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Alumni of Kansas City’s oldest Black high school organize to fund what the district can’t afford

 A arge lighted sign that reads "Lincoln" sits on a shiny floor surrounded by white, yellow and blue balloons.
Kenneth Ellison
DeMarkus Coleman
The Lincoln sign and school colors display in front of the main stage at the inaugural “We Are Lincoln: The Castle on The Hill Gala” in the Grand Plaza at Union Station on Saturday July, 16, 2022

Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, one of the highest-ranking schools in Missouri, has a storied history in Kansas City. When a group of parents and alumni noticed that current students were constantly coming up short on resources, they founded the district's first booster club to raise funds for sports programs and after-school clubs.

Lincoln College Preparatory Academy had the opportunity to host a district football championship in 2021, but couldn’t – the school just wasn’t equipped.

“It's not equitable or competitive to facilities kids have in the suburbs. We didn’t have enough stands. We don't have bathrooms or any place for concessions," said DeMarkus Coleman, who graduated in 2006. “We're still missing a lot of things. So we couldn't support an event of that size.”

Frustrated, Coleman said it was reminiscent of a similar problem a few years back when Lincoln — Kansas City’s oldest Black high school — was getting bused to other stadiums to play football.

Back then, Dr. Jennifer Von Fintel, a Lincoln parent, launched a capital campaign to upgrade Lincoln’s football stadium.

“It was a little rough getting their support at first,” said Michael Givhan, a 2000 Lincoln graduate who joined the campaign.

But after the group raised nearly $50,000 themselves, they received a major contribution from Charles Harris, a Lincoln alum and then-defensive end for the Miami Dolphins (he’s now with the Detroit Lions).

In 2019, Kansas City Public Schools took note. It approved a multi-million dollar renovation to Lincoln’s track and football field.

Six people sit around a table folding blue T-shirts with yellow lettering.
Lawrence Brooks IV
Members of the “We Are Lincoln: The Castle on The Hill Gala” planning committee folding school branded t-shirts and going over last minute planning at their weekly committee meeting on June 27, 2023

The upgrades gave this generation's players the ability to host games at Lincoln for the first time in decades. As former football players themselves, both Givhan and Coleman felt a sense of pride after its completion. But they still weren't satisfied with the results.

“What the district did to improve the field was long overdue. But, it's still incomplete. We still need a scoreboard, there still aren't any restrooms and we need more track lanes,” said Givhan. “We can't compete with schools like North Kansas City or Staley.”

These experiences inspired Gihvan and Fintel to found the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy Booster Club in 2021, the first and so far only of its kind in Kansas City Public Schools.

As a nonprofit, the club allows them to fundraise not only to finish the stadium upgrades, but also to help after-school clubs and other sports programs, offer scholarships, and provide community service hours for graduating seniors.

The booster club now has more than 100 members representing classes spanning seven decades, as well as parents and people who attended Lincoln but may not have graduated.

“We provide supplemental support to the school where the district can't give funds to give support to these kids,” Givhan said.

'A piece of Kansas City history'

Yearbooks, photos and other memorabilia sit behind glass on a bookshelf.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Yearbooks, photos and other memorabilia sit behind glass on one of several bookshelves inside the Lincoln High R.T. Coles National Alumni Room.

The booster club's premier fundraising event, now in its second year, is called the “We Are Lincoln: The Castle on The Hill Gala.” It's an upscale, black-tie affair that celebrates the rich history of Lincoln and its impact on the African American community in Kansas City.

Taking place on Saturday, July 15, in the Grand Plaza at Union Station, the gala will include live performances from the Ashley Gates Band, guest speakers like keynote Bob Kendrick of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and an award ceremony honoring some influential figures in the school's history.

“Lincoln is not just a school, it is a historic landmark,” said Shanelle Smith, Lincoln Prep’s principal and a second-generation alumna who graduated in 1999. “It's a piece of Kansas City history, and Black history.”

Lincoln dates back to 1865, and for almost the next century — until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision — the school was the only place where Black residents in Jackson, Platte or Clay counties could earn a secondary education.

Among its notable alumni are jazz master Charlie Parker, barbecue icon Ollie Gates, and Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr., a former Royals Hall of Famer. Last year, the gala honored White with a lifetime achievement award.

Three people in formal clothes stand in front of a large, vinyl background. One woman holds a microphone while talking to a man wearing a blue suit.
Kenneth Ellison
DeMarkus Coleman
Gala host and Class of 2006 graduate Michelle Fuller asking fellow alumni and Gala committee chair DeMarkus Coleman and Booster Club president Michael Givhan questions in front of the portrait canvas at the inaugural “We Are Lincoln: The Castle on The Hill Gala” at Union Station on Saturday July 16, 2022.

This year, the award will go to anti-crime activist Alvin Brooks. Givhan, now the president of the booster club, said the pick was a no-brainer.

“Alvin Brooks is a darling of Kansas City and a R.T. Coles graduate. We don't want to ever forget our roots,” he said.

He recalled that Brooks and Ollie Gates lively debates about Lincoln High’s merger with R.T. Coles — which was the birth of Lincoln Prep.

“We believe in giving people their roses while they are alive,” Givhan said

This year, the gala is expecting close to 400 attendees, almost 100 more than attended the inaugural event. DeMarkus Coleman, chair of the gala’s planning committee, said they’ve set a fundraising goal of $100,000.

He admits it's lofty, but he’s confident that with the improved planning the second time around, they can do it.

“We put QR codes on every table and upgraded our PA system so we don't miss fundraising opportunities like we did last year,” said Coleman. “We've really been concentrating on growing the gala, since it was such a well-attended event. I believe if it is successful and we finish the football field, it is going to draw a lot more attention to the booster club.

'We wouldn't have a lot of things'

Two people stand in front of a bulletin board in a school hallway. They are smiling and looking the camera.
Lawrence Brooks IV
Lincoln Prep Middle student Jada McGee and her vice principal Alisha Glover at summer school in the main hallway on June 28, 2023.

The success of any program or nonprofit is measured by what it provides for its community. In this case, the booster club’s clients are Lincoln’s current and future students — and the proof is in the college scholarship awards they award.

“One was worth $5,000 and the other was worth $8,000,” Coleman said. “We made sure we gave it to students who really needed it — like those with a GPA no higher than 3.5.”

One of last year's recipients is now a sophomore at Langston University, an HBCU in Oklahoma, while the other recently graduated from Lincoln Prep with an Associate's Degree from the Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.

If the booster club is successful in fundraising, they hope to add an additional scholarship in the coming year for a journalism major, in honor of Lucile Bluford, the celebrated writer and editor of the Black-owned newspaper The Kansas City Call.

Coleman said the booster club researched the news industry and saw how necessary the new scholarship was. “There's also a shortage of Black journalists, because we only represent 6% of the industry,” he said.

During last school year, the booster club paid for the robotics team to travel to a national meet, volunteered to feed the football team during home games, and took the entire sophomore class to see “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

People sit in a darkened movie theater.
Michael Givhan
Michael Givan
The 2022-2023 sophomore class of Lincoln College Preparatory Academy watching Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in the fall of 2022 at Screenland Armour Theater in North Kansas City. The field trip was sponsored by the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy Booster Club.

Jada McGee is a student at Lincoln Middle, right across the street from Lincoln Prep. She plays volleyball, runs track and is part of an after-school club called “My Sister, Myself,” which helps young Black girls build relationships with each other.

She says her life at Lincoln would be different without the support of the booster club.

“If we didn't have the funding, we wouldn't have our uniforms, we wouldn't have the balls, we wouldn't have a lot of things,” said McGee. “I'm very thankful for it because I know a lot of inner-city schools don't get this. So to have them means a lot.”

According to Givhan, Kansas City Public Schools may be looking to emulate their booster club model for others in the district.

“Now that we've accomplished a lot of different things, they're now looking to us to be a leader for the KCPS schools,” he said.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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