How Alton, Illinois Got Segregated Schools
John J. Dunphy
Eight-year-old Ambrose Bibb and his sister, 7-year-old Minnie, arrived at Alton’s Washington School on Sept. 20, 1897, to begin their new school year. Both children had attended Washington the previous year and fully expected to continue their education at that school. I can barely imagine their shock upon being told by the school’s teachers and principal that they must now attend one of Alton’s newly designated elementary schools for black children.
The state of Illinois had banned racially segregated schools in the 1870s, and Alton schools educated young scholars of both races. In 1897, however, Alton Mayor Henry Brueggman and the city council, as well as Alton Public School Superintendent Robert Haight and the school board, decided that our city would have segregated schools in open defiance of state law. The racism of Brueggeman, Haight and their allies had been granted a measure of respectability the previous year when the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that New Orleans resident Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, could be barred from riding in a whites-only railroad car if a separate car was available for blacks. The court’s decision empowered American racists to create “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and ushered in the era of segregated schools.
Nonetheless, the Bibb children tried to enter their old school the next day. This time they were turned away by two Alton police officers who blocked the school’s doorway. Scott Bibb, their father, and other black parents began accompanying their children to Washington, Lincoln, Garfield, Irving and Humbolt — schools that were now designated for white students only — to demand that their children be admitted. They were not successful. Undaunted, black parents refused to send their children to the two Alton schools that the city government and school board had set aside for black students. Scott Bibb procured a lawyer and took the matter to court.
The case went to trial seven times in the Madison County Circuit Court. Five times the juries ruled for the mayor and city council, thereby uphold Alton’s segregated schools. The other two cases resulted in hung juries. The Bibb case went to the Illinois Supreme Court five times, which ruled in four instances that the circuit court had been unfair to Bibb and returned the case to the lower court for a ruling consistent with the evidence. When the case reached the Supreme Court for the fifth time, the justices decided that they must render a judgment since Madison County juries were so obviously biased. Bibb and Alton’s other black parents were elated when the Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that Ambrose and Minnie Bibb should be admitted to Washington School or the “most convenient” school near their home. Their elation, however, was short-lived.
As historian and Southern Illinois University — Edwardsville professor emeritus Shirley Portwood has noted, Alton’s politicians and school board were determined to implement segregated schools. To accomplish this, they argued that the Illinois Supreme Court ruling applied only to Minnie and Ambrose Bib, since they were the only Alton schoolchildren included in the lawsuit. Ambrose, now 19, no longer lived in Alton. To make matters even worse, the school board said that Minnie, now 18, would have to enroll in the third grade at Washington because she hadn’t attended school since the second grade. Minnie had been home-schooled by tutors, and her family argued that she could do high school work. The school board remained firm, so Minnie returned to Washington and sat in a classroom with third-graders. After two weeks of enduring this humiliation, she left.
An event that occurred upstate also played a significant role in the Alton School Fight. In August of 1908 the homes and businesses of blacks living in Springfield, Illinois were burned during a race riot. Thousands of black families were forced to flee the city. Although Alton blacks had long been aware of the hostility their fight against segregated schools had engendered among many white residents, an incident that occurred just a week after the Springfield race riot made the black community realize that such a horror could occur in Alton. On August 18, a black man threw stones at a white man who worked at a visiting carnival. According to the Alton Evening Telegraph:
In an instant, a gang was on the spot. Someone yelled to “Springfield him” and a crowd of a dozen men went in pursuit. The negro got busy with his feet and took to flight and by the time he had gone a half block a half hundred men had joined the chase. The negro thought he had to run and he had the ability, too, so he easily outran his pursuers and made his escape.
The race riot in the capital of Illinois had made “Springfield him” slang for “lynch him,” and there can be little doubt that this black man indeed would have been lynched if this fifty-strong white mob had caught up with him. Bibb and other supporters of school integration knew that they, too, might hear the cry of “Springfield him” should Alton racists become sufficiently enraged. By December of 1908, Alton’s black families admitted defeat and began sending their children to the two segregated schools.
One of the elementary schools for black children had been named for Frederick Douglass, the renowned ex-slave and abolitionist who had held several government posts, including recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and minister to Haiti. The other school bore the name of Elijah Lovejoy. Both Douglass and Lovejoy would have been horrified to see their names associated with racial discrimination.
“The School Question.” Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, September 25, 1897.
“A Near Race Riot At Alton.” Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, August 19, 1908.
Dunphy, John J. “How Alton got segregated schools.” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, January 22, 2012.
Portwood, Shirley J. “School Segregation in Southern Illinois: The Alton School Case, 1897–1908.” www.lib.niu.edu/2005/iht1210523.html, retrieved 12/1/2011.
John J. Dunphy’s latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, who apprehended and prosecuted Nazi war criminals after World War II.