The YS Historical Society has two other group photos of students at the Union Schoolhouse in addition to the 1908 one previously shared. One is undated, but from the clothing, earlier than 1908 and before the school was integrated, and the other is from 1914.
In honor of Black History month the Historical Society has provided the front vestibule window display on the history of Yellow Springs schools at the Yellow Springs Community Library, including the following Yellow Springs News article from May of 2003 giving the history of integration in the schools:
Yellow Springs Schools Integrated in 1887
When the Union School House opened in 1872, it was meant to house under one roof all the schoolchildren in Yellow Springs. Everyone except for black children.
Most local black children weren’t publicly educated at all until an African American school opened in 1871. Even in Ohio, it took legislators 22 years after the Civil War to get it straight, when the State approved a law desegregating public schools in Ohio.
As early as 1804, the State began passing the Black Laws that edged away at blacks’ civil rights, first to enter Ohio tax free, then to establish residency and to vote. According to a student paper written in the 1960s by Antioch college student Hugh Wylie, by 1831, blacks were prohibited by law from attending public school.
Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 19th century, the public school system was fragmented at best until 1825, when Miami Township divided into four school districts and relegated part of the tax fund for building schools. That year the first school in the township was built on Clifton Pike, which today is State Route 343, after which 10 others gradually sprouted in other districts in the village and the township.
In 1853 the Ohio legislature passed a law requiring local school boards to establish schools for black students when the number of black children exceeded 30. Almost two decades later Yellow Springs established its first school for black students on the south end of Dayton Street. Then in 1874 the school was relocated in the old village school on the southeast corner of West South College and High Streets.
Wylie reported that the late News editor Kieth Howard recalled interviewing a black woman who attended an all-white rural school on Bryan Park Road sometime in the 1870s. Though technically it may have been illegal, exceptions may have been made for a few black students in more remote areas. The woman remembered being ignored by the other students at first. However, she said she became imminently more popular when the other children saw her prowess on the baseball field.
Things began to change for schoolchildren in the village around the time of the Civil War. Under the leadership of Benjamin Arnett, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who served as a State Representative from Greene County, the Ohio Unionist Party gradually began repealing the Black Laws. Arnett, who lived in Wilberforce, introduced the bill in 1887 repealing the last of the Black Laws that would make racial segregation of public schools illegal.
Yellow Springs resident Lucy Wolford, who was a student at the Union School House school in the 1880s, told Wylie, “I’ve seen Bishop Arnett many times. When he got in a buggy there wasn’t any room left.”
A powerful black man representing a white constituency, Arnett got his repeal passed on Feb. 22, 1887, but he didn’t stop there. He and a Reverend Jackson traveled around the area educating communities about the bill’s provisions. Jackson came to speak in Yellow Springs a month after the bill’s passage, likely influencing local resident Silas Wills to campaign throughout the village in support of the cause. Several years before, Wills had been denied his right to vote, legally given to blacks in 1870, and had bought property in the village with the proceeds from a lawsuit he won against the State. Still devoting energy toward equal treatment of blacks in the village, Wills, on the eve of integration in town, went to all the black homes urging parents to send their kids to the Union School House.
Many were afraid, his son, J. Walter Wills, told Antiochiana in an article in 1964, but “Silas kept saying that the time had come when a man had to stop being a Negro and had to become an American. Nobody can take your children through the door of that school but you. If you don’t do it now, you may never get the chance again.”
Wills said that on the first day of school in September 1887, his father stood at the door and counted the number of black students that came. All of them attended school that day, he said.
Wolford, who was white, and a black man named Will Henry, had slightly differing memories as students during those early days of integration, according to Wylie’s paper. Wolford recalled a general sense of incredulity among Yellow Springs citizens that integration would actually come to fruition. A.E. Humphreys, editor of the Yellow Springs Review, wrote an editorial anticipating that some families would pull their students out of the school in protest.
The paper published another editorial at the beginning of the school year: “Young America’s fathers and mothers are watching this opening with special interest and not a little anxious. The striking of the word ‘black’ from the Ohio Statutes has removed the obstacle that prevented Colored children attending the White schools, but it did not remove the prejudice that exists in the minds of white parents against mixed schools. . . we can only hope for the best and see what we shall see.”
But Wolford insisted that integration in the school happened without incident. Boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the room. The boys played together at recess, though the black girls played separately from the white girls, she recalled. The boys shared a bathroom, but the black and white girls had separate toilets. “Don’t let anyone tell you we had trouble like in Little Rock and those places,” Wolford said. None of the students left the school in protest of the new arrangement, she said.
Henry recalled that on the first day of classes all the black children were sent home because a local minister and two school board members were protesting at the school. He also recalled that black students had to sit behind the white students, at the back of the room. But he concurred with Wolford that, in his memory, none of the students objected so much that they had to leave the school.
Wolford’s husband, J.N. Wolford, a former editor and publisher of the News, remembered hearing that Cedarville schools integrated smoothly, except that the blacks were taught in a separate crowded room for several years, according to Wylie.
Bessie Totten, the late curator of Antiochiana, remembered a cousin who attended the Union School House at the time of integration had been stoned by a group of black boys, and that there were some people who just didn’t accept the change, according to Wylie. Some also felt that integration put black teachers out of a job, and that mixed schools weren’t acceptable unless black teachers were hired.
Lauren Heaton, YS News, May 2003