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A Segregated Springfield: Lincoln School

lincoln hall

Ozarks Technical Community College in central Springfield prides itself on training students to work with the technology of the future. But the origins of one campus building are rooted firmly in the past. For our local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us the story of Lincoln School and Springfield’s segregated past.

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In the multipurpose room of Lincoln Hall—that’s at the corner of Brower and Sherman--a blood drive is underway.  Hiding behind some of the hospital beds shoved up against the wall is a large display of photographs and documents from a time when this was the auditorium of Lincoln School. That was the school designated for black students when Springfield Public Schools were segregated.

Rosetta Clarida attended Lincoln from first grade on, and graduated in 1949. She says the teachers were exceptional, despite difficult circumstances.

“They worked extra hard to make sure we had a good education so when we were out in the world we would be able to handle it  because, well—possibly you wouldn’t know but segregation is kind of hard to deal with. At that time, teachers weren’t allowed to marry so the kids were kind of like their family.”

The Supreme Court ruling on the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 solidified Missouri’s ability to segregate public schools, which had been required by law since 1875. That ruling established a doctrine that was used to justify segregation for the next 60 years.

“They said ‘separate but equal’ but that was not so.”

Clarida says the teachers were resourceful, and needed to be.

“It was sub-par, I mean, it wasn’t up to the white facilities. We didn’t have new books, we got the hand-me-downs from the white schools and sometimes pages would be ripped out, sometimes there’d be derogatory remarks written on some of the pages.”

Lincoln School was formed in the 1890s and the building that Clarida went to school in was built in 1931 with a grant from the Rosenwald Fund. That was a foundation that funded many public institutions and helped build thousands of rural schools for African-American children. Lincoln is the only “Rosenwald School” building remaining in Missouri, which was a primary factor in the building’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

While it was nice to have a newer building, it was still had access to far fewer resources than the white schools that were right around the corner.

 “I can remember seeing signs that said ‘colored water fountain, white water fountain. Colored restroom, white restroom.’ I experienced that in my young days.”

Former City Councilman Denny Whayne was in third grade when Springfield schools integrated.  He says the inequalities he experienced as a child shaped his involvement in public life.

“I didn’t understand it because every morning at school in our class we’d repeat the pledge of allegiance to the flag and at the end it said ‘justice for all.’ Well, I started saying, ‘justice for some’ because that wasn’t the real deal. So it made me become more involved in the civil rights movement trying to understand what the disparity was.”

The segregation of public schools was required by law in Missouri and 16 other states until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case of 1954. That ruling determined that, quote-- “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” – end quote. Springfield schools integrated in 1955 and 1956.

Students who were in their final year at Lincoln were allowed to stay and graduate. In the fall of ’56 Lincoln re-opened as an integrated middle school called Everwood. Integration here went relatively smoothly. In fact, Linda Brown, the poster child of Brown v. Board graduated from Central High School in Springfield.

I asked Councilman Whayne how he was received at Boyd Elementary as the first black student to enroll there.

“Very well, very well because you know, it was very ironic because we were already playing with these kids. Some of them lived in the neighborhood, and some of them we played with at the boys club. And so we already knew a lot of them when we got to the public school system so it was an easy transition.”

For those educators from Lincoln who wanted to continue teaching, the transition was less simple.

“They declared the black teachers [to be] uncertified to teach in the public school system. So they had to go back to school in a segregated class to get certified to teach in the public school system.”

Again, Rosetta Clarida.

“We lost the closeness, the camaraderie, but we did have better books—not necessarily better teachers, but better books. Because our kids didn’t think the other teachers were as caring, you know.”

Now, Lincoln Hall contains some of the most elaborate technology to teach students about health care. There is a plaque near the entrance to remind students why the building is there, and how the building, and Springfield, have evolved.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.