History Lesson: An Accidental Activist
With the back-to-school rush now nearly over, there is much I take for granted as a matter of course at the Columbus City Schools. For instance, I take it for granted that the Elementary Schools will have a library from which students can readily borrow books to enjoy and a school counselor that they can turn to if they have a need. I also assume that if a student needs a hot breakfast or lunch but cannot afford to pay for it, the school has a program in place to guarantee this most basic need is met. When I was in school at Herbert Mills Elementary in Reynoldsburg ,all of these were common-place and I suppose I assumed, somehow part of the basic state of public education. However, back in September of 1967 several of these basic needs were not always being offered in the Columbus City Schools to many of the students who needed them the most – and led one mother of seven to become an ‘accidental activist’.
Let’s return for a moment to the fall of 1966 when Mrs. Marian Craig asked her sons’ 6th grade teacher why her son was being tracked into vocational schooling programs. Her son had always dreamed of one day becoming a professional musician and in order for him to have that opportunity he would need to take college prep classes. The Craig’s paid for private music lessons for all of their children – it was important to them that their children develop an appreciation of the arts and culture. Mrs. Craig’s son regularly earned high scholastic marks and she felt he would easily qualify for college preparatory classes, but he was being placed into a tracking system for Industrial Arts.
“I didn’t intend to start a movement; I was simply concerned about my children. When Ohio Avenue Elementary School Principal Ralph Pryor told me he (her son) couldn’t take college prep courses, I explained that he had to since he was preparing to attend college. He [Mr. Pryor] told me he couldn’t do anything about that and suggested I take it to the school board.”
Mrs. Craig did take it to the school board and began attending weekly meetings – and after getting nowhere with the school board, she asked to meet with the Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Harold Eibling.
Mr. Eibling had been the School Superintendent since 1955 and had come under the scrutiny of the community in the past. In 1960 the February 3rd edition of the Columbus Dispatch reported that Mr. Eibling had refused $90,000.00 worth of federal aid marked for educational purposes for fear that accepting the funds would invite “federal control” of the schools. His actions led to criticism not only from the community but from the Ohio Educational Association as well.
On December 5th 1962, the Columbus Dispatch then reported that Mr. Eibling was being ‘picked apart’ by community groups in Detroit, Michigan who felt that a history textbook he helped to write was distorting the roles that African-Americans and Jews played in the development of the United States.” The regional board of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith (ADL) in Detroit sided with the NAACP in charging that the book “fails to accord the Negro his proper place in American Society and fails to give proper attention to racial questions in the U.S.”
Then in 1964, the Columbus Dispatch headline of May 22nd read: “Head of Klan Among Speakers Eibling Says NAAWP (National Association of for the Advancement of White People) Rally Can’t be Barred From North”.
Although the article goes on to state that Mr. Eibling personally did not want the speakers there, he could do nothing to prevent the group from convening.
It is no wonder that Mrs. Craig felt that she had little recourse but ask Superintendent Eibling to allow her son to take college prep classes.
“Eventually, the board permitted my son to take the courses – but I had done so much research into what was happening at the schools that I began to become more involved.”
Part of that included meeting with Senator Robert Kennedy who visited Columbus in December of 1966 and was meeting with members of the newly formed community group ECCO (East Central Citizens Organization). Senator Kennedy said of the new group, “Project ECCO is a fresh new answer to the problem of the explosiveness of big city ghettos.”
Mrs. Craig then took it upon herself to survey parents and teachers of the Ohio Avenue School and other schools to ask what they wanted to see changed. The group she formed – the Ad Hoc Parents Group for Quality Education – ended up with 27 specific demands:
- More Black Administrators
- More Black Vice Principals
- Remedial Reading Classes
- Hot Breakfasts for students who qualified
- Hot Lunches for students who qualified
- A Full-time School Psychologist
- Teachers Aides
- Black History taught year round
- After School Programs
- A Lending Library
- In-Service Trainings for teachers
- Music programs in the schools
- Art programs in the schools
- Dance programs in the schools
- Appalachian Culture taught year round
- Mentor programs bringing community leaders into the classroom
- Programs to reward Student Achievement
- Full-time Librarian in the School
- More Black Teachers
- Parents on curriculum committees
- Community Liaisons for the School
- Human relations training for teachers
- No Bussing
- Lower the Teacher Student ratio 25:1 > 22:1
- Release Achievement Test Scores
- Improve Playgrounds
- Hire local workers for schools
Some Columbus Schools already had many of these programs in effect at the time – but Ohio Avenue did not – and Mrs. Craig and her neighbors were beginning to see the disparity and wanted their children to learn under the same conditions as the predominantly white schools.
When the school board failed to meet her groups demands and Mr. Eibling continued to refuse to meet with Mrs. Craig, she decided she had to act. She worked with Reverend Leopold Burnhart at the First English Lutheran Church and the Intercultural Church Board (ICB) and informed them of her intention to lead a boycott of the school on September 13th 1967 and she asked if classes could be set up for the children at nearby churches.
At first, the Pastors told her that she should not boycott and should ‘stay home and make breakfast’ – but when Mrs. Craig let them know that the school breakfast program began with FDR in 1943 and that the parents were only asking for things that were already in place at other Columbus Schools, the ministers rallied around her. The ICB members also suggested that the parents become more involved in the schools and for Mrs. Craig’s Ad Hoc committee to understand that the parents also had to accept responsibility for their children’s education. Once that was agreed to, the ICB was on board and gave their full support to the boycott.
OSU students agreed to teach classes on the 13th but Mrs. Craig had one last meeting set for September 11th at the Columbus Urban League headquarters with Columbus School leaders.
The Columbus Dispatch reported on September 12th that neither Ohio Avenue Principal Ralph Pryor nor Superintendent Eibling attended the meeting on the 11th and the two sides only came to resolution regarding only a few of the 27 demands. Those were limited to include ‘parent visitations of the schools’ and ‘PTA involvement’.
Keeping in mind the year and the cultural changes occurring during this time, the boycott did not happen in a vacuum. On September 5th, shortly before the proposed boycott, 30 demonstrators from the NAACP and 13 other civil rights groups picketed the school board meeting demanding immediate action on the part of the school board to address what was called, “ the racial situation.”
Walter Gregory of the Blackburn Neighborhood Club is quoted as saying, “Until you people can comply and give us quality education, you’ll continue to hear from us.” Tempers flared and School Board President Robert Baker shouted back, “Sometimes I wish we could get through to you too!”
So on September 13th, the boycott was on! Here is how the Dispatch reported it in the afternoon edition:
“About 45 percent of the Ohio Avenue Elementary schools 798 pupils failed to show up for classes Wednesday morning in what a local parents group described as a successful boycott of the East Side School. Demands of the boycott group include smaller classes, better teachers, a lunch and breakfast program, better PTA organization, more remedial reading programs, a school lending library and an end to busing.“
Mrs. Craig said that they started the hot lunch and breakfast programs right away and set up a kitchen on Fulton Street and hired ECCO folks to cook the food and to transport it to the school. They also began actively hiring teachers’ aides.
While it only lasted one day, the effects of the boycott are still felt today. The Columbus City Schools offer hot lunch and breakfast programs, they have lending libraries, they have guidance counselors at all schools and they solicit much more parental involvement with the school PTA programs and they release the Achievement Test scores to parents.
According to Mrs. Craig, “Superintendent Eibling never did meet with us and did not ask the police to throw us in jail as he had threatened to do. He did meet with city and business leaders at the Athletic Club downtown immediately afterwards, who told him to, ‘straighten all of this out or it would be bad for the city’.”
Two weeks later, the Ad Hoc Parents Group for Quality Educaiton released a statement on September 29th which stated, “Any boycott will be delayed for a short time to see if there is good intention behind new statements made by the Superintendent a few days earlier” (This referred to promises made by Superintendent Eibling to seek Federal Aid for the school lunch program, assign psychologists and improve the libraries at eight inner-city schools including Ohio Avenue.)
The statement went on to say, “The big factor in the committees’ even considering a delay stems from the recognition of the problem by citizens groups such as the United Community Council, the AFL-CIO, Social Workers Union Local 1478 and others.”
Nearly a decade later in 1976, Mrs. Craig was asked to reflect on the boycott in testimony concerning the desegregation of the Columbus Schools. She said, “It was not until after the boycott that the board began to taking action on some of the proposals.”
Mrs. Craig has requested that this article make it clear that‘it was blacks and whites working together on the boycott and that in addition to asking for African-American studies to be taught, they also asked for units on Appalachian studies as well.’
All of Mrs. Craigs seven children graduated from the Columbus School system and attended college Two of her daughters even went on to earn Doctorate degrees.
The Lazarus family was very impressed with Mrs. Craigs activism and sent her to conferences in Washington D.C. and New York to learn how different communities were working to better their schools. In fact, the LAZARUS Department Store was among the first businesses in Columbus to institute a Community Relations Department in large part in response to the boycott she led and what she had learned.
On a personal note, I’m very proud of my neighbor and offer this up as evidence that one person can make a difference and that even with the array of challenges faced by our education system today, there are those who will always work to make certain that their children have the best possible education available.
Her son John Craig was the young man who wanted to become a professional musician. (Sadly, he passed away in 1971 due to Lukemia – he was set to graduate from college with a bachelors degree in music performance). A scholarship fund has been created to honor the memory of Mrs. Craig’s sons: musicians John and Larry Craig. Scholarships are awarded to students pursuing careers in the field of Music. Qualified students will possess academic and musical potential, participate in extra-curricular activities, community service and demonstrate strong character. Please contact the Columbus Foundation if you wish to contribute.
All news article are courtesy the Columbus Dispatch September 1967
The undated Photo of Mrs. Craig is courtesy of Mrs. Craig.