A bench honoring Hillsboro's Lincoln School Marchers was unveiled in a ceremony at the Highland County Courthouse Saturday. (HCP Photos/Caitlin & Stephen Forsha)
A bench honoring Hillsboro's Lincoln School Marchers was unveiled in a ceremony at the Highland County Courthouse Saturday. (HCP Photos/Caitlin & Stephen Forsha)
A group of mothers and children dedicated to ending segregation in the Hillsboro school system — and their peaceful protests spanning two years — are officially memorialized on the Highland County Courthouse square following a bench dedication ceremony Saturday, Oct. 10.

The ceremony was cosponsored by Hillsboro Against Racism & Discrimination (HARD), the New Hope Baptist Church and the city of Hillsboro.

The names of the Highland County “Marching Mothers and Children,” along with two photos, are listed on the granite bench installed in front of the courthouse. An explanation of their fight — “Early Civil Rights protest to desegregate Hillsboro, Ohio schools and legal victory in the first test case of Brown v. Board of Education in the North” — and the years, 1954-1956, are also included.

Those honored are the Marching Mothers: Zella Cumberland, Elsie Steward Young, Sallie Williams, Zora Cumberland, Selicka Dent, Alberta Jewett, Maxine Thomas, Francis Curtis, Joanne Zimmerman, Dellia Cumberland, Glea Clemons, Minnie Speech, Roxie Clemons, Norma Rollins, Alberta Goins, Rosa Kilgore, Gertrude Clemons, Imogene Curtis, Nellie Zimmerman and Della Blakey; and the Marching Children: Joyce Clemons Kittrell, Teresa Williams, Myra Cumberland Phillips, Virginia Steward Harewood, Carolyn Steward Goins, Mary Williams Steward, Peggy Williams Hudson, Glenna Dent Hennison, Billy Dent, John Curtis, Lawrence Curtis, Lewis Goins, Lee Curtis, Ralph Steward, Rev. Michael Hudson, Harold Joe Thomas, Delbert Thomas, John Cumberland Jr., Doris Cumberland Woods, David Butch Johnson, Marva Curtis, Rosemary Clemons Cumberland, Jennie Speech Williams, Howard Williams, Brenda Thomas Coleman, Winnie Thomas Cumberland, Debbie Rollins, Charles Johnson, Diane Zimmerman Curtis, Glen Dent, Lynn Dent, Evelyn Steward Bostie, Sarah Alice Clemons, Annabell Johnson Smith and Dorothy Clemons Ford.

The idea for the bench came from Shawn Captain, founder of Hillsboro Against Racism & Discrimination (HARD), and the bench was donated by Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha and Harsha Monuments.

Saturday’s dedication was hosted by “mistress of ceremonies” Eleanor Curtis Cumberland, the daughter of Imogene Curtis. Imogene Curtis was the organizer of the group of activist mothers and children fighting for the integration of schools in Hillsboro in the 1950s, despite this battle occurring after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.

Cumberland began the event by thanking the numerous members of the community — including representatives from city, county and state government — for attending what she described as a “joyous occasion.”

The only surviving Marching Mother, Elsie Steward Young, attended the memorial event while social distancing by sitting in a parked car in front of the courthouse square. Also in attendance were several of the children who marched alongside their mothers, as well as other descendants and relatives of the marchers.

Before the bench was unveiled at the end of the event, several of the marchers, or the marchers’ children, spoke about their family members’ courage and fine example.

Cumberland invited the marchers to speak, and although Young did not exit the vehicle, Cumberland waved to her when the other marchers were recognized, saying: “I see you, Miss Elsie. We love you.” Young was applauded on several occasions during the event.

Lee Curtis, son of Francis Curtis, spoke first, thanking his aunt, Imogene Curtis, “for spearheading” the two-year march

“It was a rough two years,” Curtis said. “We weathered the storm. We walked in the winter, the rain, no matter what.”

Curtis thanked “all of the marching mothers and children” and other members of the community in attendance. He also thanked Harsha and Captain for making the bench a reality.

William Dent, son of Selicka Dent, spoke about the mothers’ impact on future generations.

“They really helped us move on,” Dent said. “We would have never looked forward if it hadn’t been for them. In their endeavors, I’ve had two brothers graduate from high school, and I’ve had a teacher, a nurse in my family and an engineer for General Motors, and it’s all because of them.”

Myra Phillips, daughter of Zella Cumberland, said her mother “went to court for us” and paved the way for her children to get an education.

“We did go to school, and we finished school,” Phillips said. “I was always pushed to do the best I could in school and try to study, and I was not allowed to do anything without going to work. I worked hard, and I tried to instill it in my kids, too, to work hard and get an education.”

Mary Williams Steward, daughter of Sallie Williams, also thanked all of the organizers and participants of the bench ceremony. She said that in addition to marching, her mother was one of her teachers.

“We were home-taught before it was popular,” Steward said. “I thank God for her. I thank God for the marching mothers, all the students that marched with us. I’m so thankful for this dedication ceremony.”

Teresa Williams, also a daughter of Sallie Williams, spoke about her mother and father instilling a strong work ethic in their children as well.

“I’m thankful because out of 11 children, all of them graduated but one, and she was determined that we were going to do our job the way we had to,” Williams said. “I tell the young kids nowadays, we had some rules. You went to school, you come home, you did your schoolwork, then you done your chores, and if there was any time before dark, then you could go out and play. There was no ‘I don’t want to.’ You’re going to do it, and I’m glad that they stuck by it.

“I tell my grandkids all the time, you’ve all got more opportunities than we ever had. Don’t throw them away. Make good on them.”

Williams also credited the Highland County Historical Society for helping to reignite public interest in the Marching Mothers and sharing their stories.

“I thank the Historical Society for bringing this stuff to light because it’s been hidden for years,” she said. “I was just 11 years old. I’m 77 now. I see a whole lot of difference from way back then to now, but as a community, we can continue to work together and go forward.”

Sherry Zimmerman Young spoke with pride at her family’s legacy, as she said both her grandmother, Alberta Goins, and mother, Nellie Zimmerman, were among the marchers.

“They stood for justice and righteousness and education for all, and I’m proud to say I’m a descendant of theirs,” she said.

Joyce Clemons Kittrell — the plaintiff in the Clemons v. Board of Education court case as a young student — was the final marcher to share her experience.

“I was a plaintiff in the case as a child, and as I look back over the times and see what our parents went through to get us where we are now, it makes me very happy to know I can stand here right now,” Kittrell said. “As I look into the audience, I don’t see color right now. I see all of God’s children standing here, wanting to see freedom keep going on. See that we don’t look at each other as our color, but look at each other as a human being of God.”

Like Williams, Kittrell also thanked the Historical Society for helping to call attention to the marching mothers, particularly crediting Kati Burwinkel of the Lincoln School Project committee for her efforts.

“Kati has done so much to help us understand really what has been done,” Kittrell said. “We did not really bring this up to people because we did not think they’d be interested. We now know that people are interested, but yet we still have a long ways to go.

“I thank God for Kati, and I thank God for just letting you all know that we are all one in His sight.”

Virginia Steward Harewood, another marcher, also attended the ceremony but did not give a speech.

Cumberland also noted that she had other family members who participated in the peaceful protest.

“My mother, Imogene Curtis, organized this march and was at the helm of it,” Cumberland said. “My brother, John Curtis, was 9 years old. He marched. At the time, we didn’t know it, but I had a sister-in-law that marched, Diane Zimmerman Curtis.

“This is very special for us. I’m so glad you all turned out.”

Captain also spoke about the bench, as he was a driving force behind having the tribute placed on the courthouse square. Captain is related to several marchers, as he noted in his comments.

During a meeting with county commissioners in August, Captain said that that the mothers’ daily route in the 1950s “largely inspired our march” used for a Black Lives Matter demonstration in June in Hillsboro, but people approached him not knowing any of the history behind the march.

“I wanted to do something about it,” Captain said during the dedication ceremony. “I think we can all agree that this is long overdue. As the great-grandson of Maxine Thomas and the great-nephew of Harold Joe Thomas, Brenda Thomas Coleman, Winnie Thomas Cumberland and Delbert Thomas, that wasn’t OK with me that people didn’t know my family’s history. A lot of our families fought too long and too hard to be swept under the rug.”

State Representative Shane Wilkin presented a proclamation on behalf of himself and House Speaker Bob Cupp, giving “special recognition to the Lincoln School on the memorable occasion of the 150th anniversary of its construction.”

The proclamation reads, in part:

“The spirit of our nation is founded upon and reflected in the events of the past, and the memorializing of significant landmarks is vital for the preservation of America’s unique heritage. Established in 1870, the Lincoln School became a focal point in the fight for integration throughout Hillsboro City Schools, and it was the first Northern test case resulting from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Following the Supreme Court ruling, a group of African American mothers wished to enroll their children in one of the all-white elementary schools in the Hillsboro area, only to be told that they could not and that they had to send their children back to the Lincoln School. Every day — every weekday — for two years, these women and their children marched to the Webster School to express their opposition. Finally, in 1956, a Supreme Court victory ended segregation in Hillsboro, and the account of this struggle has been preserved by the efforts of the Highland House Museum and the Historical Society and the Lincoln School Project Exhibit.

“The many individuals who have protected and shared the legacy of the Lincoln School are deserving of high praise, for they are helping to foster awareness and understanding of Ohio’s history. It is through endeavors of people such as they that the important details of our past are transmitted to future generations for their appreciation and knowledge. We are certain that in the years to come, the story of the Lincoln School will endure as a lasting testament to those brave activists who took a stand against segregation and injustice.”

“Every weekday for two years is, I think, a testament to the courage, to the fortitude and to the vision of those ladies and those children that marched every single day,” Wilkin said. “They did not stand by and watch history. They became a part of history, and they have made history. Congratulations to each and every one of them that are here.”

New Hope Baptist Church Rev. Tyrone Lawes thanked the mayor and community for their support before introducing a musical performance.

“We want to tell you thank you so much for remembering the relatives of these great marching mothers, who were motivated and fueled by the love in their hearts for justice, for equality, for the absence of racism and bigotry and the promotion of love,” Lawes said. “I just want you to know that we are deeply grateful for you, and the people of this town mean so very much to us.”

New Hope Baptist Church choir members Ashley Cumberland and Jasmine Cumberland then performed “Can’t Give Up Now,” after which Kati Burwinkel of the Highland County Historical Society spoke about the Lincoln School Project and their work to preserve, and promote, the marchers’ story.

“Five years ago, a committee from the Historical Society started to meet with six of the marchers,” Burwinkel said. “All are here today to celebrate with us. We got together to start to work on how we were going to tell this story. We wanted to preserve this story. We wanted to honor the mothers.

“We met every few weeks for over two years, and during that time we collected information, we wrote five grants and received five grants, and the result of that is the exhibit and the Lincoln School Story film that plays just around the corner at the [Highland House] museum.”

The response to the exhibit has been tremendous, as Burwinkel said that when it opened in June 2017, the museum’s average monthly visits soared from 60 to 600 in the exhibit’s first month. She added that the late author Toni Morrison wrote about the mothers in her 2004 book “Remember,” and even 2020 vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris has requested a copy of the “Lincoln School Story” film.

The marchers also gained the unexpected honor of being inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame after a screening of the “Lincoln School Story” film at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

“In that audience was someone from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, who contacted me the following week and said that even though nominations had closed for their Hall of Fame, they were going to reopen those nominations and asked me to nominate the marchers,” Burwinkel said. “On October 5, 2017, all the marchers were inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Many of them are wearing their medals today.”

For their next project, Burwinkel said that in honor of the Lincoln School’s 150th anniversary, they are working on a book and “collecting stories.” She encouraged any former Lincoln School students to share their stories, which she said don’t “have to be about the march,” with the committee for inclusion.

“The mothers and their children who marched to school every day for two years have left us a legacy,” Burwinkel said. “They’ve taught us that each and every one of us has the ability to change history with peaceful civil disobedience.”

After the marchers’ comments, Cornerstone Assembly of God Church associate pastor Patty Burns gave a prayer of dedication to the bench. She noted that her own grandmother, Roxie Clemons, was also a marching mother.

Cumberland then invited the marchers to all help unveil the bench, to cheers and applause.

“Thank you to all of you that are here today, and to any one in any way that helped make this event possible, thank you,” Cumberland said. “Most of all, I want to say, thank you, God, for holding off the rain.

“Thank you, Mayor, for your generous memorial. We really appreciate it.”

The crowd called for Harsha to come up and be recognized as well.

“I’m honored to be here,” the mayor said. “This is a day that’s well past due. I’m very proud to be a part of this, and I want to thank Shawn Captain for approaching me. He came with the idea to do a memorialization up here, and it was just obvious to me for this was a perfect opportunity.”

In his closing comments, Captain also thanked all those who worked to make the bench project a reality.

“I want to thank everybody who helped me make this possible,” Captain said. “Eleanor; Kati Burwinkel from the Highland County Historical Society; Susan Banyas of ‘The Hillsboro Story;’ and a special thanks to former county commissioner Gary Abernathy, who has stayed in constant contact with me over this. And a special thanks to Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha, who donated the bench. I just wanted to thank you for making this possible.”