Reconstructing the Destruction of Gaines High School

Peter Clark

Peter Clark

Cincinnati’s Colored Public School board, an institution established in the 1850s, created Gaines High School for our city’s Black students in 1866. Peter Clark, the first teacher in the Colored Schools before the Civil War, also became the first principal of Gaines, which was located in the old West End downtown. The school’s primary purpose was always to train Black teachers, not only for Cincinnati and nearby Black communities, but also for the Freedmen of the South.[1] It was wildly successful; in the first graduating class of seven young men and women in 1869, five passed the exam for a teaching certificate from the (white) school board – an exam also required of Black teachers in the Colored Schools. The Cincinnati certification was widely recognized through the South as a credential for high school teachers and elementary principals. By that first graduation, Peter Clark had placed forty students as teachers in Cincinnati and elsewhere, many of them before graduation.

After a burst of ten mostly older graduates, in 1870 and 1871, classes grew steadily from a few most years in the mid 1870 to seven to ten in the late ‘70s and early 80s, and more than a dozen every year from 1885. Even these numbers underestimate the impact of the high school: for some time in the mid-1870s Gaines provided Normal School (teachers’ college) instruction. Clark and others regularly complained that even without that training students were hired away from Gaines before graduation to teach in elementary schools in the South.[2] As late as 1890, completion of a single year of high school – ninth grade – was adequate to earn a job in a Black country school in the South.

The school presented a thoroughly African American community to its students. Apart from the German teachers, and an early music teacher, the faculty was Black. Gaines acculturated as well as educated. Students learned to read music and to sing in European harmonies. They studied drawing, both artistic and mechanical. Charles West proved so adept at teaching the crucial skill of handwriting in those days before typewriters that after Gaines closed, the Black educator supervised the white teachers of the discipline throughout the Cincinnati schools. Such supervision of whites by Blacks was extremely rare, especially in the professional ranks. This instruction in the Colored Schools opened the door to clerical work – a solid middle-class occupation – to several Black students.[3]

Clark’s own daughter Ernestine graduated from Gaines in 1873 and moved on to the (otherwise white) Normal School in Cincinnati – what would later be called a teacher’s college. She completed the two-year curriculum in a single year, finished second in her class of forty-five, and herself became a teacher at Gaines in 1874. She proved unique. An article announcing her success also noted that she would probably be the last African American at the Normal School “until the passage of the Civil Rights Law.” Moreover, she was forced to resign in the middle of the 1879-80 academic year when the (white) school board made a rule against adult children teaching in schools headed by a parent.[4]

During the 1880s Gaines Colored High School expanded its ambitions beyond the always central teacher training to send students to various other branches of higher education.  Two young women moved on to the McMicken School of design, forerunner to the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Adina White became a successful artist as a woodcarver, teacher, and eventually a business owner.[5] A few young men attended the academic school that changed its name from McMicken to the University of Cincinnati. Clark’s second daughter Consuela went on to earn an MD in Boston and practiced medicine first in Cincinnati and then in Youngstown, Ohio. Three male Gaines alumni became lawyers in relatively short order – as well as two Gaines teachers.[6]

Two factors, important to be sure, are usually offered for the demise of the Gaines Colored High School in the late 1880s. Principal Peter Clark was the leading light at Gaines, and to a large extent the leading voice in Cincinnati’s Black Reconstruction. Clark was the most daring African American leader in the city. A staunch Republican for several years after the Civil War, he became disillusioned with the lack of progress and patronage he and his community received for their solid block voting. Also, with the economic depression of 1873 that continued for most of the decade, politics outside the two main parties enjoyed a surge. Clark was out front with that movement, allying himself with the Workers’ Party in the late 1870’s and early ‘80s. Stymied again, he experimented with an alliance with Cincinnati’s Democrats, in hopes of causing both parties to compete to earn Black votes. In 1884 he supported the Democrat’s successful nominee for governor, George Hoadly – a Union veteran and early abolitionist law partner of Salmon P. Chase. Retribution came from the Republican school board; Clark was dismissed at the end of the 1875/76 school year. [7]

Despite the loss of Clark, the school continued without missing a beat. William H. Parham, the superintendent of the Colored Schools, had collaborated with Clark for years in the Black normal school curriculum, and knew the students. Parham took over as principal at Gaines. Overall enrollment climbed, and the class of 1887 was larger than that of ’86, and the class of 1888 larger still.[8]

Benjamin Arnett

The second ostensible blow to Gaines came with the Passage of the Arnett Law in 1887. Benjamin Arnett, AME minister for a time in Brown Chapel on Walnut Hills and later in Allan Temple in the old East End of downtown, had settled in Wilberforce, Ohio, the home of the oldest Black college in the nation. In 1885 Arnett was put forward by his Wilberforce colleagues for the Ohio legislature; he won the Republican nomination and election to the statehouse, despite a constituency 85% white. During his single term, 1886-87, he introduced significant Civil Rights legislation, including the repeal of the “Black Law” segregating public schools. Thus, at the end of the first academic year without Peter Clark at the helm, another crisis enveloped Cincinnati’s Gaines Colored High School.

Again, the institution proved durable. For better or worse, the Black community and the white school board collaborated to protect the Black teachers in schools for their children. The board already had many so-called colony schools – separate buildings under a single principal with students sorted by geographical or age groupings. The colored schools were officially dissolved and reconstituted as “colonies” of nearby white schools. Gaines was similarly dissolved and reconstituted as a legally integrated high school. The Black teachers at all these buildings newly classified as branch schools or an integrated high school remained where they were. Parents of both Black and white children could elect to attend either primarily white institutions or the historically Black schools. Black families overwhelmingly chose Black schools. Only about 60 of 1500 Black students enrolled in formerly all-white schools. Gaines had its largest graduating class ever in 1889, and an equally large junior class. [9] Gaines students continued to get teaching jobs in the South before graduating.

Yet in 1889 the Gaines Colored High School was brought to a screeching halt. While of course many factors contributed to the demise, there is no mystery about the immediate cause. Outgoing Cincinnati school superintendent E. E. White chose to eliminate the last year’s curriculum in the school. As a sop, he offered to graduate the juniors in 1889 along with the seniors, but Gaines was prevented from issuing any more diplomas. The decision also meant that that students in the junior class, already given certificates of completion, could not enroll in the white Woodward and Hughes High Schools that ostensibly became open to them. [10]

In the fall of 1889 only four students showed up at Gaines.[11] Perhaps it made no sense to go to a high school that could not graduate students; perhaps the community simply read the handwriting on the wall. The primarily white Woodward and Hughes High Schools were required to accept students assigned to Gaines. Yet while Gaines enrolled more than 100 students in 1889, fewer than fifty enrolled in Woodward and Hughes the next year. As surely as the Civil War was about slavery, superintendent E. E. White single-handedly closed Gaines High School.

[1] M P H Jones, clerk of the Colored School Board, pleaded for a high school in the school years ending 1864 and 1865, the year of emancipation. He asserted there were Cincinnati-trained and certified teachers in St. Louis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and New Orleans. The reports of the Colored School Board for the years 1855-1872 are available on line from the Cincinnati Public Library, bound together, at Annual report of the Board of Trustees for the Colored Public Schools of Cincinnati [1855-1871/72] – Genealogy & Local History – Digital Library ( Since the volumes are bound together, use caution, especially in word searches, to note the year of publication. Not all volumes included. The city’s white School Board took over the Colored Schools in 1874; see also the Annual Reports of the Common Schools of Cincinnati, generally available online either from the Cincinnati Public Library or Google Books.

[2] See for example “Gaines High School,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 25, 1869 p. 2;  New national era, July 03, 1873, p 1, or July 9 1874, both signed “Depugh,” penname of teacher Lewis  Depugh Easton; “Hack’s Harangue” a column from Cincinnati in Indianapolis Leader December 11, 1880; Parham at the time of the closing of Gaines opined that one more intermediate grade (to grade 9) would be enough to prepare students to teach in the South; “Line Drawn at Brains,” Cincinnati Post, May 9, 1888, p. 3. The white teacher of French and German offered the same opinion, ibid.

[3]  Gaines grade 8 had highest penmanship score in the city, Cincinnati Commercial, June 12, 1875, p. 6. A couple of the most successful of the Black clerical workers include Frederick D. Anderson, who became a clerk in the city auditor’s office and later the city Comptroller’s office, Cincinnati African American, quoted in Louisville Bulletin, Saturday, Dec. 8, 1883; and Thomas Glover who became a bank clerk (Western appeal [St. Paul MN]], August 06, 1887, p. 1) and entered a successful career as a banker. Several other students took jobs as clerks on graduation but moved on to teaching; for example, 1881 graduate Wm. T. Mayo clerked in a Cincinnati coal yard before becoming principal of a school in Frankfurt, Kentucky (The Frankfort roundabout, December 18, 1886, p. 3).

[4] On the graduation of Earnestine Clark from the Cincinnati Normal School see a letter to the Black New National Era, July 09, 1874, p. 1; the article is signed Depugh (Gaines teacher Lewis D. Easton). The Civil Rights Bill, watered down from its original language when introduced in 1870, finally passed in 1875, but after the end of Reconstruction with the Hayes-Tilden election in 1876 had little effect. On the nepotism rule, see “The School Board,” Cincinnati Daily Star, January 13, 1880, p. 8.

[5] The first art student was Consuelo Clark; it is not clear how long she was at the School of Design. Adina White, Gaines 1881, completed the three-year course there. She practiced woodcarving, mostly in Black Churches near Cincinnati; she taught art in the St. Louis public schools and later launched a store in Boston. The most complete information is

[6] Thomas W. Johnson, Gaines 1879, attended law school at least for a time (New York Age, Oct. 20, 1883) and became active in politics. John D. Werles, who attended Gaines but did not graduate, (B. W. Arnett, ed., Semi-Centenary Celebration of the AME Church of Cincinnati, held in Allen Temple, 1874) became a lawyer in Mississippi but died in 1875 (Cincinnati Commercial, December 21, 1875, p. 8). George Jackson who was a student early on and then a teacher from 1867, became a lawyer after his marriage to the wealthy Virginia Gordon. William H. Parham, who filled many roles in the Colored Public Schools, finished his law degree in 1884. His father, Hartwell Parham, had been a wealthy tobacco merchant before the Civil War.

[7] The best biography of Clark is Nikki M. Taylor, America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark,

(The University Press of Kentucky, 2012). Taylor is interested in Gaines primarily as a political figure, and does not explore his career as an educator in detail.

[8] On enrollment and graduation for 1887 see Public Schools of Cincinnati Annual Report v 57, 1887, pp. 85-87.  Eighteen students graduated. “Since graduation, eight members of the class have found employments as teachers in the States of Alabama, Kentucky, Kansas, and Missouri; two are employed as clerks; two are studying medicine; and one is a pupil at the Normal School.” (p. 87).

[9] In 1888 there were twenty graduates, Cincinnati Post, June 14, 1888, p. 2. At least two young women went on to be teachers in Kentucky,  Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, September 23, 1888 p. 6. Numbers for 1889 are confused, since Superintendent E. E. White gave certificates to all seniors and juniors, although two juniors refused them. The records show 26 graduates: “Proud Pupils,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 14 Jun 1889, p. 8; “Colored Graduates,” Cincinnati Post, June 14, 1889, p. 1.

[10] The clearest account appeared in the Cincinnati Post, June 12, 1889, p. 1, under the headlines “END OF GAINES SCHOOL, Supt. White Graduates It Out Of Existence Tomorrow. [Incoming] Supt. Morgan Pronounces It a Cruel Measure Taking Away the Goal of Colored Pupils’ Ambition – Only 60 Colored Children Out of 1,500 Attending White Schools.”

[11]Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, September 10, 1889 p. 5. See also Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, September 24, 1889 p. 8.

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