Lincoln alumni work to preserve legacy

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

The iconic “castle on the hill,” at 22nd and Woodland Avenue, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy one of Kansas City Public Schools’ Signature Schools, began as Kansas City’s singular Black educational institution.

The first iteration of the school was founded by Rev. Jonathan Copeland and his wife in 1865 at Chestnut and McGee streets in their church. The Congressional Sabbath School served 200 Black students of all ages. Prior to the end of the Civil War, Missouri state law did not allow for the education of African Americans.

The Kansas City, Mo., School District was established in 1867. Missouri law required that if there were more than 15 Black children between the ages of 5 and 21 within the district, a separate school had to be established. A count found 250 Black school age children in the district. The district’s board enlisted Copeland to use his school for this purpose.

The elementary school moved to Ninth and Charlotte streets in 1869, and it was around that time that the name was changed to Lincoln. Throughout its history, Lincoln lacked adequate facilities, and moved often because of that.

In 1878 the school was moved to 11th and Campbell, where Principal David Adolphus Nero petitioned the board to allow students to continue their education. Some high school classes were added in 1882, but there was not a four year curriculum until 1887, when Lincoln High School was established. An annex was built in 1890.

The high school moved to 19th and Tracy in 1906, providing academic and vocational courses, including auto mechanics and domestic science, as well as ROTC. Black Students came from Independence, Liberty, Parkville and other surrounding municipalities.

Hugh Oliver Cook served as principal from 1921 to 1944, during which a new building was built at 2111 Woodland. The new school opened as a high school and junior college. The junior college remained there until 1954 when the metropolitan junior college was integrated.

In the 1920s, the school introduced night classes for adults in reading, trades, and practical skills like bookkeeping. The school was also opened to public events, such as speakers and musical performances. Lincoln quickly became the center of the community.

R.T. Coles Vocational and Junior High opened in the former Lincoln High School building at the northeast corner of 19th Street and Tracy Avenue in 1936.

It wasn’t until 1954 when Kansas City slowly began integrating its student bodies after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education.

“Lincoln continued to be an all-Black school, serving the following feeder schools: Attucks, Greenwood, Holmes (Benton), Linwood, Longfellow, Phillips, Washington (Irving), Yates, and the new Wheatley,” according to the district’s website.

Even when desegregation began in schools, Kansas City’s history of redlining meant that a majority of Black families still lived in the neighborhoods on the city’s East Side. And since school boundaries were defined by these neighborhood areas, the student bodies hardly changed.

“So many of these Black schools eventually just sort of shut down because they weren’t needed, but Lincoln stuck around here in Kansas City and certainly has continued a great tradition of educational excellence and all the rest, but perhaps at the loss of its Black identity,” Historian Michael Sweeney said.

Ron Walton, president of the Lincoln/R.T. Coles National Alumni Association, graduated from then-Lincoln High School in 1954. After moving away from the city for several years following graduation, he returned in the late 1990s.

“I got involved with the local, but I’ve been a member of the organization since its inception in 1988,” Walton said of the alumni group. Since then, members of the group have constantly been fighting to maintain the identity of the school since it was founded in 1936.

“It was founded originally, as a school for African Americans,” Walton said. “I’m seeing the demographics change and, realizing that nothing stays the same forever, I’m still not comfortable with the fact that the school is and has been for several years, losing its identity as an historical Black high school.”

The school was placed on the National Historic registry as an African American institution in 2014. The faculty of Lincoln was integrated in 1973. In 1978 the most radical change in the history of the school took place. Under the guidance of Marvin Brooks, Headmaster and previous principal, the school’s student body was integrated and it became a magnet school. The school’s name was changed to Lincoln Academy for Accelerated Study. In 1986 the name was changed to Lincoln College Preparatory School.

“I’m seeing, with the influx of the students today, it’s slowly but surely losing its identity,” Walton said. “We’re doing what we can, with some other groups and organizations, to try to maintain the quarter and the level of African Americans, as opposed to the other ethnic groups.”

While Walton recognizes the progress the Kansas City public school system has made over the years, he is intent on maintaining the historically Black school’s identity.

“We’re working on establishing a room at the school which encompasses the history of the school, hoping that that will offset this progressive trend toward the school losing its activity as a primary African American school,” Walton said.

The alumni association and other groups have made a point to speak to the student body, but with its status as a Signature School, Walton thinks students who didn’t grow up around Lincoln aren’t as interested in its history.

“They’re there to prepare themselves for further education, getting themselves ready for college, and that’s primarily the one thing that they have on their mind,” Walton said. “I’m sorry to say that a lot of the African American children that go to school are not aware. It’s a real, real hard struggle to try to get them to understand, and buy into what that school has meant since it was erected. What that school has meant to us as a race, what it is meant to our community. What it has meant to the city and young people, they just don’t seem to buy into what the school represents.”

The board is always trying to figure out innovative ways to bring certain aspects of the school and its history to bear on the children.

“I expressed to them a lot of my personal experiences, and out of that group there may be three or four students who will follow up and get in touch with me and ask questions about things that have gone on in the past, and I just don’t think that that’s a representative number of the African American children that are going to the school,” Walton said.

With the height and breadth of segregation when Walton attended the school, he had a completely different experience than students do today.

“It’s hard for me to put into words the experience I lived as it relates to education,” Walton said. “All kids of my era wanted to go to Lincoln. Not only was it a good looking building but it had the best African American instructors in the city. They all had higher degrees, PhDs, doctorates. It was a beautiful, beautiful time.”

Walton recalled Black instructors taking a special interest in their students. Sometimes they were even neighbors to the students, something Walton said is lost today as teachers commute from the suburbs.

“It hurts me when I think that when I’m gone, who’s going to remember what Lincoln really meant?” Walton asked. “We’re doing our best document because you can’t stop the wheels of progress. What I think we can do is document that unseen and unspoken history about the school so that’s why we’re working hard to get what we call the alumni room set up, which will chronicle the history of the school. It’s up to those who want to learn, we want to provide that vehicle for them to learn, and that’s the best thing that we can do in the face of progress.”

While the group has tried to establish a timeline for the project, COVID-19 has postponed it indefinitely. With 16 board members, many of whom don’t have the technology, teleconferencing is difficult, which makes voting on issues before the board impossible. With a membership of 250 nationwide, fundraising and gathering have been put on hold.

“We’re just trying to ride out this pandemic and when it’s safe, everybody agrees that we’ll get together,” Walton said. “I’m all in as far as the school and what can be done about its history. There’s just so much that can be done.”

The alumni organization also raises funds to grant scholarships to deserving students at Lincoln Prep.

“We normally give from four to six scholarships, and what we do is we work closely with the school counselor, and students that are interested in applying for the scholarships,” Walton said. “We have a protocol that they must follow, and they submit their applications to the counselor, and the scholarship committee from the organization.

Together they choose several applicants, and then the committee makes a decision in awarding these scholarships. The scholarships are awarded through the assessment of a combination of factors.

“Some students are not academically equal to some of the other applicants but there are other aspects that we take into consideration: their involvement with the community, whether they’re working, family situations,” Walton said. “There’s just many, many things that we consider. It’s not based on any one or two particular qualifications. It’s a broad spectrum of qualifications that we take into consideration.”

Class of 1999 alumna Shanelle Smith started at Lincoln in 6th grade, and after a rocky transition from her previous performing arts school, she found her groove. She recalled Vice Principal Richard Hill, who held a special interest in her success.

“My husband and I actually were highschool sweethearts,” Smith said. “Our oldest son goes there now. It’s definitely a family atmosphere.”

Smith was a Lincoln legacy. Her grandfather, mother and father graduated from Lincoln High school. There is a level of camaraderie between former students and those connected to Lincoln.

“My mom had me really young, so I actually had quite a few of her teachers and administrators that were still there, and I’m still very close with all of the friends that I had in high school, we still hang out,” Smith said.

She founded an organization, HBCU Walking Billboard, that promotes awareness of, attendance to, and graduation from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) throughout the country.

“In all honesty, my career path actually chose me,” Smith said. “I was in school to become an attorney, and my mom passed away unexpectedly on my fourth day of class. That kind of put me in a paternal role with my siblings and I had to take a job at the Full Employment Council, where I realized that those babies were coming from the same environment as me, but they didn’t have a Lincoln, that family experience, and because of that they have made different choices. Long story short, that means public education.”

She believes Lincoln’s family approach, the small and welcoming feel where even on the worst days students know they can be successful, HBCUs are the same way.

“We’re looking at students in public schools that were not Lincoln,” Smith said. “A lot of them weren’t considering college and a big reason that they weren’t considering college is because they didn’t see themselves as part of the college conversation.”

She realized how important it was to expose students to schools where the majority of the population looks like them, so they could start to envision themselves on a college campus.

“In black and brown communities, we’re still very heavily inundated with first generation college students,” Smith said. “We also make it a point to connect them with alumni here locally and those alumni do a really great job of sharing their story and helping to see more options.”

When Rhonda Hunt, Smith’s mother, attended Lincoln, it was much less diverse than when her daughter attended less than 20 years later. When Smith attended, it was fairly diverse, but still predominantly attended by Black students.

“I think that there needs to be some intentionality on the demographics of hiring practices,” Smith said. “My son’s sixth grade year he had one Black teacher. And here in his seventh grade year, he also has one Black teacher, and that is a problem. I think that there needs to be really intentional efforts of acquiring talented teachers of color so the representation in the building is still a bit more akin to the student population, because the primary demographic in the building is not white.”

Now, with her oldest child enrolled at the school, she said the shift in demographics is alarming. Smith pointed out that some of the ways in which students are admitted can create barriers for children of color. With an entrance exam as a large component of the admissions process, many Black families struggle with a lack of information on other testing options, Smith said.

“History is something that deserves to be preserved and if the personnel that are making the decisions day-to-day in that building don’t have the respect for that legacy, then they might not be the best fit,” Smith said. “I think that there are opportunities for inclusion, alumni to give input on the best ways to preserve that legacy and to even bring them into the fold whenever new traditions are being established, but maintaining that presence of that pride of being a Lincoln Tiger is going to require inclusion and not just an exclusive approach to the new Lincoln.”

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