Portsmouth City Schools opened their first segregated facility for African American students in 1859, marking the first time that black residents were able to receive a public education. The school and teaching was run by a "Mrs. Weaver," a member of the city's black community. Seven years later, in August 1866, the school board "contracted with Messrs. Hard & Conway to build a brick school-house on the corner of Ninth and Washington streets, for colored schools, for $2,260."
In 1872, when an elected City School Board was officially established in Ohio law, John Q. Weaver -- whose wife may have been the "Mrs. Weaver" in charge of the Ninth Street School -- was elected to represent the old 4th Ward, making Weaver the first African American elected to a public office in the history of Portsmouth and Scioto County. Weaver had been born free in Murfreesboro, North Carolina on 25 November 1825 and was named in honor of John Quincy Adams, who was President at the time. He learned the trade of barber and served as the personal attendant of Commodore Jesse Wilkinson, who commanded the Raritan, the flagship of the US Navy's Gulf Squadron during the Mexican War. Following the war, Weaver would eventually find work as a barber on Capt. William McClain's Steamer, the Bostona, which was involved in Portsmouth's Underground Railroad operations.
In June of 1858, soon after taking employment on the Bostona, John Q. and his wife, Mary, would settle in Portsmouth, where he opened a barbershop. He quickly emerged as a black civic leader, with he and Mary becoming pillars in the city's black community. In the 1870s, he would operate the Biggs House Barber Shop and Bath Rooms, offering his services in the city's most luxurious hotel.
As the black residential neighborhood of Portsmouth shifted northward, eventually being pushed above the original railroad lines that ran east to west along 10th Street, the school board would also relocate what they termed the "colored school" to the corner of Eleventh and Johns Street in what was becoming known as the North End neighborhood.
The Board purchased the parcel from Judge F. C. Searl for $2,500. Designed by J. Hobbs and Son of Philadelphia and built for $8,067, the two-story structure, known as the Eleventh Street Colored School, opened in September 1876, with six rooms, accommodating over 350 students.
At the time, Ohio Law did not require integrated schooling, but rather allowed for school boards to organize black-only schools, when such facilities were equal to those of the white-only schools. In May of 1885, the Board took up a recommendation from a Board sub-committee that "hereafter no distinction be made in the High School on account of color." What followed, according to a newspaper report, was "a free expression of opinion," which "revealed the fact that the Democratic members were opposed to the adoption of the clause, and the Republicans, with perhaps one exception, were in favor of it. Yet the members of each party disclaimed being governed by any political [partisan] feeling or [racial] prejudice either way, each aiming only at the welfare of the schools."
The Times reported the remarks of the Board's only African American member, a Mr. Hailey, who "said his people ... simply wanted what the law allowed them, and if it was thought the admission of colored pupils to the High School would be detrimental to the interests of that or the other schools, they would not push their claim. The welfare of the schools in the aggregate was paramount with him." When he made his final remarks on the question, Hailey "said all they asked was that their children have the same facilities as those of the whites. They simply came to the Board asking justice, and he knew that the Board would do what was right." When the votes were counted, however, the motion to integrate the high school "lost, a majority in its favor being wanting."
The black families of Portsmouth, however, did not give up and soon a petition drive secured "hundreds" of signatures of black residents who supported the integration of the high school. But, the petition, submitted by Mr. Hailey, was tabled, according to a board member's objection, because it had been "couched in language disrespectful to the Board and the teachers employed by the same."
The resistance to integration of Portsmouth High School was brought to a head when a lawsuit was filed in the Scioto County Court of Common Pleas by Jacob Johnson, "the father of Narcissa Johnson" and notice served "on the Board of Education and Superintendent Cox." Johnson worked as a teamster, hauling stone for the local quarries and saw mills and was President of the Hope Hose Fire Company No. 5, an all-African American volunteer company of fire fighters who served the North End neighborhood.
The Portsmouth Times opposed the movement to integrate and employed racist rhetoric to describe the lawsuit's attorney, H. W. Farmer: "The Board of Education had better look out for its scalp. The war paint is being mixed, and ere many moons the braves, under chief Farnham, will have taken the trail and gone in quest of the treacherous pale faces who have turned the dusky children away from the white High School."
Those on the board who wished to fight the lawsuit lost by one vote. The Portsmouth Times would report "that a majority of the Board are opposed to the abolition of the color line in the High School. Had Mr. Huston been present his vote would have been for the motion which would have been decisive." But, with the Board's only black member, Mr. Hailey providing the crucial vote, Portsmouth High School would be officially inetgrated as of November 7th, 1885, when the Scioto County Common Pleas Court "granted them permission to all privileges of High School."
Narcissa Johnson was undoubtedly among the first black students to enrolled in PHS in the fall of 1885, but the honor of being the first African American graduate belongs to Louise Elizabeth Parker, whose obituary in 1911, stated that she was recognized as "the first Black graduate of PHS."
While PHS would operate on an integrated basis, the city's elementary schools remained basically segregated by residential zoning, with the Eleventh Street School Zone covering the North End neighborhood. Thus, there was no written policy segregating the races in Portsmouth City Schools. Rather their organization into neighborhood elementary schools, which fed into one high school allowed for the high school to be integrated while the elementary schools could continue to be organized into school zones that reflected the residential segregation that had come to characterize Portsmouth as it grew in the nineteenth century.
Indeed, Portsmouth's growing black population, which showed particular dramatic growth in the first decades of the twentieth century as a result of the Great Migration, led to complaints, as earlier as 1923, from parents regarding over-crowding and an inadequate gym facilities for students at the Eleventh Street School. The Daily Times reported in 1925 that "attendance at the Eleventh street school is the largest in the history of the building, 268 pupils being matriculated this term." The Board was forced to purchase "a portable building" as a "temporary arrangement."
The School Board ultimately responded with more permanent measures and in 1927, a new school structure -- the Booker T. Washington School -- was built adjacent to the original Eleventh Street School. The original architectural plans, which were created by DeVoss & Donaldson, a local firm, envisioned the demolition of the old structure, but ultimately the school board decided to retain the older building by attaching it to the new school. Built for $65,394 by W. J. Linn Construction Company, the new Washington School would continue to use classrooms in the old Eleventh Street School until the mid-1960s, when the the whole school was finally closed.
Closure of the school followed a decade's long battle, begun in 1952 by local families and Civil Rights organizations to end segregation at the Washington School. After a failed lawsuit in the early 1950s, prior to the US Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education Decision, it would take more than a decade of additional struggle and protest for the Portsmouth City School Board to finally end segregation in the city's schools.
Rebecca D. Jenkins, "Forgotten: Scioto County's Lost Black History," MA Thesis, Bowling Green State University (2015).
Nelson W. Evans, A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902), 490-492.
History of Lower Scioto Valley, Ohio (Chicago: Inter-state Publishing Co., 1884), 209.
"The Color Line. Will It Be Advanced so as to Take in Our High School?" Portsmouth Times (9 May 1885).
"Colored Children Will Not Be Admitted to the White High School" Portsmouth Times (30 May 1885).
"The Board of Education," Portsmouth Times (3 October 1885): 2.
"The Color Line. The School Board and Professor Cox Made to Face Legal Music," Portsmouth Times (24 October 1885): 3.
"Backed Down! The Board of Education Abandons Its Position on the Color Line, and Colored Children will Waltz into the White High School," Portsmouth Times (31 October 1885).
"Court News," Portsmouth Times (14 November 1885): 2.
"J. Q. Weaver Dies Tuesday," Portsmouth Times (16 September 1905): 3.
"Martyr for Education," Portsmouth Times (12 August 1911): 9.
"Building Crowded," Portsmouth Daily Times (25 September 1925): 12.