‘The Hillsboro Story’: Weaving a web of memories

In a new book, performance artist Susan Banyas integrates multiple voices and viewpoints, revisiting a 1950s school desegregation battle in her Ohio hometown.

“Two months after Brown v. Board of Education legally ended school segregation…my sleepy segregated little hometown, Hillsboro, Ohio, the county seat of Highland County, was jolted awake by a fire at the colored school; and History and Memory came marching into town like the Fourth of July Parade the day before.” — The opening passage of The Hillsboro Story, a new book by Susan Banyas.

“In the wee small hours of July 5, 1954, I popped wide awake and looked at the clock. Two o’clock. I quietly dressed and tiptoed downstairs. Armed with a can of gasoline, a bottle of oil and a clutch of newspapers, I kicked and struggled my way through a tangle of growth that choked an abandoned alley at the back of lots to the little cloistered school and up the steps.” — From an unpublished memoir by Philip Partridge, former Highland County engineer.

“I am eight years old, and women and children appear and disappear outside my third-grade classroom window. They carry signs with messages. OUR CHILDREN PLAY TOGETHER, WHY CAN’T THEY LEARN TOGETHER?…There I am, floating in my inner tube in the plastic pool in the backyard on Danville Pike, soaking up the cultural commotion, riding my bike around in it, watching it from behind a window at school, fascinated by the drama, the characters who come and go. But I have no story to hold it, and I remain mute, in the dark, wondering, haunted.” — from The Hillsboro Story.

“How does a kid arrive at a resolution that shakes his world? Is there a sense of justice even in young children.” — From Partridge’s memoir. 

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, mothers and children in Hillsboro, Ohio protest continuing segregation of the town’s schools. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

Back to a place of one of many beginnings

“It’s hard to know where a story begins,” Susan Banyas says on a recent afternoon, sitting in a Ladd’s Addition coffee shop a few blocks from where she lived when she began the lengthy artistic exploration that has become her book, The Hillsboro Story.

Indeed it is. You might consider the beginning of The Hillsboro Story to be one of those days when young Susan gazes out a Webster School window, her attention momentarily pulled away from Charlotte’s Web, being read aloud by Mrs. Mallory, and onto the puzzling protest that goes on outside, day after day for two years. But maybe it started with Philip Partridge, a white man wanting to further the cause of social justice, deciding to torch the decrepit, Reconstruction-era Lincoln School, where blacks were sent, figuring that its destruction would force integration of the town’s other schools. 

Perhaps you’d need to go back to Partridge’s politically aware childhood epiphany that he would one day “do something that would strike a blow at the way things were.” Or might it start back further still, in the legacy of quiet activism by Banyas’ Quaker forebears, who built a secret room in a cistern to hide fugitive slaves as part of the Underground Railroad?
Then again, one of the many short segments of narrative, reflection, oral history and commentary that make up the text of Banyas’ book is called “This Is the Beginning – May, 2003, Hillsboro, Ohio” — marking her first meeting with the grass-roots freedom fighters she refers to as the Marching Mothers. But since the process behind the book — pulling together not just the interviews and research, but also personal memories and emotions, impressions of place, resonant coincidences and dreams — is so much of what constitutes the book, you could as aptly point to its beginnings in the mid-1980s, when Banyas, began innovating and teaching a hybrid storytelling performance form she calls Soul Stories. 

The Hillsboro Story is Banyas’ own Soul Story, on paper and writ large.

The now of the story

Author, teacher, performance artist Susan Banyas. Photo: Quincy Davis

On Thursday, September 19, Banyas will visit Broadway Books (1714 NE Broadway in Portland) at 7 p.m. to present a reading from The Hillsboro Story. Multidisciplinary artist that she is, she’s prepared a 12-minute multi-media synopsis of the story and will use music by her frequent collaborator, the jazz musician David Ornette Cherry, to augment her reading of excerpts from the book.

The story at an earlier stage

Though she moved to Astoria a few years ago, Banyas has had a long career in Portland as a dancer, writer, performance artist and teacher. I’ve been a fan since I first wrote about her work for Willamette Week in the late 1980s, when she ran a studio on Southeast Stark Street called Dreamswell. So perhaps you’ve encountered her work before, maybe even something called The Hillsboro Story.
Yet another beginning, you could say, came in 2010 when Artists Rep presented The Hillsboro Story as a work for the stage. 

The Oregonian (well, really it was me — I was the paper’s staff theater critic at the time) called it “one of the most important pieces of theater presented in Portland this year”:

“The Hillsboro in Banyas’ multilayered memory play isn’t the city in Oregon, but a small town in southern Ohio, not far north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” I wrote.

“In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which essentially declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. But black children in Hillsboro still were relegated to a segregated, Reconstruction-era schoolhouse. The county engineer, a white man, set fire to the school to try to force desegregation, but still the local school board dragged its feet.

Enter “the Marching Mothers,” as Banyas calls them, and the NAACP and the first Northern test case for the high court’s Brown decision.

…In her view, integration is a concept that includes the civil-rights sense of racial desegregation but is much broader and deeper. It encompasses (Martin Luther) King’s ‘beloved community’ ideal, built on a vision of what he called ‘the solidarity of the human family.’ It speaks to its semantic relative, ‘integrity,’ with the corresponding implications of strength and balance. It reflects her interdisciplinary way of making art, which dances gracefully between the whimsical and the profound.

Even though it deals with events a half-century ago, its underlying themes are resonant and relevant today — so much so that Portland Public Schools created an extensive curriculum based on ‘The Hillsboro Story,’ not only to help students understand the historical facts and themes of the play but also to learn how to look at their own lives and surroundings through the craft of storytelling.

As Banyas puts it in an introductory essay she’s written for the play, ‘Memory is not about the past, any more than a right angle is about geometry.’”

Susan’s web

Embedded in Banyas’ memory and her emotional connection to the varied aspects of the story is Charlotte’s Web, her “favorite thing about third grade.” The themes of friendship, community, concern for the welfare of others, and the importance of bold action in support of a just cause — all of these connect E.B. White’s classic children’s tale with the values Banyas espouses throughout The Hillsboro Story.

Another commonality is the idea of messages embedded in a web. Banyas’ book is written as a series of short sections, sometimes as short as a few paragraphs, seldom longer than a few pages. Their overall structure is complex, sometimes elliptical, occasionally repetitive, rarely chronological or linear. Many sections are scenic in nature, some more documentary and historical, some personal and reflective, while others are straightforward oral-history transcriptions. The content ranges in scope from the details of how the desegregation fight progressed to the practical and emotional ramifications for those involved, to dark observations on the mechanisms of economic and geopolitical power. The subtitle — “a kaleidoscope history of an integration battle in my hometown” — is telling. It’s her story and she tells it her way; but that way insists on an ever-shifting multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and utilizes a sometimes dizzying fluidity in regard to time, moving rapidly from 1982 to 1955, back to 1982, to 1990, to 2003, back to 1955, then eventually to the mid-19th century, the 1960s and ‘70s, 2015… 

“It’s a quest,” she says during our coffeehouse conversation. “I tried a more conventional method, and I just wasn’t interested in it. One of the questions I wanted to ask with all this was: How powerful is it to take a single memory and walk back into it?”

Susan Banyas’ great-great-grandparents moved to Highland County, Ohio in 1837. The area’s Quaker population would work for justice, sheltering fugitive slaves in the 19th century, and helping to home school protesting black students in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

At points, the book reflects upon its own methods: “A story’s choreography is global and geographic when you step back and look at life this way — how you circle around and have chance encounters, how your life starts to take a shape, how, little by little, your blues hit the heat of imagination and you are somewhere else.”

Or, as she puts it when her quest brings out a particularly strange and fortuitous confluence of personal histories: “I feel like Nancy Drew on acid.”

A template

Banyas acknowledges that her account is far from a conventional history. “It must not have been an easy sell to publishers,” I remark.

 “The academics wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “And who’s at the center of it? Me. So I’m more suspect from the point of view of a straight-ahead publisher.”

But the project found a home with publisher Todd Thilleman, whose Spuyten Duyvil press specializes in “avant-garde books…honest and reality-based imaginative texts…shot-in-the-dark efforts,” according to its mission statement. 

“He saw it as an art book, a kind of documentary,” Banyas said. “And that worked for me, because it’s really a template. It’s meant to bounce you into your own thoughts, not to resolve itself. I didn’t want it to be like The Help, where you just go away and congratulate yourself on having read the book….

“I hope it’s used for people to start recalling their own memories — talking to Uncle So-and-So, looking into privilege and history and what’s right in front of us that we’re not talking about. I think we always have to ask: Who’s controlling the narrative? I hope people wake up to their own experience and don’t take anyone’s word for anything.”

Word wide web

Toward the end of the book, Banyas periodically poses a question to some of the people involved in the desegregation battle all those years ago:

“‘If you were Charlotte,’ I ask…, ‘what word would you choose to weave into the web — to save the world?’” Among the answers she hears are “friendship,” “curiosity” and “fair play.”
I wonder what word Banyas would choose. “Integration,” perhaps? “Connection”? Or maybe “Soul Story.”

You have to start somewhere

“As a movement artist, I wanted to write a book about the movement and spiritual intelligence of protest because as a white person, schooled and socialized in America, I was denied access to this intelligence because of fear and ignorance,” Banyas said in an interview with writer Deborah Kalb. “I had to re-member, piece a history together, retrieve the parts of my memory — history that had been kept in the shadows, demonized, or simply ignored.”

“News was becoming national,” she writes of the desegregation case reaching the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “My sweet little home town would have a hard time hiding out in the hills now, pretending to be a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Some of the most engaging, illuminating moments in “The Hillsboro Story” come when Banyas subtly indicts the mid-American orthodoxy she grew up with — that ignoring, that willful ignorance — by juxtaposing mundane, superficially innocent lifestyle details with broader social developments. It’s her way of stepping — fitfully at first, then purposefully —  out of that Rockwell world and into her truth.

About the summer of 1967 she writes: “The whole country is awake now…tuning in and turning on a new social order.
“I carry on in the social order and get a summer job as a lifeguard at the Chillicothe Country Club where I can swim laps, practice my diving moves, work on my tan while on the job. The wealthy housewives stretch out on the reclining lawn chairs, gossip, rub Coppertone into their skin, smoke Salems, order club sandwiches from the kitchen, made and served by the Black help, read Vogue and Redbook.

“Four hours north, Detroit burns for four days.”

About having married at age 20, she muses: “Fortunately, I have seen my first Felliini film, and the strange people in Juliet of the Spirits have captured my imagination, but for now, I am stuck in a trailer park on the outskirts of Athens, Ohio trying to cook a pot roast. You have to start somewhere.”

Not long afterward, teaching jobs bring her and her husband to Oregon, where she becomes fast friends with a free-spirited and opinionated colleague: “Rosie and I laugh so hard, I am born again.”

Still ready to laugh: Susan Banyas near her home in Astoria. Photo: Dorinda Holler.

Of conspiracy and credulity

“Sometimes meaning is amplified by seemingly whimsical gesture, as when she gives a bit of background on her school’s namesake, Daniel Webster,” I wrote in  my review for The Oregonian of The Hillsboro Story play, back in 2010. “Describing him as a ‘centrist,’ she says the word while giving a little limp wriggle, as if to denote a slippery spinelessness.”

Now, as then, I’m bothered by the aspersion. Partly because I don’t think political values have to be extreme to be authentic or useful, partly because I wish that Banyas availed herself of a bit more centrist-style caution. 

As much as I’ve always liked her and her work, and as much as The Hillsboro Story is engaging and illuminating overall, I sometimes found it tough to read. On top of its determinedly non-linear structure (plus a lamentable number of copy-editing and proof-reading gaffes), it strains so far to make points about systemic corruption that two-thirds through we’re far from Southern Ohio and instead are mired in digressions about the deaths of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.  

She recalls the deaths of JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, writing “I grew up on Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. I can spot the criminals…I am only fifteen, but it is clear to me that the whole thing was an inside job.” How Perry Mason can be the basis of such certitude I don’t know, but fine. Before long, though, there’s discussion of “corporate mafia,” “Vatican mafia,” “shadow government,” a “black underground communication network,” “the new world order” and so on. She recounts claims by Philip Partridge, the engineer-turned-arsonist, that secret agents used invisible laser weapons to cause him various illnesses. Then she Googles a few things about experimental weapons research, connects dots to Obama-ordered drone strikes and the like and concludes, “I don’t need to fact-check remote control torture to postulate whether Philip Partridge was writing about real or imagined experience” — as though possibility establishes fact.

Both Patridge and Banyas may well be right about such sinister forces at work. But such claims read here more like histrionics than history. 

Memory serves

And yet, her overarching argument is hard to quibble with. Discussing the efforts of the likes of Constance Baker Motley, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Frank Church, and, by extension, the Marching Mothers, Banyas writes: “The social engineers fighting to unify society through equal protection were shadow-boxing against covert, internalized, systemic racism and a deadly game for geopolitical world domination, a ‘grand strategy’ of complete control of earth’s resources through supremacy in the military, marketplace, media, and most of all, memory.

“..This story is not about small-town drama, although drama drives the story. The story is about power, about who controls memory, who has the authority to speak.”

Home school of the heart

In a way, The Hillsboro Story is an answer to one of the questions that Banyas quotes from Philip Partridge’s memoir. Yes, there is a sense of justice even in young children. And Banyas has artfully traced her way back to its origins in her own life, as well as followed its call outward, into the lives of others. 

 “It really gets down to relationships,” she says as we finish our coffee. “You can’t argue those — or judge them. They’re very personal. It’s always a little mysterious to me that history isn’t written more in this way — it’s so relational.

 “The women of Hillsboro taught me a lot about love and common sense at the heart of justice.”

3 Responses.

  1. rhea shapiro says:

    Great article! Beautiful and moving…as always, coming from you Susan Banyas. Congratulations on the completion of this important and wide-ranging oeuvre.
    best, rhea

  2. Wahnita Yinger says:

    I would like to get a copy of The Hillsboro Story if possible as I live just outside of Hillsboro and have lived in Highland County all my life.

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