, and his attorneys ran on the front page of Hillsboro’s Press-Gazette. Partridge had been sentenced to between one and 15 years in the state penitentiary for setting fire to Lincoln. Ultimately, he served just nine months before his release. The mothers marched through his time behind bars. They were still marching when he was set free.
In December 1954, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Judge Druffel to show cause if he wasn’t going to rule immediately in the Hillsboro case. So after Christmas, Druffel called the attorneys, mothers, and school-board members back to court. The board had been asked to provide an official map of the school zones, which the plaintiffs hoped would clearly show the gerrymandering. But the district’s representatives didn’t bring one. “I am not a draftsman,” Wilkins, the school-board president, said on the stand. “I probably couldn’t have done it right if I had tried to do it.”
Motley had come prepared. She admitted her own map as exhibit number five. The Webster zone was orange, Washington’s was blue, and Lincoln’s was red.
During questioning, Wilkins argued that some Black children preferred Lincoln over being forced into a new school where they would “definitely get run over.” Druffel asked what that meant. They’d get made fun of, Wilkins explained—it happened to the poor white children who came to school “all dirty or something, and they are not very popular.” Other kids wouldn’t play with them. They went home crying.
As it happened, Wilkins continued, on the first day of school, some Black children had wanted to go to Lincoln but couldn’t. “They went to the Webster building, crying, come up to the office, scared to death, didn’t want to go in there,” he claimed. “We felt sorry for some of them, and the parents of some of them just kind of pushed them in there.” He was talking about the mothers, of course, and a table full of them were watching him testify. Wilkins quickly clarified that some neighbors had told him this. He didn’t know which kids cried; he didn’t actually see the scene himself.
Since the previous hearing, a few mothers had quit the march and moved their children back to Lincoln. What’s more, according to the school board, some Black families who lived in the Webster or Washington zone had asked that their children be allowed to go back to their old school; the board had obliged those requests. Motley saw a contradiction. “There are certain Negro children attending Lincoln by their own choice,” she said, but “the plaintiffs, who chose to go to Washington and Webster, do not have that choice.” Why was it, she wanted to know, that Black residents were allowed to choose segregation but not integration?
Wilkins said he wasn’t sure he understood the question. The courtroom broke into laughter. Druffel threatened to clear the spectators. Motley pointed to the mothers and spoke of their children. “Why did they not have a choice to go to Washington and Webster, as these other Negro children who were assigned there had a choice to go to Lincoln?” she asked. Wilkins told Motley she was asking the question backwards. They went two more rounds before Hapner interjected.
“Your honor, if the witness doesn’t know, I would like him to be given the opportunity to say so,” he said.
“He didn’t say he didn’t know,” Motley replied.
“We more or less let the kids go to school they was assigned to last year, if they wanted to,” Wilkins offered. “And the ones that we had to change, we had to make laws, and they had to stay within those geographical drawings of the resolution to go to the school they was supposed to.”
At that point, Druffel cut off the exchange by asserting that the plaintiffs had to go to Lincoln “because they are in the Lincoln zone. That’s the answer.” He instructed Motley to call her next witness, leaving the double standard she had highlighted unaddressed.
Superintendent Upp took the stand and spoke plainly. He said that the zoning was based on “a pattern of education that we have had for some time,” and that the current segregation was both partial and temporary. The plaintiffs’ counsel pointed out that if Hillsboro had segregation of any kind, since the practice had been deemed illegal in Brown v. Board, “your total action is illegal, isn’t it?” Druffel cut in again: “The Supreme Court hasn’t formulated a pattern as to how they are going to work out their own decision. So if they can’t make up their mind, I don’t see how you can ask this witness to.”
Upp said that the district was willing to integrate, but not yet. The problem wasn’t race—it was space. If Hillsboro had the capacity in its facilities, it would integrate tomorrow. “I have no prejudice toward colored people. I have none now, none whatever,” Upp insisted. If the board had wanted to zone on the basis of race, it would have just said, “All colored children go to the Lincoln building.” But it hadn’t.
“There is no problem here,” Upp said, “if we just let it alone.”
Druffel’s ruling came as no surprise. On behalf of the court, he wrote, “We do not deem it our duty to interfere with the program of integration as outlined by the Board and Mr. Upp, Superintendent of Schools”—the program, that is, slated to go into effect in 1956. Druffel’s opinion concluded, “We think Mr. Upp’s solution is sound and the best.”
The mothers’ solution was to keep walking.
Virginia Steward had a stomachache. Or so she said. Virginia feigned sickness a lot in those days. She was eight years old, and as her mother, Elsie, led her and her sisters on the march day after day, month after month, back and forth to Webster, she kept angling for ways to get out of it. As she would later put it, she found the whole thing “devastating.”
Virginia worried about the kinds of things that all young kids do. For instance, her little sister Carolyn had developed a talent for sparking arguments between Virginia and another sibling for her own amusement—and it always seemed to happen right before Elsie was due home from work, when they’d be sure to get into trouble. Virginia knew snippets of what was happening elsewhere in America. She had impressions of fires and Black children unwelcome in white schools. She knew that there were lynchings in the South. She worried about the white men who leered at her as they all marched down the street. She was anxious about how much longer she’d have to walk past them. It was now the spring of 1955—would this still be happening in the fall?
Virginia wasn’t sure it was doing any good. Some other kids in her neighborhood had reenrolled at Lincoln, after their parents were told they might lose their jobs if they kept protesting. Gertrude Clemons, though she had no intention of giving up on the march, had lost a few housekeeping jobs over it. Once, when Elsie attended a court hearing in the case held in Cincinnati, she asked her eldest daughter to cover for her at a house she cleaned. When the employer, a woman, learned where Elsie was, she announced, “Well, I thought Elsie was better than that.” (Elsie’s daughter retorted, “I thought you were better than that.”)
“Why do we keep doing this?” Virginia asked her mother. There was no budging Elsie. Virginia would hug her belly, saying it hurt, hoping her mother would at least spare her the walk on that particular day. “No, let’s go,” Elsie would say. And out the door they went.
Unlike Gertrude, whose husband, Hamer, delivered coal and was a barber, or Zella Cumberland, whose husband worked at a foundry, Elsie was on her own. She did other people’s laundry. She scrubbed clothes by hand, hung them on a line to dry, then took a break to walk to the 1950s equivalent of a food bank, where she stood in line for cheese, flour, and butter. In the summer, her kids helped pick enough berries to can jam and jelly for the rest of the year. She also made a stockpile of canned beans and zucchini relish. Her elder sons hunted rabbits and squirrels for meat. Even though Elsie made it smell good, Virginia gagged over it. But she also knew that if she didn’t eat it, she was going to bed hungry.
As a child, Elsie had walked more than two miles each way to school—far enough that the district gave her family money for the shoes she wore through each year. (It never provided a bus.) Elsie liked school until a new principal arrived. He was, by all accounts, mean to Black students, so Elsie quit after the 11th grade. Now she was fighting for her children to get the kind of education she had wanted.
Just because they were marching didn’t mean that a better education could wait. When they got home each morning, none of the kids were allowed to sit idly by. The mothers requested help from Wilmington College, a school with Quaker roots in a nearby city that had weathered its own integration fight in 1952. Mary Hackney, a teacher taking time off to raise her youngest children, and whose husband served on a committee at the college, met every Monday with two other Quaker teachers. They drove to Hillsboro and passed off lesson plans and worksheets to the marching mothers. At the end of each week, the Quaker teachers would come back to collect papers to grade.
Some of the mothers converted their kitchens and living rooms into classrooms. They took in children whose mothers, like Elsie, had to work. Imogene taught Joyce Clemons, Teresa Williams, and a few other children. She was a natural teacher. She didn’t have her students raise their hands; instead she would go around the kitchen table and give each child a chance to share their answer to a question or problem. “That way no one felt out of place,” Joyce recalled. Zella Cumberland was another teacher, and she taught kids in the large front room of her house. Teresa’s mother, Sallie, who played pick-up sticks, hopscotch, and made-up games with her children, taught another group, as did Rose Kilgore and Minnie Speach, who lived just down the alley from each other.
Educating the children at home resulted in far smaller student-to-teacher ratios than they’d ever had at Lincoln. Built-in to the experience was an ethos about what it meant to fight for one’s rights—the kinds of sacrifices and solidarity required. The kitchen classrooms were proto–Freedom Schools, a decade before Freedom Summer.
The school year ended in disappointment. In May 1955, as the mothers prepared to take a break from marching for the summer, the Supreme Court directed school districts nationwide to make a “prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance” with the Brown ruling. It urged “all deliberate speed,” but what that entailed wasn’t clear. What distinguished, say, a slow effort made in good faith from one made in bad faith was left up to the lower courts, which the Supreme Court said should retain jurisdiction in cases pertaining to school segregation.
It wasn’t the decisive stance on an integration timeline that the NAACP had hoped for. A “reasonable start” and “all deliberate speed” were in the eye of the beholder. To some, that might look a lot like Hillsboro’s two-year integration plan endorsed in Druffel’s ruling. The appeals court reviewing the marching mothers’ case might agree.
When school reopened in September 1955, the mothers picked up where they’d left off. They now trooped a total of 47 children to school. All but 11, who lived in majority-white neighborhoods, were turned away from Washington and Webster. They went back to their homeschools.
The second day of school, a Thursday, the principal at Webster didn’t make it to the door before the mothers and children arrived, so they entered the building and sat down on the floor. Joyce Clemons was surprised and amused by the adults’ approach of “let’s see what’s going to happen now.” Before long the principal came bustling out of his office. “You guys have to leave, because there hasn’t been a decision yet,” he said. He ushered them back outside, where they stood for a time with their protest signs before marching past Upp’s office and going home.
Days turned into weeks; the march continued. At one point, a local paper ran a photo of the mothers and children under the headline “Parade at School.”
The fire happened late one October night. It wasn’t at Lincoln this time, and it wasn’t intended to hasten the cause of equality. The orange flames danced on the arms of a cross—it was a fire that chilled, that was meant to strike fear.
The cross was burned in the yard of the Blakey family, who lived on East Walnut Street. The march went past their house every morning, but the Blakeys were among the families who’d left the protest sometime prior and reenrolled their children at Lincoln. The Clemonses could see the fire from across the street. Joyce woke up in the middle of the night to find her parents watching the flames through the window. She didn’t understand. It took time—listening to her parents’ conversations, to what other people said about what happened—to grasp the meaning. In the moment, all she knew for certain was that her parents made sure to look, to bear witness. To her they seemed fearless.
Zella Cumberland had already read to her girls and tucked them in when she heard about the fire. She wanted to see it for herself, but she didn’t want to leave her girls at home, so she woke them up and put them in the car. By the time they arrived, the fire had been put out. Smoke still hung in the air above the charred cross, which had been wrapped in burlap and doused in fuel. Later, Zella explained to her daughter Myra that the cross had been set on fire because people were against what the marchers were doing.
The police tried to brush the incident off, suggesting that it was a Halloween prank. Mrs. Blakey issued her own statement. “Whoever burnt the cross in the Blakey yard, we wish they wouldn’t do it again,” she said, “because my husband has a violent temper and will shoot first and ask questions later.” She added in a later interview with a Press-Gazette reporter that her family had been out of the integration battle for a while. “Now it looks as if we’re back in it again,” she said. Gertrude Clemons told the same reporter that the cross burning wouldn’t stop the march. “The only way to stop it is to burn us,” she declared.
The tough words and the fire worried little Virginia Steward more than ever. The people who burned the cross could do something else, something worse. What if her mother and the other mothers got killed? Maybe, Virginia hoped, the seriousness of it all would mean she finally didn’t have to walk anymore. But the cross “didn’t bother me any,” Elsie Steward later said. The morning after the burning, she and the other mothers marched their kids to school.
The cross burning was an act of terror, but not a setback. Those came courtesy of state institutions. Legislation proposed by a group of Ohio senators that would have empowered the state board of education to withhold funds from districts that still assigned students to schools based on race died in committee. In public testimony, the president of Ohio’s NAACP said Hillsboro was one of the “problem areas.” (He also called out segregation in cities as big as Columbus, the state capital.) Then, in December, the Ohio Education Association, a teachers’ union, rejected a proposal to stop directing money to districts that segregated, opting instead to give commendations to districts that integrated quickly.
As those with the clout to shape policy worked in half measures at best, the marching mothers and their children met each bleary winter morning for the walk to school and back. Their hopes still hung on the NAACP’s appeal of Druffel’s ruling, which had yet to be heard in court. It finally happened on December 29, 1955, a year to the day after the mothers had last appeared in Druffel’s courtroom. The NAACP’s legal team took the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Thurgood Marshall himself traveled from New York to make the oral arguments before a three-judge panel.
It took a week for the court to rule, and the decision was two to one—in favor of the mothers and their children. One of the judges was Florence Ellinwood Allen, who had previously been the first woman to serve on Ohio’s Supreme Court, and was one of the first women to serve as a federal judge. A white woman who wore her hair in an Aunt Bee upsweep, Allen wrote the majority opinion. She noted that while the district claimed its rezoning of the elementary schools was not based on race, Upp had testified that “temporary segregation” existed. Druffel’s ruling, then, was a violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board.
Allen could find “no case in which it is declared that a judge has judicial discretion by denial of an injunction to continue the deprivation of basic human rights.” The rezoning in Hillsboro, she continued, had been a subterfuge to continue separating children by race. To justify segregation on the grounds that schools were too crowded had no basis in law. Even if it had, the figures on enrollment across Hillsboro’s schools didn’t support the overcrowding narrative.
The court ruled that Druffel had to provide a permanent injunction that would end all racial segregation in Hillsboro on or before the start of classes the following September. At a press conference the day the decision came down, Druffel threatened to defy the directive. He invited the school board and Hapner to meet with him the following week to discuss next steps. He said it would take nothing short of an order from the Supreme Court to change his mind. Druffel insisted that he would get an attorney if necessary. “The case can be taken to the Supreme Court in my name,” he said.
As long as the status of their case was up in the air, the mothers would keep protesting. Press attention mounted. In March 1956, Jet magazine’s cover line read, “The Northern City that Bars Negroes from School.” The story inside featured photos of the march and of mothers teaching kids at kitchen tables. There was Joyce Clemons keeping her eyes down on her books, Carolyn Steward following along as a classmate read aloud, and Sallie Williams—a mother whose name was misspelled in the caption—reviewing vocabulary words on a chalkboard that she held in her lap. Upp was quoted insisting, as ever, “There is no trouble here.” Imogene, referred to as “Mrs. Orvel Curtis,” voiced skepticism that the school board would meet the September deadline for integration. “They never did anything before until we got after them,” she said.
The legal threats against the mothers ended abruptly that spring. In early April, the Supreme Court declined to review the circuit court’s decision. Unless the school board filed a motion for reconsideration, Druffel would be forced to write an order directing Hillsboro to integrate. At that point, the school board decided it was done fighting. For all his bluster a few months prior, Druffel acquiesced, too.
There wasn’t much celebration over a win that by then was some 20 months in the making, all of which the mothers had marched, save summer break. The mothers were strong Christian women, as Joyce later described them; they’d prayed and worked, they’d done what was right, and that was enough. When Sallie Williams told her children that the march was finished and they’d be going to Webster, they were relieved. “We were just glad it was over so we didn’t have to walk anymore,” her daughter Teresa said.
But it wasn’t over, not quite. Imogene showed up at the school-board meeting the same night the Supreme Court decided not to review the case. She sat quietly for two hours, taking notes as the board discussed pay raises for teachers. Her son played beside her while she waited to speak. Finally, she got her question in.
“What is the status of our children?” Imogene asked. She explained that they had been tutored, and she wanted to know if they could take a test to be placed in the appropriate grades. Not in the fall, but now.
What was the point, the board replied, when summer break wasn’t far off? “You’d get a dandy lot of education in one month of school,” said the new board president, William Lunkens. “At least we’d have the satisfaction of having our children in school,” Imogene countered. Eventually, Upp stepped in, saying that he recommended testing administered by an outside source, “so that nobody can say we were prejudiced.”
The next morning, for the last time, the mothers got up, dressed their kids, and marched. “You’re not assigned,” the principal at Webster said. But rather than walk away, this time Gertrude Clemons spoke up. “We’re going to sit awhile,” she said.
The principal asked the group not to interfere with the orderly operation of the school. He left them standing in his office. There weren’t enough chairs for them.
On April 13, 1956, testing led by officials from Ohio’s department of education took place at Webster. One six-year-old girl cried for her mother after being led inside. Upp barred reporters and photographers from entering the building. He said he wanted “to maintain order and prevent the children from becoming unduly excited.” Imogene, though, was as willing as ever to talk to journalists. She was confident that the kids would do well. They’d used the right books, done the right lessons. When they finished the exams and came outside to be with their mothers, Imogene let the press know that the children hadn’t found the tests very difficult.
But when the results were announced, only one Black student—Teresa Williams’s little sister, Mary—had passed at grade level. That meant all the other children would have to reenter school in the grade they’d been in when the march started—or even lower. The idea of being held back, “that kinda messed you up,” Teresa recalled. For the mothers, the outcome was reminiscent of the district allowing a few Black children to be zoned for Webster and Washington so that it could insist that segregation wasn’t the goal.
The district claimed that the tests were widely used standardized exams, administered and scored by men from the state department of education, and then, as reported in the press, “double-checked by local officials.” Mary Hackney, the Quaker teacher who had been checking the students’ progress for a year and a half, was not typically the assertive type. Still, she made her way to the principal’s office at Webster. She spotted papers stacked on the corner of his desk and grabbed them. “Oh, are these the tests?” she asked, leafing through. Hackney, who knew how to interpret standardized-test results, told the mothers that, from what she saw, the children should have been allowed to advance.
A few of the mothers threatened legal challenges over the grade placements, but they ultimately relented. It was time to claim victory, however unfinished it felt. When a dismissive editorial appeared in the Press-Gazette, saying that the mothers had won only by making their children suffer, Imogene penned a response. “In spite of the board’s trying to be vindictive I do not regret sacrificing my child so other boys and girls in years to come have a decent and non segregated Education,” she wrote. Her youngest son, John, would eventually graduate high school later than other kids his age, but at least he was learning “to have faith and courage to stand up for his ideals in spite of cost and great obstacles.” He was also learning not to believe everything officials said, to always look for the truth himself. “Many of our people died freeing us and our descendants,” Imogene pointed out, “but it didn’t make the victory any worse.”
She closed with a warning. The board might have been patting itself on the back for having the last word on grade placements, but Imogene was sure that every time its members looked the “children in the face their conscience will hurt them and they shall have no peace.”
On April 17, the marching mothers’ children walked into Washington and Webster and were allowed to stay. Joyce Clemons had been heading into sixth grade at the start of the march, but now she was back in fifth. Her day started quietly, with her mother escorting her down mostly empty hallways that seemed to have been cleared to limit any confrontation. Throughout the day, Joyce noticed white children hanging back. They avoided mingling with her and the other Black students, not sure what to make of them. Some of Joyce’s teachers weren’t nice to her, but the one in her homeroom was. For the first time in almost two years, Joyce was able to take a seat in a real classroom.
Though she should have been in fourth grade, Carolyn Steward was enrolled in second. “It was so boring for us,” she recalled. “We were already more advanced than the classrooms they put us in.” Teresa Williams was placed in fifth grade, though she was old enough—and ready—for sixth. She found that one of the biggest adjustments was getting used to having a single grade in a classroom, with “everybody doing the same work.” It wasn’t like Lincoln, which sat empty for the 1956–57 school year before being sold the following summer.
Virginia Steward stayed inside for recess—nobody would let her jump rope or play hopscotch with them anyway. A few of the white kids told her they would have let her join, but their parents told them not to. “Don’t let us come by there and see you out there with them little Black kids,” the adults said. Virginia’s little sister was more gregarious: Carolyn went outside and played with anyone who’d let her. It seemed like the younger a child, the easier it was for them to find acceptance.
There were challenges beyond making friends. Myra Cumberland had a teacher who gave her dirty looks. The teacher, an older woman, wore thick-soled shoes, what Myra called “old-lady comforts.” One day, Myra was wearing a white dress with purple polka-dots, and the teacher kicked the edge of it. Myra tried to brush off the footprint but couldn’t. When her mother saw the smudge and asked how she got dirt on her dress, Myra didn’t tell her. She never did. Looking back, she isn’t sure why.
Perhaps it was because she was learning to take care of herself. All the kids were, and not just in school. Over time some even engaged in their own acts of defiance. One Sunday after church services, when Virginia was 11 or 12, she and a few friends stopped at a coffee shop for a Pepsi, knowing full well that they wouldn’t be served. They waited about half an hour and were ignored, so they made a mess with the ketchup and mustard at their table. Around the same age, Virginia went to the movies with her brothers, and they ignored the usher when he directed them to the seats for Black people. The usher demanded that they relocate from the white section or “get up and go home.” They wanted to see the movie, so they moved.
As Myra grew up, she became athletic. She played softball with a group of kids, some white. She even played football with boys. The kids at school called her Wilma Rudolph—the Black sprinter who in 1960 became the first U.S. woman to win three gold medals at the Olympics—because she was so fast. By the seventh grade, everyone treated her well enough. One day in algebra, the teacher left the room for a few minutes. There was a new student in class, a white boy who had just moved from Cincinnati, and when Myra stood up to sharpen her pencil, he cried, “Don’t touch me, you’ll get me dirty!” Two of the other white boys in the class grabbed him by the foot and dangled him out the second-floor window. They made him apologize to Myra, then brought him up again. By the time the teacher returned, the students were mostly back in their places, and the new boy looked flushed and disheveled. The teacher asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” he said.
The other white boys let him know that next time, they’d drop him. He never called Myra a name again. Like many people, Myra and the boy would both stay in Hillsboro for the rest of their lives. Years later, when she saw him around town, he was friendly to her.
When the march began in 1954, South Carolina governor James Byrnes argued that Hillsboro’s spectacle was evidence that some cities needed to continue school segregation. The mothers’ victory helped achieve the opposite. Across Ohio, it was invoked by advocates fighting segregation in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, and smaller communities throughout the state. It was cited in legal proceedings in New York and Texas. As a vital test case for the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, it created a domino effect—one small city’s integration would pressure another to follow suit, then another, then another.
Yet the march never rooted itself in the national consciousness like the story of the Little Rock Nine or Ruby Bridges eventually did. Perhaps that’s because the events in Hillsboro were relatively peaceful, or because the city wasn’t in the Deep South. Or maybe it’s because, for many years after, the city’s white majority didn’t talk about it—content, it seemed, to be done with that chapter of Hillsboro’s history.
It has now been 66 years since the mothers and their children started marching. Only in recent years, as the Highland County Historical Society began to emphasize Lincoln School’s history, have the marchers received any recognition for their efforts. In 2017, the mothers and their children were inducted in the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
Among its genealogical offerings, Hillsboro’s library keeps a typed biography of Imogene Curtis in a thin white binder. It includes an interview with James Hapner, who said that he always had faith that the school board would keep its word and integrate once building renovations were done. Still, he said in retrospect, the board was at fault for formalizing segregation at Lincoln in the first place. Hapner was glad when the fight with the mothers ended. “We knew she wouldn’t give up,” he said of Imogene specifically. “I understood why she did it.”
Imogene’s years could be measured in letters to the editor, calls on behalf of neighbors in need, and attendance at important events. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall, Imogene was there. In 1984, she was asked to teach at Webster Elementary. A year later, on a visit to the offices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she was helping a woman fight housing discrimination, Imogene fell in an elevator and broke her femur. She died a few weeks later from a blood clot.
Constance Baker Motley, the mothers’ attorney at the NAACP, went on to successfully argue nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and lead litigation to integrate southern universities. She became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate and the country’s first Black female federal judge. Reflecting on her fight against segregation, she once wrote that “becoming a part of history is a special experience, reserved for only a few. It’s like earning a law degree or a Ph.D.; nobody can take it away from you. You may be forgotten, but it’s like immortality: You will always be there.”
Motley passed away in 2005. Most every adult who played a part in the story of Hillsboro’s march is dead: Hapner and Upp, Druffel and Partridge. Zella Cumberland died this spring, becoming the latest of the mothers to pass away. The only one still alive is Elsie Steward. She turns 104 on June 30, the day of this story’s publication.
When I interviewed her, Elsie couldn’t always answer pointed questions—rather, she plucked memories as they surfaced. Still, her grasp of the details of her life exceeded that of someone a third her age. Her catalog of time was more sizable than most people could ever hope to have. She wasn’t sure why I wanted to talk about the march. It was so long ago. It was just something she did every day for a couple of years. She’d had so many years.
The surviving daughters, and a few sons, are the ones who carry on the legacy of the march, who tell the story. In the spot where Lincoln once stood, there is a food pantry and a brown State of Ohio historical marker that describes the marchers’ integration fight. Washington School has been replaced with a fire station. A couple of years ago, Webster, long abandoned, was set to be demolished. Virginia, Carolyn, Joyce, Teresa, and Eleanor, Imogene’s daughter, went to see it one last time. Hopping caution tape and stepping over broken glass and smashed concrete, they took a last walk up to the front door together and posed for photos. A wrecking ball hung nearby, the future looming over their past. The demolition crew didn’t understand what these retirees were doing on the worksite.
The women stepped away from the building and watched as it fell. They’d fought so hard to enter Webster. Some of them had sent their own children there. Now they’d outlasted it. All that was left was wreckage and dust. The daughters of the march got in their cars and headed home.
Joyce Clemons, whose married name is Kittrell, is a retired Head Start teacher and factory worker who also happens to have a black belt in karate. Her mother’s spirit manifested in Joyce’s habit of encouraging her children, and later her grandchildren, to play with kids of all backgrounds. “The most important thing, as y’all are growing up, is to learn to play together,” she would tell them. “Don’t look at each other’s color. Just get along together.” More recently, when we talked about the uprisings in dozens of U.S. cities—sustained demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality—Joyce mirrored her mother’s capacity to speak truth and ground it in faith. Like someone who’d been raised to wear her best dresses when protesting injustice, Joyce was dismayed by demonstrators tearing up property. “Hatred don’t get you nowhere,” she said. Neither, however, did it exempt anyone from her goodwill: Though Donald Trump “caused a lot of this because of his prejudice,” Joyce told me, she still prayed for him and his family.
In early June, Hillsboro saw its own Black Lives Matter demonstration. On Facebook, people who opposed the rally threatened to show up with AK-47’s. “LOCK AND LOAD, HILLSBORO,” one post read. (It has since been deleted.) Despite a few people openly carrying firearms outside the veterans’ memorial, hundreds of Black and white residents marched peacefully through the city’s streets to the Highland County Courthouse, where Eleanor, carrying her mother’s torch, was among the featured speakers.
Joyce thinks the story of the marching mothers and the case that bears her name should be taught in schools, reminding young people that “we could be in even worse shape than we are now if it hadn’t been for someone stepping up and standing for us.” Joyce and I talked about history and heroes, how bravery doesn’t have to be grand or famous to matter. “I feel like I accomplished life because of what happened,” she told me of the walk she took from 1954 to 1956.
The marching mothers of Hillsboro hinged extraordinary change on life’s most mundane details: Getting ready for school. Lessons, worksheets, homework. Showing up no matter what. Taking disappointment in stride. For nearly two years, they set out on a daily journey that required gumption and resilience. They taught their children to keep going. They taught them to know when the walk is not yet done.