For over 140 years, Baltimore has not acknowledged one of the city’s first school superintendents, John Nelson McJilton. That’s because the man who helped shape Baltimore’s school system, who was White, was ousted for establishing two schools for African-American children just years after the Civil War.
Until earlier this month, remnants of his legacy were essentially eradicated. But after a long battle to restore his ancestor’s name, Judge Thomas F. Upson, the great-great-grandson of McJilton, spoke about his family history and donated a portrait of the former school head at a recent Baltimore City Public Schools event.
He spoke of a man who, as he sees it, was “one of the guiding lights of the Baltimore City School system.”
McJilton was born in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1806. According to a 1987 article in the Maryland Historical Magazine, he was a city school teacher and was elected to the Board of School Commissioners in 1845. Soon after, he was named board treasurer, a position he held for seventeen years until being appointed superintendent of public instruction in 1866.
In this new position, he made it a priority to establish two “colored” schools in 1866 and 1867. According to historical records, city officials refused to fund the schools, which created bad blood between McJilton and the school commissioners. In 1868, they removed him from office.
Upson discovered the negative connotation surrounding his forefather after reading an unflattering passage about him on the Baltimore City school Web site last summer, he told reporters. It didn’t credit McJilton as the city’s first superintendent, he said, but merely noted that the school head was ejected from his position. This prompted Upson to write Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso and the city school board to discuss his family roots.
“I am seeking that the negative reference to my ancestor be eliminated from your Web site history and that he be included as the First Superintendent of Schools, as indeed, he was,” Upson wrote in a letter to Alonso.
After months of communications, city schools agreed to honor his ancestor at the November event.
A city school spokeswoman said the school system now recognizes McJilton and has launched an essay contest for Baltimore high school students to research the former superintendent and help city schools “update part of its history.”