Schools have historically been at the forefront in the controversial subject of segregation, and Gallia County was no exception.
Early in the county’s history there had been separate schools for whites and blacks, with the first recorded Black school being established in the 1830’s.
The Gallipolis Colored School opened in 1868, and required all African-American children to attend that school until it’s closing in 1951, when grade schools were integrated.
The high school department was established in 1877, and was later named the Lincoln School. Segregation of high school students ended in 1918 through the efforts of Lincoln School principal Wilbert Howell.
“Separate but Equal” might have been the doctrine at the time, but evidence proved that educational opportunities for blacks were not equal to those of whites. The only advanced classes offered at Lincoln were algebra, civil government and physics. Additional courses were necessary for admittance into college and universities, and Black students were handicapped in their efforts to obtain advanced degrees without access to the courses.
Several students seeking the opportunity to take high school courses not offered at the Lincoln School attempted to gain admittance to white only Gallia schools. In 1884 African American O.J.W. Scott was the first to seek admission to the white Union School. He was followed by W.A. Cousins in1885, who was also denied.
Claude Alexander and Wilbert Howell applied in 1896 and were given seats in the classroom. After being ignored by teachers for two weeks, a white lawyer was hired to represent them. The attorney accepted a retainer, then decided there were no grounds for a suit against Union School.
In the early 1900’s, Lincoln student John Arnett Mitchell sought admission to some of the courses taught at Union, and was again denied.
All five students taught themselves the necessary subjects and went on to obtain advanced degrees in spite of the obstacles placed in their path of education.
In 1918 Lincoln School Principal Howell petitioned the Gallipolis Board of Education to allow admission of seven Black students to Gallipolis High School. He argued that a levy had been passed to build a new high school and upgrade the Lincoln School, and while the high school had been built, there had been no upgrades for the Lincoln school.
When his petition was denied, he took the case to court with the assistance of Robert Mitchell, the father of John Arnett Mitchell. The decision of the Court must have been radical at the time: it ruled that the Gallipolis Board of Education was “perpetually enjoined from maintaining a high school of color.”
In January, 1919, the first Black students were allowed to enroll for classes at Gallipolis High School. Twenty-five white students walked out in protest, but the Black students remained and no further protests were reported.
Although integration resulted from court mandates, it is important to note that Gallia County’s commitment to education and their early adaptation of integration for high school students eventually led to all students in the county being provided with equal educational opportunities.
Source material provided by Gallia County Historical Society.
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.