At Kansas City's Lincoln High, students learn about 155 years of Black excellence
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.
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 Times, says 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.
With the changing demographics, alumni are concerned that Lincoln Prep may lose its black history.
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, 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.
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.
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."