The 40-year career of Jennie Davis Porter — the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree at the University of Cincinnati and become a school principal in the city — was a rocky road at times.
Many in the community she sought to educate criticized her and called her a segregationist. She followed the philosophy of her friend and occasional visitor Booker T. Washington that black children could learn better if sheltered from prejudices in a world that was moving toward integration slowly.
But that didn’t mean Porter was a segregationist, said Dan Hurley, the author of a 2014 article on Porter and director of leadership for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
“I’m not sure segregationist is the right word,” Hurley said. “I’d call her an ‘accomodationist.’ ”
Hurley said Porter preached and lived the motto on a sign she kept in her office: “Take what you have, and make what you want.”
To that end, Porter, who taught art and music at the all-black Frederick Douglass School in her early career, believed African-American children should strive for jobs they could get and keep, which often meant trade work for boys and domestic work for girls, instead of competing with whites for what became known as “white-collar” work.
Such a philosophy today would be unthinkable, and to her critics — many of whom were aligned with the progressive policies of the NAACP and W.E.B. Dubois — in the early 20th century, it was then as well.
But Hurley said understanding the state of education for Cincinnati’s African-Americans puts her position in perspective. A state law to integrate Cincinnati schools passed in 1887 damaged the city’s firmly established all-black school system, Hurley said. Black teachers lost their jobs and their students stopped attending school in large numbers.
Hurley wrote that by 1912, city schools had only seven black teachers and fewer than 300 black students.
Porter found a way to “accommodate” the situation and give African-Americans an alternative. She proposed establishing the all-black Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in the West End in 1914. Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Randall Condon and school board president John Withrow supported Porter, and the district accommodated her request.
But critics such as Wendell Dabney, the NAACP’s first local president and for 46 years the editor of the Union newspaper here, did not accept Porter’s all-black school. He attacked Porter in print, dubbing her “Jubilee Jenny” for what he perceived to be her willingness to accept with a smile the prejudices of local businesses and politicians.
Dabney advocated the NAACP’s position that segregated schools hindered the progress of African-American youth and that integrated schools were the future.
Groundbreaking Stowe graduates
In the end, the majority of society deemed that Dabney was right and Porter was wrong. Yet as Stowe Elementary School’s principal for the rest of her life, Porter built a successful school and guided many famous students, some of who achieved firsts like hers.
Stowe student DeHart Hubbard, for example, became the first black athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal, soaring to victory in the long jump at the Paris games in 1924. That very same year, former Stowe student Ted Berry graduated as the valedictorian at Woodward High School. He went on to become a lawyer and politician and was the first African-American to be elected mayor of Cincinnati (1972-76).
Berry also became the president of the local chapter of the NAACP (1932-46), putting him in the opposite corner of his former principal. But the two worked out a compromise, Hurley said, and they learned to co-exist peacefully.
Porter eventually joined the NAACP as a board member, according to her obituary in the Cincinnati Post. She also was a director of Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, and was active with the Legal Aid Society of the Community Chest.
“She was very well educated,” Hurley said. “She had great political skills.”
Born to a former slave
Jennie Davis Porter was born in 1876 to freed Tennessee slave William A. Porter and Edlinda Davis Porter. She was one of the first African-American teachers in Cincinnati, and he was the city’s first black undertaker.
According to an article published by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Porter attended public schools. She graduated from Hughes High School and started teaching three years later, opening the first all-black kindergarten with women’s rights advocate Annie Laws.
Porter ran Stowe School, which was in the West End at Cutter and Seventh streets, starting in 1914 and attended UC at night starting in 1918. As one of a small number African-American students, she fought off prejudice and earned three degrees: a bachelor’s in 1923, a master’s in 1925 and a doctorate in 1928.
She published articles on African-American education and social issues in national magazines throughout her career and, according to her obituary in the Cincinnati Times-Star, Porter was “active in every move, national and local, to advance her race for the last 25 years.”
Stowe School, which Porter called “the greatest interest in my life,” had been a hit from the beginning, growing from an initial enrollment of 350 in 1914 to 1,300 in 1922. It taught traditional academics and offered vocational and agricultural programs to an all-black student body.
Porter ran it until illness forced her to take a leave of absence a year before she died at age 60 in her Walnut Hills home in 1936. The school closed in 1962.
The school and its principal are gone, but her positive impact on local education survives in the name of the George Hays – Jennie Porter Elementary School in the West End.