© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A podcast about the everyday heroes, renegades and visionaries who shaped Kansas City.

At Kansas City's Lincoln High, students learn about 155 years of Black excellence

J.E. Miller
Courtesy of Missouri Valley Room, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
Lincoln High School's Cadet Band and Orchestra posed for this photo in front of the school in the 1917 Lincoln High School yearbook. Band director Major Nathaniel Clark Smith, nationally recognized as a jazz band leader, stands in the center by the doors.

Until desegregation, Lincoln High School was the only place in Jackson, Platte, or Clay counties where a Black student could earn a secondary education. In a city where few pieces of Black history remain — outside of jazz and baseball — Lincoln High remains a monument to struggle and triumph.

For more stories like this one, subscribe to A People's History of Kansas City on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Stitcher.

High school students don't necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about the history of their high school. At least, that's how it was for Aaron Randle.

The former Kansas City Star reporter graduated in 2007 from Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri—now known as Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

Randle, now at The New York Timessays even though the history of his school wasn't front of mind in those days, there was a feeling about Lincoln, an identity, that was just understood. 

"This has always been the school where all the smart black kids come from. This has been the school you can name check, you know, the Ollie Gates of the world, or Lucile Bluford or Frank White, these famous historic Black Kansas Citians," Randle says.

Then there are musicians Charlie Parker, Julia Lee, and Walter Page, and civil rights leaders Leon Jordan and Julia Hill.

In the near future, however, black students will no longer be the largest group at Lincoln, according to reporting Randle did for theKansas City Starlast spring.

With the changing demographics, alumni are concerned that Lincoln Prep may lose its black history.

Credit Black Archives of Mid-America
Black Archives of Mid-America
In 1890, Lincoln High School opened at 19th and Tracy, becoming the first all black high school in Kansas City, Missouri.

Before and during the Civil War, educating black people was illegal. But just as soon as the war ended, a black pastor at the church at 10th and McGee began a small school.

At that point, Missouri rewrote its constitution, abolishing slavery and creating segregated schools.

"It was really just to educate the black populace, not just children, adults, anybody, in basic skills necessary for just being citizens," says Mike Sweeney, with the State Historical Society of Missouri and the official historian for Lincoln’s alumni association.

In 1867, the Kansas City School District formed, and the small church school became Lincoln Elementary. By 1890, the district opened a high school at 19th and Tracy. Enrollment grew rapidly and over the next few decades, the building became overcrowded.

H.O. Cook was Lincoln High School's principal from 1921 to 1943. This portrait hangs in the hall of Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

H.O. Cook, an ambitious principal and community leader, rallied the black community during the Great Depression of the 1920s and was able to raise enough money to build a new high school at 20th and Woodland. This school was called the "castle on the hill" and is where Lincoln Prep still operates today.

The four-story brick building opened in 1936, complete with a lookout tower, swimming pool, science labs, two gyms, and an auditorium. Lincoln Junior College occupied the top floor.

All the way until desegregation, Lincoln High School was the only place in Jackson, Platte, or Clay counties where an African American student could earn a secondary education.

Ron Walton graduated from Lincoln in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case that was supposed to end segregation across the country.

"Because the environment that we had grown up in, what I had been accustomed to, I think my feeling was: well, big deal. We don’t need those schools. We’ve got our schools," Walton says.

He remembers that the neighborhoods from Independence Avenue to 27th Street and from Troost to about Mersington were very segregated, but in a tight-knit way that meant black residents took care of each other. Lincoln students who lived far from the school stayed with other families, who cared for them during the week.

The road to integration has been long and troubled in Kansas City, Missouri, where the school district is still only 10% white (in a city that is 60% white.)

The district, urged on by a court mandate, tried to "wipe out segregation" with state of the art facilities, increased teacher pay and by creating magnet schools.Lincoln began requiring an exam and maintaining a minimum GPA to attend. 

More than other high schools in the district, Lincoln saw an increase in diversity, but it wasn't until the early 2000s that alumni say the student body and teaching staff became significantly more white.

In 2019, about 40% of students identified as Black, 30% as Latino and 20% as white.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Lincoln Prep Seniors Alondra Torres, Assata Jihad, Madeline Stalder, Anthony Moses and Michelle Sall are working on a project to present the history of the school to the current student body.

It's not that the school is becoming more diverse that alumni are concerned. It's that a city "fraught with racial tension," as Aaron Randle puts it, has not truly acknowledged its past.

"I think what this gets at, what this is at its core, is about this story and this narrative, is the Black community and their fear of losing a cultural marker, their cultural identity," Randle says.

In Kansas City, very few pieces of Black history—outside of the realms of jazz and baseball—remain. Lincoln College Preparatory Academy is a monument to struggle, triumph and Black excellence.

However, a physical marker is only as strong as the story that accompanies it.

"We are taking those steps to make sure that kids understand how special this place is," says current principal Kristian Foster. 

New students are now introduced to the school through a video created by their peers; the alumni association wants to redecorate the alumni room so it feels more like a museum; and some seniors are restoring a former hang-out at the entrance of their auditorium. 

It's a history many of the class of 2020 say they only recently became aware of. 

"I was really shocked when I found out," says senior Michelle Sall. "Because that's something that should be known. That's something our student body should know and should be proud of."

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.