Friday, February 7, 1997
Beacon for better education
Jennie Davis Porter stirred thousands of students
to 'lift as we climb'

Tristate history is filled with African-American achievement, but much of it is not known by the public. Today, in recognition of Black History Month, The Enquirer begins a four-part, weekly series that highlights the lives and contributions of some significant local African-Americans. Today we profile Jennie Davis Porter.

Next week: Inventor Granville T. Woods.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jennie Davis Porter
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In 1928, when she became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati - and only the fourth nationally - the late Jennie Davis Porter wrote that segregated black schools were better for students than integrated ones.

She cited psychological and achievement tests of students at the three all-black Cincinnati schools she ran - Stowe, Jackson and Sherman - and often held up future Cincinnati mayor Theodore Berry as the shining manifestation of her philosophy.

Segregated black schools provided a positive environment for development of students' self-esteem, Ms. Porter wrote, and were a source of good jobs for black teachers.

The issue divided blacks. Supporters said quality and equal education for black children was more important than racial integration. Others said any form of segregation invited racial discrimination.

Today, almost 70 years after she wrote her dissertation and 60 years after her death, Ms. Porter's argument for segregated schools has returned to the center of a growing debate among educators. In fact, her dissertation - ''The Problem of Negro Education in Northern and Border Cities'' - is still requested at least a half-dozen times a year from UC archives by black educators nationally who advocate a return to segregated, neighborhood schools.

Ms. Porter influenced two generations of black educators and was responsible for the education of thousands of Cincinnati's black children. Without her iron will to provide all children a quality education, hundreds of young African-Americans would not have attended school.

Mr. Berry, chosen by city council as Cincinnati's first black mayor in 1973, believes Ms. Porter's philosophy was rooted in her concern for the children of black families migrating from the South a century ago.

''Instead of nine months of schooling, they only received six months because of their work in the cotton fields,'' says Mr. Berry, now 91 and living in Hartwell. ''She sold the school board on a special school that would help bridge that gap.''

Must help others

Ms. Porter's father, William, was a former slave who became Cincinnati's first black undertaker. She was born in Cincinnati on Oct. 9, 1876 to Ethlinda Porter, a teacher.

Her family's wealth didn't blind her to the plight of less fortunate blacks. She developed one of her favorite slogans - We must lift as we climb - at an early age.

After earning her bachelor's degree in education at UC - with specialties in art and music - Ms. Porter taught from 1897 to 1914 at Douglass School, Walnut Hills. One of her first-grade students was William DeHart Hubbard, who, competing in the long jump at the 1924 Paris Olympics, became the first black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual event.

Ms. Porter's teaching philosophy was patterned after Booker T. Washington's self-help edict. (Mr. Washington of the Tuskeegee, Ala., Industrial School later came to Cincinnati several times to confer with Ms. Porter. She was also a trusted confidant of Hull House founder Jane Addams, who sought Ms. Porter's advice on social problems affecting blacks.)

In 1911, Ms. Porter established a private kindergarten for West End blacks. By the end of the first year, enrollment had jumped from 72 to 125. White philanthropist Annie Laws funded the school.

In 1913, when Ms. Porter and other influential blacks discovered that 147 black children ages 9 to 14 were not attending school, she organized a summer school at the old Hughes High School, West End. Again, Ms. Laws provided funding.

In 1914, Ms. Porter persuaded Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent John Withrow to establish Cincinnati's first all-black school at the former Hughes site and rename the building Harriet Beecher Stowe School. Ms. Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, had taught in a girl's school near Hughes in the 1830s.

Ms. Porter was named Stowe's principal, a first for a black woman in Cincinnati.

Enrollment increased from 350 to 650 in the first year, and she successfully lobbied the board of education to erect a new building. But World War I delayed construction.

Mr. Berry was a member of Stowe's Class of 1920.

''Miss Porter sponsored a series of public events to promote the school,'' he says. ''I made my first public speech on the occasion of one of her festivals.''

Mary E. Rozier, 79, of Hyde Park, attended Stowe from kindergarten through ninth grade and was a member of its Class of 1933.

''She had a gruff voice,'' Ms. Rozier, who worked for many years as a legal secretary, says of Ms. Porter. ''When she'd speak, we'd jump out of our skin.

''She insisted that kids be neat, and if the family didn't have the means, she spent her own money on you'' for school clothes and other supplies.

Ms. Porter also insisted that black children learn about black history.

''The teachers made sure we had pride in our racial background,'' Ms. Rozier says. ''The standards were very high. We had to be very quiet in the hallways, especially when we were on the same floor as Ms. Porter's office.''

Community leader

Ms. Porter's influence among black Cincinnatians had grown several-fold by the early 1920s.

The school board put her in charge of the ''Colored Farm,'' a site in College Hill where black students received agricultural training. She also oversaw 15 black clubs, a cultural center and a social service bureau.

''Power begets power,'' Mr. Berry says. ''Miss Porter knew this.''

On Thanksgiving Day 1923, the new Stowe School was dedicated at 635 W. Seventh St., in what is now the Queensgate building that houses, among other businesses, the offices of WXIX-TV Channel 19.

The school's 2,000-student enrollment quickly grew to 3,080. Stowe was Cincinnati's largest school. The building included two open-air classrooms, vocational and home-economics facilities, a swimming pool, gymnasium, doctor's office, prenatal clinic and an auditorium, which featured a pipe organ.

The school had a national reputation for excellence and drew notable visitors such as Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver.

Even one of her critics, Wendell Dabney, publisher and editor of Cincinnati's black Union newspaper who opposed her segregationist viewpoint, admired her and the school.

''She has found time to take deep interest in the betterment of thousands of school children who have been under her jurisdiction,'' Mr. Dabney wrote in 1926. ''Stowe School is the only school in the city organized on a psychological basis to prove statistically that the Negro is not mentally inferior.''

Ms. Porter's 1925 master's thesis at UC was written on the reorganization of Stowe School.

Jackson School, built in 1883 at Fifth and Mound streets, the West End, was closed during the 1950s and demolished to make way for Interstate 75 construction. Sherman, at Eighth and John, was built in 1879. Centennial Plaza now sits on that site.

A gentle side

In spite of Stowe's extra features, Ms. Porter believed in basic education that stressed reading, writing and math.

Porter Middle School, built in 1953 in the West End, is named in her honor. Her portrait hangs in the lobby. The school's creed was her motto: ''Take what you have and make what you want.''

''She was determined to find students who had been left behind and get them on the road to success,'' says Vera Edwards, 81, of Avondale, a UC professor emerita.

Ms. Edwards, who came to UC from her native Texas to earn her master's degree in educational psychology in considers Ms. Porter a role model for black women who went into the field at that time.

''She had great influence and was well-known,'' Ms. Edwards says. ''She was a taskmaster but had a gentle side.''

That gentle side was expressed often in her art. Two of her paintings have been displayed in exhibits at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

She was a member of Union Baptist Church and died at her Walnut Hills home on July 3, 1936. She was still principal of Stowe School, which would close in 1962 and be turned into a vocational school. Ms. Porter never married. She was inducted in the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame in 1989.

Upon her death, she left her $50,000 estate to create a trust fund for the education of black youths.

Two of her brothers, abolitionists, challenged the document in court. Mr. Berry, who received his law degree from UC in 1931, defended his former principal's will and won the case.