MARTIN, MARY BROWN (31 May, 1877 – 19 Nov. 1939), the first Black woman elected to the Cleveland Board of Education, was born in Raleigh, N.C. to Winfield Scott and Jane (Curtis) Brown, both former slaves. She came to Cleveland in 1885 and attended Rockwell School and CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL, graduating in 1900 as the class vocalist. In 1903, she graduated from Cleveland Normal School and then taught for two years in Alabama and Arkansas. She returned to Cleveland in 1905 and married ALEXANDER H. MARTIN.

Martin joined the local suffrage movement and marched in the 1914 suffrage parade that attracted 10,000 marchers including LETHIA COUSINS FLEMING and JANE EDNA HUNTER.

Martin taught part-time in the CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS during the 1920s. In 1929, she was elected to the Cleveland Board of Education, the only board member to have been a public school teacher. She served on the board until 1937. During her tenure, the schools faced enormous challenges because of the Depression. In 1933, teachers’ salaries were cut 33 percent and did not rise to pre-Depression levels until 1939. During that year, Martin supported a ban on hiring married female teachers whose husbands had jobs in order to make available jobs for single women. This position was supported by fellow board president ALFRED ABRAHAM BENESCH and implemented by many school districts around the country. However, it was opposed in Cleveland by the WOMEN’S CITY CLUB and the local teachers’ unions. (The ban was never implemented in Cleveland although the issue resurfaced periodically).

Despite the hard times, the district managed to feed 44,000 needy children on school days, provide some health care, and keep its playgrounds open through the summers. Financial difficulties were compounded by racial problems as growing numbers of Black children entered the school system. In June 1935, Martin voted to continue school picnics at EUCLID BEACH PARK for the remainder of the school year although the Cleveland NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE protested the park’s segregationist policies. The next year, however, she voted against the trips to the park until it allowed all children equal access to all its facilities.

Martin declined to run for the board in 1937 but yielded to pressure from a citizens’ group and ran in 1939. Endorsed by the CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER, she won handily but died days later before taking her seat.

In 1962, Mary B. Martin School at 8200 Brookline Avenue was named in her honor.

Martin had four children: Lydia J., Alexander H., Jr., Stuart B., and Sarah Martin Pereira.  She is buried at Highland Park Cemetery. 

Updated by Marian J. Morton

Black, white and red text reading Western Reserve Historical Society

Finding aid for the Mary B. Martin Scrapbook, WRHS.

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