One of the most influential Cincinnati educators is also a person whose assumptions and motivations were controversial among her peers, and completely unacceptable a century later. As a result, Jennie D. Porter is most frequently recalled simply as the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, with practically no mention of her 1928 dissertation, The Problem of Negro Education in Northern and Border Cities or her career as the founder of a racially segregated subsystem of public schools.

Born in 1876, Porter began her career as a kindergarten teacher at the Douglass School in Walnut Hills in 1896. Douglass was the last remnant of a once thriving independent colored school system that between 1852 and 1887 not only educated thousands of African-American children, but also created critical jobs for educated black teachers, who formed the foundation of the black middle class in Cincinnati.

In 1870, the Independent Colored Schools employed 87 black teachers and enrolled 3,800 students. When the Ohio Legislature adopted the Brown-Arnett Bill to “integrate” the Cincinnati Common Schools in 1887, dozens of black teachers lost their jobs and thousands of African-American children simply disappeared from the school rolls. By 1912, only seven black teachers and fewer than 300 children were enrolled in any Cincinnati school, most at Douglass.

As a West End volunteer relief worker in the aftermath of the 1913 flood, Porter realized very few children attended schools. With the help of Annie Laws, the founder of the Cincinnati Kindergarten Association, she opened a kindergarten in the old Hughes High School building. In 1914, the School Board allowed her to open the Harriet Beecher Stowe School. The school grew rapidly and in 1923 she opened a new building that still stands just west of I-75 near downtown. She eventually expanded her system to include seven schools.

Porter believed black children were as intelligent and talented as white children, and she hated segregation. But as a follower of Booker T. Washington, she believed that social structures would change only gradually and that for the time being the best approach was to shield black children from the prejudice of white students, and be taught by men and women who understood them. In addition, segregated schools allowed her to create dignified jobs for educated African-American teachers.

On her desk sat a sign that summed up her philosophy, “Take what you have and make what you want.” She accepted the limited job opportunities and career choices available to African Americans. The curriculum in her schools was vocationally oriented, preparing boys to be non-union helpers in the trades and girls to be domestics.

Local followers of integrationist W.E.B. DuBois, who published Souls of Black Folk in 1903, saw Porter as submitting to whites and subverting opportunities for black children. Wendell Phillips Dabney, the first president of the local NAACP and the editor of the Union newspaper, carried out an unrelenting attack on Porter. Dabney not only criticized her educational philosophy, but mocked her as “Jubilee Jenny” for her willingness to use her students to play to the prejudices of local political and business leaders by having them cook meals and perform at their gatherings. Porter countered by refusing to allow her teachers to join the NAACP.

Sixty years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education and 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the legacy of Jennie Porter is uncomfortable for both blacks and whites to contemplate.

Today, any collaboration with segregation appears foolish and evil. A century ago, when African-American children were barred from public schools and educated adults excluded from teaching jobs that opened a path to a middle class life, the assumptions and actions of Jennie Porter were more understandable. But her career reminds us to carefully measure the implications every time we acquiesce to forces that we hate, but think are immutable. 

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.