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At Kansas City’s oldest Black high school, a new space finally celebrates history

An elderly man stands in a room filled with trophies and bookshelves containing high school memorabilia.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ron Walton shows off the Lincoln High R.T. Coles National Alumni Room before it was recently revealed to the public.

One national alumni group spent two decades collecting, preserving and archiving material from throughout the history of Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. It's finally open to the public.

At the grand opening of Lincoln College Preparatory Academy’s new alumni room on May 24, Ronald Walton got to see 20 years of work finally pay off.

“There's a lot of history here that is unknown — put around the corner, put under the covers,” said Walton, who graduated in 1954, when it was called Lincoln High School. “It's just the way it is. But this is an effort to tell as much of that story, factually, as it can be told.”

On Tuesday, Walton hosted a ribbon-cutting with about 50 people, and revealed a space dedicated to remembering and honoring the students, staff and the remarkable history of one of Missouri’s oldest African American high schools.

At a big, modern display screen that now connects visitors with searchable archival material, sisters La’Shon and La’Wonda Wofford looked for a photo of their great-grandmother Willene Webb, who graduated from Lincoln High School in 1919.

“Her goal in high school was to go to France and play music, and that’s exactly what she did,” said La’Wonda Wofford, who is now a bookkeeper at Lincoln Prep. “All the struggles and strides that African American women, let alone people, had to go through — she succeeded in life.”

The sisters shared an emotional moment when they found Willene's photo among the collection.

“And now she’s here, her legacy living on through Lincoln High,” Wofford said. “It’s beautiful.”

Two women look at a TV screen where old, b/w photos and text are exhibited. One woman is pointing at a phot and another woman is taking a picture with her phone camera.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
La'Wanda Wofford and her sister, La'Shon Wofford locate the photo of their great grandmother, Willene Webb, who graduated from Lincoln High in 1919.

Walton, president of the Lincoln High/R.T. Coles National Alumni Association, credited former President Grace Hardiman for first envisioning an alumni room on campus. The idea, he said, has bounced around among alumni, principals, superintendents and school board members since.

“Some principals have had no interest in helping us further the idea, some have been just the opposite,” Walton said. “But it’s always been a situation where, if a principal was willing, there wasn’t any material to put in the room.”

At one point, Walton said, an impromptu conversation with a custodian led to the discovery of half a dozen boxes, set to be thrown away, filled with old trophies.

“So we brought them home and we cleaned them up,” he said, “and repaired what we could.”

The trophies, like so many other bits of history they have amassed piecemeal since then, made their way into the collection — just a single display shelf on the room’s north end in its earliest iteration.

People walk around a room filled with displays of trophies standing on bookshelves and paintings on a wall.
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 alumni association consulted and cooperated in the effort with current and previous Lincoln Prep administrations, the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, and historian and researcher Mike Sweeney, who has experience with the State Historical Society of Missouri, the American Jazz Museum and the Kansas City Public Library.

The alumni room, just off the school’s main hallway and across from a display of trophies and portraits of celebrated alumni, features a timeline of the school. The main gallery is filled with large, framed portraits of past principals, sports and academic trophies, old yearbooks and memorabilia.

On Tuesday, columns of balloons in Lincoln’s blue and gold colors, with white accents thrown in, framed the doorway where the ribbon was cut and people entered.

A history of educating African Americans

Lincoln College Prep got its start in 1865, when a Black pastor at the church at 10th and McGee streets began a small school. Two years later, when the Kansas City School District was formed, the church became Lincoln Elementary.

In 1890, Lincoln moved to 19th Street and Tracy Avenue, and became a high school. When the student population outgrew that building, it moved in 1936 to the current building at 2111 Woodland Avenue. The old building became R.T. Coles Vocational and Junior High School.

Notable alumni include journalist and civil rights leader Lucille Bluford, jazz master Charlie Parker, barbecue baron Ollie Gates, and Royals Hall of Famer Frank White Jr., who is the current Jackson County Executive.

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

Until the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Lincoln was the only place in Jackson, Platte or Clay counties where African Americans could earn a secondary education. The school was racially integrated in 1978.

In 1968, students from Lincoln joined others from Manual and Central high schools in marches calling for Kansas City schools to be closed on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. When police responded with riot gear and tear gas, the marches escalated into four days of riots that left six people dead.

More recently, Lincoln has seen an increase in diversity, as reported by KCUR’s A People’s History of Kansas City podcast. The student body and teaching staff has become significantly more white and Latino. In 2019, about 40% of students identified as Black, 30% as Latino and 20% as white.

Remembering the legacy

The alumni room fits into a bigger effort to instill that long history in the contemporary student body, some of whom don't know about it, according to current principal Kristian Foster.

"We are taking those steps to make sure that kids understand how special this place is," Foster told KCUR in 2020.

Preserving that legacy is why alumni association president Ronald Walton thinks the collection is so important, and why he’s glad it’s finally open to the public.

“They no longer have to say, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about R.T. Coles. I don’t really know the history of Lincoln,” Walton said. “Well it’s in that room. And if you want to know, there it is — right there in front of you.”

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.

Many other families in Kansas City, including Dianne Fletcher’s, still celebrate multiple generations of Lincoln alumni.

“We've always known it as ‘Castle on the Hill,’” said Fletcher, a 1970 graduate. “This is like our second home.”

Fletcher’s youngest daughter graduated from Lincoln in 2003, and she’ll have two grandchildren at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy Middle School, just across 22nd Street, during the next academic year.

“It’s a lot of good memories here — I really don’t have any bad memories here at all,” she said.

Carlos Moreno contributed reporting to this story.

Corrected: June 1, 2022 at 11:11 AM CDT
This story has been updated to reflect that Lincoln High School was the only place in Jackson, Platte or Clay counties where African Americans could earn a secondary education until 1954. An earlier version said that milestone wasn't reached until 1978.
As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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