Baltimore educators recognize official who started black schools

It has taken 142 years, but Baltimore's first school district leader will finally take his place in the superintendent's suite of city school headquarters.

The Rev. John Nelson McJilton received a long-overdue recognition Friday, when city school officials paid homage to the first leader of the district, whose legacy has been ignored for more than a century after his decision to educate black children after the Civil War.

Judge Thomas F. Upson, the great-great-grandson of the Rev. John McJilton — who served two years as superintendent beginning in 1866 — presented a commemorative photograph and history lesson on his ancestor Friday, ending a months-long attempt to have his ancestor's name and reputation restored.

Donning a "Believe in Baltimore schools" pin, Upson presented the gold-framed, restored photograph of McJilton, which Upson believes was taken when McJilton was on the verge of taking over the school district.

School board President Neil Duke said McJilton's long-forgotten story was a missing link in the school system's history. Until a few months ago, the city schools website did not mention McJilton as the first superintendent, and the context of his removal had a "negative connotation," Upson said.

Upson, 68, who is from Connecticut, told school officials Friday that up until he saw the school system's website a few months ago, he didn't know much about his great-great-grandfather — other than that he may have been the one who introduced the Baltimore tradition of eating sauerkraut at Thanksgiving and Christmas into his family.

But further research would reveal that not only was McJilton a Baltimore school leader, but a teacher, a poet, a religious leader and co-author of three textbooks used in classrooms throughout the state.

His endeavors put Baltimore on the map nationally, taking him on a 534-school tour around the country. At one point, the school board praised McJilton's schools as the "standard by which others were measured," the Maryland Historical Magazine reported.

After the Civil War, McJilton's efforts fell victim to politics, Upson said, and in 1868 the school board removed McJilton after two years because he established two schools for "colored children" without official sanction of the school board, which failed to appropriate funds to pay the schools' teachers and maintain the buildings' upkeep.

"He was dismissed because he was doing what he should be doing," Upson said. "I appreciate that he gets his due. I know these are challenging times. I just want you to know that in the 1860s, Baltimore was one of the tops."

In August, Upson wrote a letter to schools CEO Andrés Alonso and the city school board explaining the full extent of McJilton's Baltimore roots.

"Baltimore has so many firsts, and in the past had always been pushing the envelope," said Kristin Schenning, director of education for the Maryland Historical Society. "It's an interesting story in general, but to bring [McJilton] into it now makes it that much more fascinating."

McJilton, who was described as a "humorist, divine and educator," the son of a Methodist minister, was born in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1806, according to the stone that marks his grave in Green Mount Cemetery. Upson visited his ancestor's grave for the first time on Friday.

As a young man, McJilton learned the trade of cabinetmaking and, following in his father's footsteps, became a lay minister in the local Methodist church. He went on to serve as pastor of two local churches simultaneously. He wrote poetry that was published in several Baltimore literary magazines during the 1820s and 1830s, and eventually became editor of The Athenaeum, where he worked until 1836.

He was hired as a teacher at Male School No. 1 in the city and went on to serve as treasurer before being elected school superintendent in 1866. He was formally removed from office on Jan. 31, 1868.

McJilton left Baltimore and moved to New York City, where he became pastor of Madison Street Protestant Church for a few months before resigning because of failing health. McJilton was 70 when he died in New York City on April 13, 1875.

His remains were returned to Baltimore. After funeral services at Christ's Episcopal Church at Chase and St. Paul streets, he was buried in the family plot in Green Mount.

After his death and for the next 40 years, Jefferson Avenue was named McJilton Street.

Duke announced that the school system is calling on its high school students to do research projects on McJilton and participate in updating the school system's archives. The top three projects will be published on the school system's website by January.

"I know past isn't always prelude, but the past can be instrumental in forming our present attitudes," Duke said. "It's all part of creating the mosaic of Baltimore city."

Baltimore Sun reporter Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.

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