Seeking justice in education

Neil Snarr - Contributing columnist

This is Part 1 of a 2-part column honoring Black History Month.

The following statement appeared in the Wilmington News Journal on October 5, 1939 under the headline “LEWIS CHILDREN ARE PLACED WITH MOTHER”:“Custody of three children of Theodore Lewis, 32, colored, of Grove Street, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Lewis, 29, was removed from the father and placed with the mother by Juvenile Judge Hugh J. Wright at a hearing Wednesday.”

The article explains that Lewis had withdrawn his son, John, 14, from Wilmington High School, “after the father had been refused permission to send the two younger children Charles, 9, and Thealou, 6, to Smith Place school instead of Midland building.”

This constitutes another effort on the part of Wilmington blacks to send their grade-school children to one of the all-white grade schools rather than the all-Black school – Midland. Midland was built in 1884 and finally closed in 1952, It was located at the corner of Grant Street and Douglas/Sugartree Streets.

On October 18, 1939, an article appeared in the WNJ under the headline, “COLORED MOTHER OF THREE FACES JUVENILE COURT”, and Mrs. Lewis was asked “to show cause why she should not be adjudged in contempt for failure to send her children to school.

“Her husband, Theodore F. Lewis, 32, was recently released from Clinton County jail under $300 bond on a charge of contributing to the neglect of the education of the children after he assertedly refused to send the two younger children to Midland Building designated for them by the Board of Education and afterwards withdrew the oldest son from Wilmington Junior High School.”

The scvhool board’s response was, “In an effort to reach an amicable settlement of the controversy with Lewis, the Board of Education ordered a Wilmington school bus to convey all colored children of grade school age in the Grove-street area to Midland building each morning and return them at night. Twenty-two children were transported in this bus Monday, but the two younger Lewis children were not among them… Mrs. Lewis was represented at the hearing Wednesday by A. C. Berry, a Cincinnati colored attorney.”

In contrast to this effort to placate the Lewises by sending a school bus to take the Grove St. children to school, is the experience of Rita Anderson, a Black woman who lived on Nelson Road and also attended Midland School. She walked that nearly four-mile round-trip each school day (unless she was able to hitch a ride with a police officer or on a farm wagon) for seven years. At the same time she was walking that distance, Black grade-schoolers from Grove Street were riding a bus to Midland School, which was slightly over one mile.

On January 27, 1940 the following appeared in the WNJ: “COLORED COUPLE FILE APPEAL IN (Ohio) SUPREME COURT.” The local Common Appeals Court denied the Lewis application for a mandamus and ordered them to send their children to Midland school as designated. This ended the Lewis’ first effort to change the racist policies of the city of Wilmington. He returned to that theme in 1950.

Between 1939 and 1950, according to the WNJ, the Lewis family followed the prejudicial policies of the Wilmington school board and abandoned their efforts to change the policy.

Since the information for this article comes solely from the local newspaper (WNJ), the next inclusion of Lewis’ name in the newspaper is in 1944 when Theodore was inducted into the Army with three other “colored men” sent to Fort Thomas, Ky.

On April 14, 1944 the WNJ notes that Mrs. John Lewis has three sons and a grandson in the armed forces: Charles Lewis, George Lewis and Theodore Lewis, as well as Theodore’s son, William Lewis. No shortage of patriotism here!

After the war ended, segregation in the military was terminated and Mr. Lewis became the first vice commander of the newly formed Wilmington Colored Legion Post. Named the Eldon Lee Post, itwas constructed at the corner of Doan and Grant Streets in Wilmington.

To be continued …

Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.

Neil Snarr

Contributing columnist