Segregation in Oxford Ohio:
The Perry Gibson
Case of 1887
Department of Educational Leadership
Miami University, Ohio
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?
A Short History of African American Education
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
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. 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
Education and Racial Politics in Oxford, Ohio
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
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
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.
Local Sources available at Smith Library of Regional
History in the Lane Public Library, 15 S. College Ave.
"The Negro in Oxford, Ohio" Miami University MA degree,
Ruth M. Martin,
"The History of Oxford Public Schools, Oxford Ohio,"
Miami University MA, 1942
David A. Gerber, Black
Ohio and the Color Line, 1860-1915 Urbana, University of
Illinois Press, 1976).
Frank U. Quillin, The
Color Line in Ohio: A History of Race Prejudice in a Typical Northern
State, (Ann Arbor: George Wahr, 1913).
Leon Litwack, North
of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University
of Chicago ,1961
Andrew Cayton, Ohio:
This History of a People (Ohio State University Press, 2002)
And selections on the topic of African American
Wayne Urban and Jennings
Wagoner, ed., American Education: A History (McGraw Hill, 1996)
Richard J. Altenbaugh,
The American People and Their Education: A Social History (Merrill
Prentice Hall, 2003)
Adah Ward Randoph, Assistant
Professor at Ohio University, (email@example.com) is currently researching
the history of African American education in Ohio. See http://www.ohiou.edu/outlook/10-16-02/educate.htmlx