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Alton School District Integration

March 5, 2018

Last modified: May 7, 2020

Like many school districts in the north and south, the Alton School District was segregated starting in the late nineteenth century and was integrated in the mid-twentieth century due to pressure from African-American Civil Rights activists and the state and federal government.

Schools in Alton were integrated starting in 1873, allowing for African-American and white children to attend the same schools. In 1897 however, the City Council, as well as the Alton School Board, built two separate schools that were intended to be used by African-American students only.1 Authorities were able to initiate these segregatory practices through a city ordinance that allowed the Alton Board of Education to delegate which students attended which schools.2

In reaction to this resolution, the African American community of Alton resisted the decision and instead formed the Alton Citizens Committee (ACC), which filed a lawsuit against the city ordinance.

Two African-American students, Minnie and Ambrose Bibb, were selected by the ACC to file a lawsuit against the school district for unfair segregation, as they were barred from attending the school closest to their home.  While waiting for the verdict, citizens participated in some sit-ins and boycotts to display their displeasure with segregation.3 Though in 1908 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of the pair of African-American children, the city of Alton responded to the ruling by stating that it only applied to those two specific students, and thereby nullified the decision for the African-American community as a whole.

For the next five decades, African American residents continued to fight against segregation within their school district. By the 1950s, Alton’s NAACP helped to rally more than 300 black citizens to refute the antiquated ruling of 1908. They began to send their children to the closest school, regardless of its designation as white.4 More than 175 students attempted to integrate Alton’s school district in January of 1950, only for school officials to mandate that they must seek administrative approval for their transfer. After the initial attempt at registration, the more radical elements of Alton’s community burned crosses throughout the area.5 In response to these acts, the NAACP filed suit against the Alton School District, arguing that they should not receive any state funding due to its continued segregationist practices.6

Though their suit was initially dismissed by Judge Maxwell of Madison County’s Circuit Court, the NAACP renewed their lawsuit and retained attorney William Robert Ming, who would later receive notoriety for his involvement in the Supreme Court case that declared public school segregation as unconstitutional, Brown v. Board of Education. Ming helped the NAACP of Alton and Elijah Conley, father of a disabled African American child who wished to transfer to an “all-white” school near his house.7 Afraid of fines, losing their state funding, and going against Illinois state sanctions which prohibited segregatory practices, the Alton School District began accepting African American student transfers to white schools in the fall of 1952.8 Transfers of African Americans into white schools allowed for the court case to be dismissed in the Edwardsville Courts.9

More than a decade later, the Alton School District was praised for its peaceful transition of racial integration within its schools. In 1963, The Alton Telegraph highlighted the district’s integration efforts as “peaceful.”10 By the 1971, Alton’s integration efforts, while commendable, were placed under examination by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for de jure segregation practices that stemmed from inequalities in housing. Working with the Committee of the Board that initiated the charges, the Alton School District set in place a plan to help alleviate further disputes. It allowed for a survey that would help to continue to promote the desegregation of the Alton school district, as well as the recruitment of more African-American teachers into the school system to offer support and guidance for African-American students.11 With these initiatives in place, the Alton School District continued the progress of their renewed integration efforts that began in the 1950s.

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Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Shirley J. Portwood, “We Lift Our Voices in Thunder Tones: African American Race Men and Race Women and Community Agency in Southern Illinois, 1895-1910,” Journal of Urban History 26, no. 6 (September 2000), 741.
2. William Henry Michael, William Mack, Howard Pervear Nash, James Cockroft, and Thomas Edward O’Brien, Encyclopedia of Forms and Precedents for Pleading and Practice: At Common Law, in Equity, and Under the Various Codes and Practice Acts, Encyclopedia 1900, 862.
3. Portwood, 742 and 751-752.
4. Alton Evening Telegraph, 17 January 1950.
5. Alton Evening Telegraph, 19 August 1950.
6. Ibid.
7. Alton Evening Telegraph, 3 February, 1950. Thanks to Dr. Eric J. Robinson for information about Elijah Conley.
8. Alton Evening Telegraph, 7 March 1952.
9. Ibid.
10. Alton Evening Telegraph 4 September 1963
11. Alton Evening Telegraph 10 August 1971
Cite this article: Lesley Thomson, "Alton School District Integration," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified May 7, 2020, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/encyclopedia/alton-school-district-integration/.
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