"Most conspicuous among his achievements for the public good stands the common school system of Cincinnati, whose benefits and advantages the colored children are now enjoying." - Gaines's Eulogy
Early History of Black Education
John Isom Gaines was born on November 6th, 1821, right around the time that some people, like Caleb Atwater, were calling for the establishment of common schools within Cincinnati - a school system that “would embrace with equal affection the children of the poor and the rich.” Despite the rhetoric employed by people like Atwater, when Cincinnati formally created a public school system in 1829, it excluded those regulated to the lowest economic status: the African American population. For a few years, Black citizens were still forced to pay school taxes, despite the fact that these “universal” common schools were not serving them. Instead of allowing Black children into schools, the city changed the law in 1840 so that taxes were no longer levied on the "property of Blacks and mulattoes.” Despite the fact that Cincinnati’s common school system excluded Blacks, and the Black population as a whole had virtually no rights except to petition, Gaines managed to gain a high school education.
Early Life and the Colored Schools of Cincinnati
Throughout his life, Gaines attended schools, like Gilmore High School, which were run by abolitionists who left their previous institutions because of their neutral, or even positive, stances on slavery. Although Gilmore High School was only open for four years, several significant Black leaders graduated from there. His education was sufficient enough to inspire Gaines to lead the charge to gain Black access to education. He led Ohio’s Black population to pester the state legislature to grant them the right to be educated. Throughout this petitioning, the population specifically called for a separate, racially-segregated school system, as they knew that they would never be accepted within the larger system. In 1849, their efforts were rewarded and the state legislature allowed for separate public schools for Black children and provided for the election of Black school trustees. As a result, the “Colored Schools” of Cincinnati were formed.
Gaines served on the board of Cincinnati’s Colored Schools until his death and was its clerk and chief administrator in 1849 and 1856-1859. As a board member and persistent advocate for Black education, he also was one of the main defenders against attacks on the system. The first attack occurred only three months after the formation of Cincinnati’s Colored Schools, as the city council would not release them their due funds, citing that the election of Black trustees was unlawful under the state constitution. Gaines, with accomplished lawyer Flammen Ball, led the lawsuit against the city, and after two years of litigation, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the 1849 law. The elected Black school trustees remained the first Black people in elected positions in Ohio until 1870. There was, however, a pause in this, when the white leadership was successfully able to take over the leadership of the Colored Schools. Gaines, starkly against any White interference in the Black school system, became the spokesperson against this takeover and encouraged Black parents to not send their kids to school nor vote to expand the system while it was under the control of non-Blacks. This worked, and the system was returned in 1856.
Gaines spent the rest of his short life expanding the school system and encouraging Black parents to send their children to school. in 1858, he wrote “What is the Duty of the American Colored Parent," where he exhorted the importance of education for Black youth.
Gaines’ Lasting Impact
According to Gaines' 1859 eulogy, as delivered by John Langston, he was “distinguished for his broad philanthropy, his catholicity of spirit, … and his deep insight into the necessity and importance, the dignity and mission of the great moral enterprises of the world.” He was also lauded as a “natural, perspicuous, animated, and powerful” orator. He did, indeed, speak and even was a delegate at many Colored Conventions, and he also often contributed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Furthermore, in 1866, the community named a high school after him. Gaines High School was nationally recognized for its excellence and trained almost all of the Southwest Ohioan African American teachers until its closure in 1889, only a couple of years after the desegregation of the school system in Ohio.