The year 2016 marks the 90th anniversary of Black History Month.
Black History Month was started by Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson and was initially called “Negro History Week.” Dr. Woodson was a devout scholar of the history of Africa and the African Diaspora and wanted to ensure that black people in America were knowledgeable about the contributions of black people, not only in this country but in the entire world and to humanity in general.
To further his aims of spreading knowledge regarding the history of black people, he and some of his colleagues and students started an organization called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Today that organization is called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (or ASALH). ASALH began in 1915 and today it issues themes in regards to Black History Month.
For 2016, the theme of ASALH is “Hallowed Ground, Sites of African American Memory.” In honor of this theme I was interested in highlighting some areas and institutions that have been integral to black Americans of Toledo and as such I decided to focus on two items in particular – sites of the Underground Rail Road in Northwest Ohio and the role of education and specifically public education in Toledo due to one of black culture’s primary features being a desire for current and future generations to attain adequate knowledge needed to succeed in American society.
This post will focus on the Toledo Public School system and how it has been a trail blazer in the area of availability of public education for black youth and in regards to integration.
What we now know as the Toledo Public School system began in 1853. As shown within the previous post regarding blacks in Toledo on the 1850 Census, there were over 40 black/colored families in the area in the City of Toledo during that time. Included within those families were 40 children 14 years and less in the city. On the Census, only three of the black/colored children were labeled as having attended school in 1850.
Prior to becoming the city of Toledo or Lucas County, land was set aside in this area for the benefit of public education. In 1785 and 1778, territorial law dictated that a square of land should be held for area public schools.
The constitution of Ohio emphasized a desire and a right to public education by including a provision in 1820 to allow local communities to collect taxes in order to provide educational opportunities to local children.
Early Toledoans also were interested in providing educational opportunities and so the first known schools were set up in the early 1800s in this area.
The first known school in Toledo was established in 1829 on the bank of “Ten Mile Creek” near the Ottawa River. Another was set up in 1830 along “Mud Creek” near the present day Main Branch of the Toledo/Lucas County Public library. Mud Creek was a branch of what all of us Toledoans know as Swan Creek. In the mid 1800s, Toledo was a part of the “Great Black Swamp” and during the era when these schools were created, there were still areas, like Mud Creek that were yet to be drained and buried. (An interesting aside is that some buildings in downtown Toledo still have sub-pumps working that are draining water from the buried creeks and swamp areas). Classes were also held in 1835 in a wood frame structure located on Erie Street. All of these schools were created prior to the establishment of Toledo as a city.
After Cityhood, Toledoans approved public funding to establish schools for white children of both genders in 1840, which was an innovative act being that females were not regularly allowed to attend schools in the United States at this time. In 1849 the city established a Board of Education to oversee the public schools for the growing city. A new brick school was built for white students on Lagrange Street on land donated by Jesup W. Scott and another was built in 1853 near Madison and 10th Street called Toledo High School and later Toledo Central High School. This same year, the Board of Education included the education of black children in segregated buildings.
Due to the creation of new schools for white children, black children in Toledo begin to have classes held in the former wood frame school on Erie Street in 1853. The city built a new school for African American children in 1858. During that year 31 black children attended public schools in Toledo.
By 1871 Toledo fully integrated its public school system so all of the children attended the same schools. There were a few pictures taken of early classes of students in Toledo in the 1880s in particular that I have reviewed. I am always hoping to find one of my earlier relatives in those pictures due to having school aged ancestors in the 1880s. Unfortunately, there are not many labels for the pictured individuals. Some cute and interesting pictures of Toledo classes from the late 1800s and early 1900s are below:
Stickney School 1888 (5th Grade)
Stickney School 1888 (1st grade)
Fulton School 1894 – black child’s name is labeled as Lillie EASELY
Lagrange School 1916
Birmingham School 1926
As a result of the early integration of Toledo Public Schools, black residents in Toledo were able to receive the same education as all other children in this area. A large amount of the junior high and high school aged children received a vocational education that would enable them to perform jobs during the height of Toledo’s industrialization and manufacturing boom.
During the 1800s, Toledo did not have as much segregation between different ethnicities as we see in the city today. Many of the neighborhoods and the schools which today are more segregated based on residency, were not so prior to the intervention of local government and the creation of public housing which designated neighborhoods in the mid 20th century to either be “negro” or “white” developments.
As shown above, there were black students in various neighborhoods in Toledo in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of these areas are ones (East Side and North Toledo/Polish Village) that people today associate mostly with European immigrants, most notably the Polish for North Toledo and the Hungarians for the Birmingham neighborhood in East Toledo. Though the black population was small, there have always been African Americans in Toledo in those neighborhoods and practically all others of the city. Even though today people think of Central City as the neighborhood which is most important to the African American community, prior to the creation of public housing in that area, most black Toledoans lived amongst the Polish, German, Irish, and other immigrant populations. There were pockets of black residents within all of the working class Toledo areas. Many black Toledoans, including a large amount of my family lived in what is now the Warren Sherman area (especially near Canton Ave. and Woodruff Street near Cherry) and the Old North End . Reviews of early year books and class pictures show a small, but constant amount of black students prior to 1900.
Unfortunately, I have yet to confirm that one of my relatives is in any of the early class pictures from the late 1800s. Many of the pictures above I found via searches of the Google News Archive and Ancestry.com’s records. A lot of the actual year books held at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library of early Toledo schools do not label the pictures of attendees until they graduate high school and high school graduation was rare amongst all Americans during this time period. Early yearbooks usually list all of the students in a particular grade on another page, but not under the picture like we see today.
Luckily, I do have some confirmed relatives from the early to mid 1900s that were labeled in high school year books. I will gather and post those pictures on a later post in regards to providing information about using year books as genealogical resources.
In summation, education was highly sought by early black Toledoans. Once public education was open to black students, families took advantage of these opportunities and African American residents in the area were much more highly educated versus black populations in more discriminatory areas in Ohio and around the country. All of my great grandparents who were students in Toledo prior to 1930 all received high school diplomas at a time when completing high school was rare, even amongst white Americans. Two of them also went to and completed college at the University of Toledo.