THE ALTON SCHOOL CASE, 1897-1908
Shirley J. Portwood
On September 20,1897, seven-year-old Minnie Bibb and her eight-year-old brother Ambrose Bibb, two African American children in Alton, Illinois, went to the Washington grade school, which they had attended through June 1897. Expecting the usual pleasant greetings from their teachers and the principal, Minnie and Ambrose instead were told by their teachers, Mary Crawford, Nettie Jacoby, and Dora Rosenberger, and the principal, Janet Logan, that they no longer could attend Washington. Minnie and Ambrose and all other black children were now required to attend two new racially segregated schools, Lovejoy and Douglass, rather than the five desegregated schools that all Alton children had attended until the 1897-98 academic year. The teachers gave Minnie and Ambrose cards assigning them to Lovejoy.
Ambrose Bibb later testified before the Madison County, Illinois, circuit court about the first day of school. "I went to the Washington school September, 1897, and the first day the teacher[s] gave .... us [the African American children] the cards and told us not to come back till next morning." When Ambrose and Minnie Bibb returned to Washington on the following morning, Ambrose Bibb further testified, ".... Mr. Laughlin and Pack, two policemen with uniform[s] and stars on" blocked the black children's entry to the school. Other witnesses supported Bibb's testimony. White students remained at the five pre-existing schools, Washington, Lincoln, Garfield, Irving, and Humboldt, now designated as the "white schools." The four-year high school at Lincoln continued to admit both black and white students, as it had done since it was desegregated in 1873.
African American Community Resistance to School Segregation
Scott Bibb, the father of Minnie and Ambrose Bibb, along with many other black Altonians, immediately challenged the new policy of racially separate schools. For more than eleven years, from September 1897 through December 1908, blacks used four major methods of resistance to segregation:
Many African American parents accompanied their children to the white schools and insisted that they take their places alongside white children; African American parents and other black adults, often accompanied by children, directly confronted city and school officials, demanding that their children be readmitted to the five white schools; virtually all blacks refused to send black children to the segregated Lovejoy and Douglass schools; and the black community filed a lawsuit in which Scott Bibb was the plaintiff. Both the lawsuit, The
The Alton School Case exemplifies African Americans' commitment to achieving equality and full citizenship, as well as their resistance to white hegemony, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The Alton School Case further reveals the contested terrain of African American citizenship during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Blacks' demands for equal rights and full access to all public facilities escalated at the same time that whites increasingly insisted upon separate and unequal facilities for the races, with the better facilities reserved for whites. Similar African American demands for integration and equality occurred throughout the U. S. as blacks sought integrated schools, streetcars and trains, hotels, restaurants, and other facilities that served the general public. The U. S. Supreme Court sided with the segregationists in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), ruling that Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, had no right to ride in a first-class railroad car if a separate coach was available to blacks.
By 1897, the year in which the Alton School Case began, Alton blacks had developed a strong community centered around their churches, mutual-aid societies, clubs, and other organizations. The black press also helped to publicize events and issues within the African American community. African American proponents of integrated schools in Alton used these traditional organizations, as well as the newly formed Citizens Committee and the Ladies Committee, as a base to fight against the segregation of the public schools. Blacks held many meetings and social events in support of school integration. Political meetings convened on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, when the men discussed strategy and the leaders informed those present about the course of the Alton School Case. Both men and women devised ways to maintain black community support, to orchestrate fund-raising events in order to pay legal fees and other expenses, and to plan entertainments. The entire African American community participated in these fund-raising and recreational events, such as picnics, riverboat excursions, dances, concerts, and dinners, which were held on weekends, Emancipation Day, the Fourth of July, and other holidays.
Newspaper articles in the African American press supported school integration in Alton and elsewhere. These stories also publicized the events held by the Alton black community in support of the Alton School Case. For example, the Springfield Illinois Record published a typical public invitation to an event "for the benefit of the School Committee" that Eugene Drew of Alton had written. Drew, a leader in the Alton School Case, described a "Grand Concert and Cake Walk" to be held in Alton on January 28,1899, and he urged "everybody" to attend, promising an enjoyable evening, featuring Cordelia "Cordia" Jones at the piano:
Come one and all, large and small. Of course after the Grand Concert and Cake Walk is disposed of, the
accomplished pianist, Miss Cordia Jones will take charge of the piano and our readers know the rest.Cordelia Jones, a high school student, was a pianist who had her own band before she was seventeen. She was an accomplished musician, who often played the piano at private parties and community events. Jones was also a leader in the Alton School Case, helping to plan fund-raising events and other entertainments.
Although most blacks in Alton supported the School Case, a few backed the decision to segregate the schools. Some African American proponents of separate schools were teachers, like sisters Frances "Fanny" Barbour and Florence Barbour, who believed that they would lose their jobs if the schools were desegregated because schools with white students rarely employed black teachers. Businessman Isaac Kelley and a few other blacks argued that separate schools with black teachers were better for African American children than integrated schools, which almost invariably had white teachers, who often discriminated against black children. Kelley also believed that segregated schools were desirable because they provided teaching positions to African Americans. Supporters of a single school system attended by both black and white children, however, pointed out that blacks could teach at desegregated schools, as they did in Chicago and various large northern cities.
The End of the Bibb Case
Even though they continued to oppose segregation in principle, African Americans reluctantly abandoned the fight against segregated schools for several reasons. White violence against blacks in the Alton area, Illinois, and the nation had increased between the 1890s and 1908. Many acts of white violence against blacks, including race riots, lynching, and beatings took place, including the 1908 Springfield race riot, which occurred only weeks before the 1908 school year. These acts of terrorism, for which whites were rarely punished, persuaded many blacks that officials at the local, state, and national levels were unwilling to enforce the laws and the supreme court rulings or to protect black citizens. Further, mainstream newspapers in Alton and its vicinity often carried stories of these violent episodes and warned that similar violence
could be visited upon black Altonians. Having exhausted their legal remedies, there was no non-violent alternative for African Americans, who were committed to non-violence, to continue the Alton School Fight. And, finally, black Altonians did not want to continue to deny public education to their children.
The white officials in Alton were supported by virtually the entire white community in their decision to segregate the schools. Only one white Altonian, John J. Brenholt, publicly advocated racially mixed schools. Brenholt served as the lead attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The Alton Telegraph, the mainstream newspaper, carried stories touting racial separation. Voters repeatedly returned to office those who had segregated the schools. Madison County circuit court judges and juries found the racial separation of schoolchildren legal, and other whites maintained a silent consent. Despite their defiance of both the Illinois General Assembly and the Illinois Supreme Court, Alton officials suffered no negative consequences for their actions, thus reinforcing their determination to separate black and white school children. African Americans, in seeking to retain desegregated schools, displayed their commitment to the principles of freedom, equality, and social justice that were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and Illinois law. Lacking the power to institutionalize their goals, blacks maintained these principles until they were able to realize them in fact-at least in part-many years later. Beginning in the late 1940s, Alton blacks, this time with support from some whites, again demanded integrated schools. The Alton schools and many others in the United States were desegregated during the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, although many other schools in both the North and the South remained segregated.
Connection with the Curriculum
Materials for Each Student
Objectives for Each Student
the Jim Crow era from popular images of African Americans.
Opening the Lesson
Developing the Lesson
To conclude the lesson, discuss key ideas found in the activities. Because racial discrimination is a topic with which many of your students may have personal experience and strong opinions, this discussion may be directed to some extent by students. This may be accomplished in a full-class discussion or in small groups in response to thought questions provided by the teacher. As part of the conclusion, emphasize the connections between racial stereotypes and segregation. In addition, direct students to reflect on the central role that organized protest had in the response of the African American community to the segregation of their schools. This discussion provides a good jumping off point for a transition into the modern civil rights movement. This conclusion can also be used to help students understand the dynamics of modern racial discrimination. An emphasis on the relevance of these connections can help to transition into the next topic of study, which will differ for each class and teacher.
• Students can interview a person who lived through a period of racial upheaval and protest, such as the civil rights movement. They can write about the conclusions drawn from the interview or present to the class. A local historical society might be able to provide contacts for suitable interview subjects.
• Students can plan a non-violent protest about some school policy or issue in which the entire class can participate. They should formally plan the type of protest, as well as stating the specific goals that they wish to accomplish. In this way the activity becomes connected with curriculum, rather than just being a way for students to complain about policies they do not like. This activity will work well only if teacher supervision accompanies every step of the planning and execution process. In addition, administrative approval should be obtained before attempting such an activity.
• Students can engage in discussion about current controversial issues in their community, just as the segregation of the Alton schools challenged that community Ask students to research both sides of an issue by reading local newspapers, interviewing local officials, and gathering information from residents. Students should take a position on the issue and either write a letter to the editor of a local paper or write a letter to the appropriate local official expressing their views. This activity could be combined with the previous activity to lead to some sort of organized protest within the community, such as a petition, boycott, or march.
• Students can research the history of integration and segregation in their own community. They may choose to follow this history back to pre-Civil War days to see in what ways their community dealt with racial issues at that time, and then trace such issues through the period of the Alton School Case, the civil rights movement and the present. A local historical society, as well as older members of the community might be of help in completing this activity.
• Link the Alton School Case to the following studies that have already appeared in Illinois History Teacher:
— James Grossman, "Chicago and the Great Migration," 3:2 (1996), 33-44.
— Wanda A. Hendricks, Paulette Pennington Jones, and Careda Rolland Taylor, "Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination," 3:1 (1996), 28-35.
— Roberta Senechal, "The Springfield Race Riot of 1908," 3:2 (1996), 22-32. (This article will provide understanding of the reference in the narrative portion of the to the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 and provide context for the discussion of the Alton School Case.)
(Please note all of these articles are available on line and are free to access on the web site for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency Go to the home page and click on "Education Services.")
Assessing the Lesson
Answer the following questions using information from the article. Some questions may require you to use prior knowledge or to make your own judgments about ideas or issues.
2. What were the four major methods of resistance used by black parents and other African Americans to challenge the new segregated schools policy? Which of the four do you believe would be the most successful in a modern-day situation?
3. How did the strong African American community in Alton contribute to their efforts to challenge segregation?
4. What was the legal outcome of the case? What is the significance of the fact that the local court repeatedly ruled for the city and was repeatedly overruled by the Illinois Supreme Court?
5. How did local Alton authorities circumvent the intent behind the court ruling? Why do you think the court system or other authorities did not force Alton to comply?
6. Why did Alton's African American community finally give up the fight for integration? Do you believe they did the right thing in stopping their resistance to segregated schools? Explain your answer.
From this activity you will be taking the point of view of a person who lived through the Alton School Case. In the character of this person you will write a letter of at least one page to the mayor of Alton expressing your opinion about the case. You should use the proper format for writing a formal letter. Make sure that you express your opinions clearly and support them with explanations and facts, just as you would do if you were really trying to convince the mayor to agree with you. As your character, express to the mayor how the case has affected you, personally. In addition to your opinion about the case, you might also include suggestions for a plan of action that the mayor could take.
The person from whose point of view you choose to write could be almost anyone associated with the Alton School Case. Suggestions include, but are not limited to:
2. A black student or a white student in the Alton schools.
3. A parent of either a black or a white student.
4. A member of the city council.
5. A member of the school board.
6. A concerned community member.
7. A teacher or principal in the Alton school system.
8. Any other appropriate person you believe you can represent.
Be creative, but be realistic within the boundaries of the character you have chosen to represent. Before you start writing, think about how that person really might have felt about the Alton School Case as it was unfolding.
In this activity you will analyze images that depict popular stereotypes of African Americans during the Jim Crow Era.
Go to the following web address: http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/scripts/jimcrow/gallery.cgi
You will find a list of various collections into which photos and other images are organized. Choose the "Distorted Mirror Collection" by clicking on the picture under the name of the gallery. In this gallery you will find popular images of African Americans under Jim Crow. Each image contains some brief narrative information. Choose 6 of the images to analyze (note that there is a second page of images). Use the following analysis questions to draw meaning from each of the six images.
1. Write a detailed description of what you observe about the image.
2. What aspects of the image depict a stereotyped or racist viewpoint on the part of the person who created the image?
3. Why do you think this image was created? (For some images the purpose is stated in the image, and for others you will need to make an educated guess. If you guess, explain your reasoning.)
4. What conclusions does this image lead the viewer to draw about African American people?
5. In what ways might images such as this contribute to the problem of school segregation? Think about the effect that such images would have on white viewers, as well as African American viewers.
6. If these images represent ways that African Americans have been portrayed in the media in the past, what are some ways in which they have been portrayed in more recent years? Consider popular television shows, music, movies, etc.
1. What side are you arguing?
2. What people in the community most likely agree with this point of view?
3. List reasons why your side is right, including support for each of those statements:
4. Try to anticipate the arguments your opponents will use against you. Develop possible rebuttals or responses to each of those arguments.