ON THE NIGHT of July 5, 1954, the rural town of Hillsboro, Ohio, was jolted awake by a fire at the school set aside for black children, a status put in question by the Brown v. Board of Education decision two months prior. The fire sparked a protest, led by Imogene Curtis, who rallied her community, wrote letters to the black press, organized a local NAACP, and contacted the Dayton chapter for support. The movement grew, and in defiance of white authority, 18 mothers and their 36 children marched on the streets between 1954 and 1956 to end school segregation in Hillsboro.
At a time when separation of the races, in the words of the school superintendent, “represented the spirit of the community,” the women had a potent weapon — the US Constitution and the lawyer Constance Baker Motley, who represented their legal case in the Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The decision in Clemons v. Board of Education of Hillsboro (1956) was the first test case for the Brown decision in the North, a victory for the mothers, and an affirmation of equal protection, without delay.
I grew up in Hillsboro. On June 6, 2020, Eleanor Curtis Cumberland texted me: “I’m at the BLM rally. 400 people marching!”
There hadn’t been any action like this on the streets of Hillsboro since Eleanor’s mother, Imogene, carried a sign that read Must Hillsboro Lag Behind the South? Now 400 people showed up with signs that read I Can’t Breathe.
The young man who organized the march is Shawn Captain. His great-grandmother, Maxine Thomas, and her children — Delbert Thomas, Harold Joe Thomas, Brenda Thomas, and Winifred Thomas — were out on the streets of Hillsboro in the segregation protests. He created an organizing group called HARD. Our conversation coincided with the passing of John Lewis, who left this message in his parting essay. “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
SUSAN BANYAS: How did you do this, get people back on the streets in Hillsboro?
SHAWN CAPTAIN: My friend John Keyser and I were going to go to the protests in Cincinnati. I’d gone to the previous one in Columbus, but then his wife didn’t want him to go to a big-city protest because of the how the police are responding. So, we said, well, we’ll just have one in Hillsboro. At first, we thought we’d get about 10 people around the courthouse. We made an event on a Sunday night and went to bed and woke up and it had completely blown up. You wouldn’t have expected that kind of response from people in Hillsboro.
At first, I had a lot of negativity — people threatening to shoot us, showing up with guns. They have this thing on Saturday called “Cruise the Block.” People come from everywhere to Hillsboro and drive their cars around uptown, and they were threatening to run us over. One of our organizers, Hailee Williams, my cousin, she was scared. People were telling her, take your name off the organizers because they were scared for her life.
Who was scared? Could you say more about that?
Well, she’s mixed as well. We’re related through the African American side. I think it might have been people on the white side of the family that were scared for her. Some of her friends, too.
Did she take her name off the list?
No, I told her, you can’t let people get to you. I’m here with you. Just don’t back down.
Were you aware of that level of hostility and racism, or were you surprised it was so ugly?
Not really, honestly, because I’ve lived in Hillsboro my whole life. People like to act like there’s no racism in Hillsboro, but there definitely is. Organizing the Black Lives Matter protest made that clear to people who maybe didn’t see it before.
Word of our protest got out, and The Times Gazette reached out to us and interviewed all the organizers, but the safety commissioner, Brianne Abbott, told The Times Gazette not to publish the article. I made a Facebook post calling out the mayor and safety commissioner, and they called a meeting. We met with the safety commissioner, mayor, and police chief. Her excuse was that she wanted to protect our safety, but you could tell she wasn’t being genuine.
Is the police force under her authority?
Yes. The article came out the same day, but if we had never called them out, I don’t think it would have been published. The police chief and mayor wanted to know what our game plan was, and were more concerned about the counterprotestors. Someone had already contacted them about people threatening us before we got to the meeting.
There’s one guy in Hillsboro — I don’t know him personally, but this guy was a really big concern. We were going to march from the old high school to the center of town. There’s a street between the courthouse and Domino’s. He was saying as soon as we got into that area where he could see us, they were going to open fire on us. Someone reported the post to the chief.
So, you didn’t know going into this if you would be harmed?
As the days went by before the march, we got more and more threats. People are crazy. But I was never scared. Threatening us made we want to do it more. I was raised to never back down from a fight.
Where do you think this fear is rooted?
I watched 13th and The Uncomfortable Truth — basically white people, through propaganda, are afraid that black people will do to you what you do to them. Another part, they took a poll. What is a good ratio of whites and blacks in a neighborhood? White people said 80 percent white and 20 percent black. Black people said 50/50.
Fear of a 50/50 society. Do you have fighting skills?
Yes, from 2013–’17 I was a martial artist on and off. And I have a concealed carry permit.
You carry a weapon?
Going to the protest, people threatening to come and shoot us, so yes. Most of the time I don’t have to worry about being harmed in Hillsboro. But if I go out of town, I carry a gun on me. For the protests, we had the police there, and they were definitely on our side.
“Cruise the Block” rerouted for the protest, but afterward, they drove big trucks around with Confederate flags and blew black smoke when they passed us. We were meeting in a parking lot — the organizers — telling people goodbye, thanks for coming. The sheriff came up and said he was glad everything was peaceful, thanking us for doing a good thing for Hillsboro.
Who are the people in trucks with Confederate flags, blowing out black smoke?
I don’t even know. They’re part of “Cruise the Block.” When you bring up the Confederate flag, people say it’s about the Civil War, but it came back in the ’30s as a symbol to oppose civil rights. I read an article about it.
My aunt and some other people stayed around the courthouse after the rally and said that people were walking around up there with guns …
Yeah and writing racial slurs on the cars, with window paint.
Were police there protecting the citizens from this intimidation?
What is your understanding of the policing culture in Hillsboro and Highland County?
I’ve never seen police brutality in Hillsboro. But I know several accounts of racial profiling. I’ve been racially profiled.
When I was a martial artist, I had a fight coming up. So, me and my friend, a white kid from Lynchburg, were jogging, trying to get some cardio in. We’re on Anderson Road, not far out of town. Running up and down the road. And the sheriff pulls up and calls me over. Not my friend, me. I go to the car, and he says, what are doing out here? And I said, jogging. He said, you’re not breaking into houses, are you? And I said, no. Like, I’m wearing a skin-tight shirt, athletic shorts, no pockets, I have no bags. Like, where would I put anything? He said, okay, we just had a call and I had to check. You’re free to go.
He never once said anything to my white friend. Instead he asked me if I was a criminal. He could have driven out and made a better assessment of the situation.
After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, will you jog on a country road again?
Yes, it’s a good place to jog, and I don’t want whoever called the police to think they scared me off. I’m not afraid of being followed and gunned down. It could happen, but I’m not afraid.
What about policing?
If you look back honestly, the police are there to protect white people. Black Codes were so strict and unfair — basically white people could do anything they wanted to black people. Legal slavery, can’t sit down in this restaurant, can’t drink from the same water fountain, basically controlling black people. While today is a lot better, it’s just watered down. The chief supported us. At the same time, we need to keep pushing for reform, even in a small town like Hillsboro because they all still work for the same system.
What can the Hillsboro police do now to reimagine their role?
Stop and frisk should not be allowed. You can’t be calm when someone comes at you, escalating the situation, and then arrests you for what he started. I want police to come at people with who they are, not who they are in uniform. If you were in plain clothes now, would you be coming at me like this? The uniform allows officers to harass people, kill people, kill black people. Cops aren’t really who they are, they’re using a system.
I was angry the whole time watching the George Floyd murder. If I would have been there, I would have tried to get the officer off him. There was one officer between the people who were speaking up, and he was basically threatening them.
What do I do with my anger? I want to do something, speak out.
So you plan to address the city council and mayor on how policing could be redesigned to alleviate stress in the community instead of being used as a symbol of domination and control?
What happened after the protests?
People were saying what’s next. We wanted to make a group on Facebook so people could follow events. I made the group — Hillsboro Against Racism and Discrimination, or HARD for short. My co-organizer and friend, John Kiger, made another group, without telling me. His group is Unity Society, or US for short. Then he told me, if we ever try to do any future events — like a walk-a-thon, LGBTQ fundraising event — and certain businesses didn’t want to support us because Black Lives Matter was attached to it … and I said, whoa! If a business doesn’t want to be associated with us because Black Lives Matter, then I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that business anyway. I don’t want to cater to someone because they’re uncomfortable with what I’m supporting. The whole point is to become comfortable. We decided to go our separate ways and support each other.
What I’m trying to do right now is get a memorial bench uptown. After the protests — you know, the Marching Mothers were a big subject for the protest — and afterward, people were saying, we’ve lived in Hillsboro our whole life and we’ve never heard of the Marching Mothers. That made me mad because it’s such a huge part of American history.
We went to the mayor to get a quote. He said, “I’ll donate the bench to you guys, I support you 110 percent.” So I had to go around and speak to Eleanor, Teresa Williams to get their ideas about what would best go on the bench.
What calls you to this work?
I’ve always been attracted to the Civil Rights movement, reading about all these people doing great things, knowing they could be killed just for trying to speak up for themselves. That is so inspiring. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers. Sam Cooke was good friends with Muhammad Ali. “A Change Is Gonna Come” — he was threatened over that song. My interest started in sixth grade. I remember reading about Emmett Till. Then I dug deep into all of it.
You were in the sixth grade when you read about Emmett Till?
Yes, not being taught, just seeing it in a book in the library. That story has stuck with me hard ever since.
Susan Banyas is a multimedia choreographer, author of The Hillsboro Story: A Kaleidoscope History of an Integration Battle in My Hometown. Her website is susanbanyas.com.