Old photographs and newspaper clippings, yellow with age, covered courtroom tables usually reserved for case documents.
It was in this courtroom 40 years ago that striking Brunswick teachers made headlines across the nation when they were jailed on contempt of court charges.
On Thursday, about 30 of those educators returned to Courtroom One at the Medina County Courthouse to reminisce.
Retired high school English teacher Clyde Kincaid, 78, donned the same suit he had on when he was sent to jail on April 9, 1978.
“I was a teacher there at the time, and we were called into court because we went on strike; and at that time, you weren’t allowed to go on strike,” Kincaid said.
The Gazette reported the 23-day-strike began March 29 when the Brunswick Board of Education and the Brunswick Education Association hit an impasse during contractual negotiations that had been going on since February. Two of the significant sticking points were wages and procedures for dismissing non-tenured teachers.
A temporary restraining order prohibiting continued striking against the school system was issued by former common pleas Judge Neil Whitfield on April 4. Five days later, Whitfield sent 41 teachers to jail after they refused to sign affidavits promising they would return to work. Six of those teachers later were released.
“We went to court and everybody was thinking they will probably give us a fine and tell us get back to negotiating, but they didn’t. They decided to take us to jail,” Kincaid remembered.
A $500-a-day fine also was levied against each teacher who refused to sign an affidavit.
Retired common pleas Judge Judith Cross, 72, said she resigned her position as a teacher with the district after being told her involvement in the strike could prevent her from becoming a judge one day.
“I was still going to law school,” she said. “One night, one of my professors said, ‘Hey, we need to tell you something,’ so I went in that next week and put my letter (of resignation) in.”
Despite resigning, Cross said she still was called into court with the first group of teachers who were asked to sign an affidavit and get back to the classroom. When it was her turn to sign, Cross told Whitfield she had resigned her position with the district.
“The board’s attorney stood up and said, ‘Well, the board hasn’t accepted her resignation yet, your honor,” Cross remembered. “Judge Whitfield said we don’t have slavery in this country. She is OK.”
Cross said she can see similarities between what the Brunswick teachers were fighting for 40 years ago and the recent teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma.
West Virginia schoolteachers, citing low wages and high health care costs, struck for nine days beginning Feb. 22. Teachers in Oklahoma also staged a nine-day strike April 2-9.
Looking back, Cross said the Brunswick strike was an important milestone.
“It was really important because at that time there was very little collective bargaining,” she said. “Collective bargaining and being able to work together is just really important.”
Roger Smalley, who served as BEA president and chief negotiator during the conflict, was released from jail during the strike so he could continue negotiations with the school board.
Smalley said his request to negotiate from a jail cell was not honored.
He noted teachers never did end up paying the $500-a-day fine.
“We got tens of thousands of dollars from organizations all over the country to help us pay, and eventually we used that money to help support other teachers who went on strike,” Smalley said.
The imprisoned teachers were freed April 14 after the board of education requested all contempt charges be dropped.
On April 21, the school board and BEA reached a contractual agreement that included raises, and students returned to class.
“We didn’t quit. We didn’t give up,” Kincaid said. “I’m just overwhelmed thinking about how we stuck together so well.”
Contact reporter Nathan Havenner at (330) 721-4050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.