School Segregation in 19th-Century Madison County
Prior to 1874, public schools in Illinois didn’t accept African American children. Black churches filled the gap.
Helen Ballinger Walker was a toddler when she came to Foster Township with her parents James and Matilda Ballinger. She attended Salem Baptist School at Salem Baptist Church. James Henry Johnson’s teenage son Thomas Johnson was the school’s teacher (he later attended Shurtleff College in Upper Alton). Prior to 1860, Salem Baptist School was held in the basement of Samuel Bates’s house.
Union Baptist Church, founded in Alton in 1837 as African Baptist Church, constructed its first church building in 1853. School began a year later in the church’s basement. Mt. Zion School in Pin Oak Township, run by Mt. Zion Baptist Church, was another early church-run school. All three schools were established through the work of the Wood River Colored Baptist Association in concert with the Friends to Humanity.
The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation in 1874 requiring public school systems to admit black students. Communities reacted by creating separate public schools for African American children. Lincoln School (also known as Lower Town School or First Ward School) opened in Edwardsville in 1877 on the former site of the Madison County “Donation Courthouse.” The sole teacher, William E. Kelley, held classes in a brick building originally used for the county clerk’s office. The black school in Collinsville was also called Lincoln School.
Black Madison County residents protested racial barriers to education from the beginning. In September 1873, a group of African American Altonians met and resolved “that we accept no ‘colored school’; but that we send our children to the schools of our respective districts” (Alton Telegraph September 12, 1873). In September 1892, a group of parents approached the Edwardsville school board and protested conditions at First Ward School. They asked the board to either make improvements or abandon the school in favor of integration.
Citizens also took the fight to the courts. John Peair of Upper Alton filed suit in 1888 against the school board to get his two children enrolled in the white school. The Illinois Supreme Court decided in favor of Peair. But since the decision technically applied only to Peair’s children Tony and Cora, local officials refused to integrate the town’s schools generally.
Mayor Henry Brueggemann instituted public elementary school segregation in Alton in 1897. When siblings Minnie and Ambrose Bibb returned to Washington School after the summer break, they were directed to Lovejoy School instead. Alton had just constructed two new schools — Lovejoy School and Douglass School – designated as black schools. Alton’s other five schools became white schools. Scott Bibb and other parents brought their kids back to school and demanded that teachers let them in. The teachers refused to teach any black children sitting in the classroom.
The African American community boycotted the designated black schools. Scott Bibb sued the mayor in 1899. The case The People of the State of Illinois, ex-rel., Scott Bibb v. The Mayor and Common Council of the City of Alton bounced back and forth between the Madison County courts and the Illinois Supreme Court for eleven years before the latter finally decided in Bibb’s favor. Locally, Alton authorities interpreted the decision as applying only to Minnie and Ambrose, who were eighteen and nineteen years old, respectively, by the time the case was decided.
Despite attending different elementary schools, black and white students in Alton always attended public high school together. The first African American student graduated from Alton High School in 1873. Collinsville and Edwardsville, however, took a different approach. Instead of integrating or establishing separate high schools, the school boards paid for black students to attend Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, Lincoln University High School in Jefferson City, or Sumner High School in St. Louis. This meant that the teenagers had to live apart from their families in order to continue their education. In some cases, parents instead sent their kids to stay with relatives in Carbondale, Decatur, Evanston, or other locations where they had access to public high schools. Attending a local high school meant incurring the expense of private school tuition.
Integration didn’t come to most Madison County city schools until well into the twentieth century. Some parts of the county saw integration in the 1940s. The first African American students to attend Edwardsville High school enrolled in the 1950–51 academic year. Other schools remained segregated until the 1970s.
Some rural schools in Madison County were never segregated. The one-room Wood School in the Wood Station area of Foster Township, built in 1859, taught both black and white students when they weren’t working on their family’s farms. This 1898 class photograph includes four grandchildren of James Henry Johnson family: Clota (standing, second from right), Grace (middle row, third from right), Sadie (middle row, standing at left), and Birdie (seated next to Sadie).
Grace and Clota Johnson both graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis. They spent the school year separated from their parents and siblings in Foster Township. Instead, Grace and Clota lived with Rev. and Mrs. Stevens and their family in St. Louis so they could attend high school.
Alton Telegraph. Various articles.
Collinsville Kahoks. History & Tradition. Accessed January 3, 2019. http://www.kahoks.org/about-us/history-tradition/
Directory of Illinois African American Resource and Sites. 1995. Manuscript. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Edwardsville Intelligencer. Various articles.
Hurd, Harvey B., ed. The Revised Statutes of the State of Illinois, 1877. Chicago: Chicago Legal News Company, 1877. Available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hl4917
Illinois African-American Resource Guide. Illinois State Library Special Report Series 6, no. 2 (Fall 1999).
“The Illinois Race War: Story of the Troubles in Upper Alton.” New York Times, January 15, 1890.
Johnson, Charlotte. African Americans in Madison County, Illinois. Collection prepared for the staff at the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library. 2001. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Johnson, Cyrus L. A History of Negro Settlement in Foster Township. Presentation, Honoring Foster Township, Spring Meeting of the Madison County Historical Society, Fosterburg Grade School, Fosterburg, Illinois, May 15, 1960. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Meisenheimer, Harold. Scrapbooks about Alton schools. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Portwood, Shirley J. “The Alton School Case and African American Community Consciousness, 1897-1908.” Illinois Historical Journal, v. 91, no. 1 (Spring 1998). Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Portwood, Shirley J. “School Segregation in Southern: The Alton School Case, 1897-1908.” Illinois History Teacher, v. 12, no. 1 (2005). Accessed January 8, 2019. https://www.lib.niu.edu/2005/iht1210523.html
Stern, Ron. A Centennial History of Madison, Illinois, 1891-1991.
United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form [for Salem Baptist Church, 2001 Seiler Road, Alton, Madison County, Illinois]. Certified November 7, 2013. Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/13001004.pdf