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Former students of Lincoln School recall the dedication, resilience of their teachers

Ozarks Technical Community College
Used with permission
Norma Bland Duncan stands at the entrance to the former Lincoln School in Springfield where both she and her mother attended.

Join KSMU December 13-17 as we bring you stories from the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail. Listen to the first segment by clicking the button above.

On North Sherman Avenue in Springfield, a handsome, red brick building stands proud, with traces of art-deco design.

Today the building is part of Ozarks Technical Community College. But when it first opened in 1931, it was designated as a school for African Americans because the law demanded that public schools were segregated along racial lines.

Lincoln School included elementary through high school students.

By all accounts, the teachers at Lincoln School were brilliant and caring. Even though they were relegated to teaching from outdated, hand-me-down books from the white schools—and their students weren’t allowed to step foot inside most museums for field trips—they found ways to maintain high educational standards and make learning fun.

More than half a century later, Springfield resident Denny Whayne recalls them by name.

Whayne would eventually become a civil rights activist and Springfield City Council member. He said Lincoln’s marching band was second to none. As a third grader, he played drums in the Lincoln High School Band.

Lincoln 1
Ozarks Technical Community College
Lincoln School was designated for Springfield's African American children in the early 1930s when law stipulated that public schools had to be segregated by race. Today, the building is part of the OTC campus.

'If you can't go over and under, you go around'

"One of the teachers, Mrs. Bartley, had taught us a poem," said Norma Bland Duncan, who is now in her 80s and living a couple of blocks from the school building. Her father owned a shoe business. She attended Lincoln in the ‘40s and early '50s—through ninth grade.

“And I don't remember about exactly what the poem was about. But the words were, 'If you can't go over and under, you go around.' And she made us say that thing until I was sick. I could say it in my sleep,” she said.

Duncan says Lincoln teachers were multi-talented, including her second grade teacher, Miss Leona Reed.

"She lived in this neighborhood. A lot of the people who taught at Lincoln lived here in this neighborhood. And Miss Reed was very jolly and friendly—and she was a wonderful piano player. She could sit down at the piano and someone could start singing. And if they sang in an off key, she would just somehow coordinate the keys with the way they sang," Duncan said.

There was a YMCA group based here. Troops for Boy scouts and girl scouts. And, Duncan says, the families were close because many of their ancestors had been brought here as slaves by white settlers, and the families had grown up together for generations.

Duncan’s mother was on the faculty at the school starting in 1949.

"She graduated from Lincoln and her name, maiden name was Juanita Porter. Her married name was Juanita Bland," Duncan said.

Lincoln was a community hub and a place of opportunity and advancement for Springfield’s Black community. It held night education classes for adults. And the school library was open to people of all ages.

One of Lincoln High School’s salutatorians, Mary Jean Price, dreamed of going to college and having a career in library science. But in 1950, the closest college for African Americans was hours away—and her family couldn’t afford to send her there.

Missouri State University, previously called Southwest Missouri State College, denied her admission—even after she wrote a poignant letter to the registrar explaining that it was her only chance to further her education.

"I remember writing it, the letter," Mary Jean Price Walls told NPR in 2012.

University archives show her application created a firestorm behind-the-scenes, with the presidents of Missouri’s state colleges meeting privately to discuss her application.

But Lincoln High School would be the end of the road for her education. She raised eight children, cleaned houses for white families, then worked as a janitor until her retirement. Before her death in 2020, she received an honorary degree from MSU, with the acknowledgment that the institution had previously denied her admission because of its racist policy in 1950.

Following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, which led to schools’ integration, African-American students were allowed to attend Springfield Public Schools with their white neighbors.

Lincoln remained open for one more year. Later on, the building became an integrated junior high, then a Vo-Tech school and finally Lincoln Hall with OTC.

Lyle Foster, who spearheaded the idea for the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail, hopes to eventually have tour guides, or docents, at historical sites like this one.

"So kind of bringing the trail to life even in a different way. Maybe at Lincoln School, we would have somebody standing out by the trail. And so our idea is to kind of inform the public that the trail comes to life," Foster said.

Back at Lincoln School, today named Lincoln Hall, OTC says it’s committed to honoring the school’s important past.

It was constructed as a Rosenwald School, a series of high-quality buildings erected by philanthropists to advance education for Black children in the early 20th century, particularly in the rural South.

Of the nearly 5,000 Rosenwald Schools built, only five are still standing and still used for education, according to OTC. One of them is Lincoln School, right here in Springfield.

You can download a suggested itinerary for the trail by clicking here.