by Beverly Fleming
"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
- From "On the pulse of Morning" by Maya Angelou, a commemorative poem written for the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993.
Photo by Beverly Fleming
The construction date of the Kingston school house for African American children, located in Caldwell County, is unknown, although it was probably built in the 1880s. Its original blackboards still exist inside.
Despite its status as a slave-owning state, Missouri made a surprisingly strong commitment to the education of African-American children in the years following the Civil War. But until a United States Supreme Court decision (Brown v. the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education, 1953) outlawed segregated schools, that commitment was always met by the establishment of school facilities for African-American children separate from those of white children. As a result, Missouri possesses a rich legacy of historic school buildings built specifically for the education of children of African descent.
Prior to the Civil War, slaves were rarely given the opportunity to learn to read or write. Between 1847 and 1865, it was against the law to educate African-Americans in Missouri; an educated slave was thought to be more dangerous and dissatisfied with his or her position in life and, as a result, more likely to revolt.
However, free blacks in St. Louis openly operated schools in defiance of the law in the decade before the Civil War. The American Missionary Association (A.M.A.), an organization formed in the North in 1845 to convince slave holders of the evils of slavery, undertook educational work in St. Louis in 1863-64. By the end of the Civil War, the A.M.A. operated schools for African-Americans in six Missouri towns: Carondelet, Independence, Jefferson City, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Warrensburg. Five years later, other A.M.A. schools were opened in Fulton, Ironton, Lebanon, Osceola, Palmyra, Richmond, Spring Valley, and Westport. Benevolent societies from other states, among them the Western Sanitary Commission, established schools in Missouri and private subscription schools existed; the federally sponsored Freeman's Bureau also provided financial support.
The Sumner School in Boonville was constructed as a school for black children, grades one through 12.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, a new state constitution (1865) provided for the establishment, maintenance and funding of free public schools for the instruction of al persons in the state between the ages of five and 21, regardless of color. Legislation in 1865 required that township boards of education and those in charge of education in the cities and the incorporated villages of the state establish and maintain one or more schools for the African-American children of school age within their respective jurisdictions, provided the number of school children exceeded 20. The schools were to operate in the same manner as the schools for white children. In districts where there were fewer than 20 African-American children, the money raised for their education was to be used to further their education as the local board of education saw fit.
With this strong legal basis for the education of African-American children, the public school system for these children flourished and the Missouri Superintendent of Education was able to report in 1870 "that Missouri has a larger proportion of schools for Negro children than any other former slave state." From a total of 34 schools for African American children in 1886, tot he total number of schools in Missouri had jumped to 212 by 1871. But the Superintendent of Education also reported that in 1871 only 4,358 students out of 37,173 African-American children of school age were in attendance at any school.
"The concept of public schools for any child, regardless of race, was slow to gain acceptance in many parts of Missouri."
Named after Benjamin Banneker, a member of the six-man survey team that laid out Washington, D.C., Banneker School in Parkville is being restored as a school house museum.
The road to establishing schooling opportunities in every county for African-American children was not always smooth. Initial resistance to their education was strong in counties of the state where southern sympathies were in the majority. The concept of public schools for any child, regardless of race, was slow to gain acceptance in many parts of Missouri. Antebellum Missouri had a strong tradition of private school or academy education; public school was reserved for the children of the poor.
The school laws could be easily evaded by local officials due to a lack of legal remedies against failure to comply with the statutes. As the Missouri Commissioner of Education complained in his report of 1878, school districts could and did fail to take an accurate census, which established the need for a school. They also failed to hire teachers, select a site for the school or provide funds, effectively sabotaging the law. The school laws were amended in 1868 to give the state superintendent the authority to assume a school district's responsibilities for providing schooling for African-American children if the district failed to do so, and the number of children needed to require the establishment of a school was lowered from 20 to 15. Legislation in 1869 and 1874 provided for the creation of union schools in areas with fewer than 15 school-age African-American children. An 1874 law subjected school officials to fines for failure to perform their duties. Thus, by 1875, although no school district in the state could be compelled by the law to maintain a school for its white children, it had to provide a school for African-American children if there were more than 15 children residing in its jurisdiction.
Although the legal commitment to providing schooling opportunities for African-American children was strong in Missouri, equally strong was the insistence that these opportunities would be provided in separate facilities. The original 1865 law was silent on the subject of separate schools, 1875 legislation declared it "unlawful in the public schools of this state for any colored child to attend a white school or any white child to attend a colored school." Prior to 1889, some mixing of races occurred in schools in areas of the state with a scattered African-American population insufficient to justify a separate school. The 1889 law effectively shut down all educational opportunities for these children.
Although Missouri succeeded in establishing schools for African-American children, the quality of education often did not match that available to white children. The average expense per pupil was lower for students in African-American schools than for white schools. The average length of the school term and average attendance for the African-American schools was also lower than that of the white schools.
The Depression Era Washington School was constructed for Monroe County's black school children by the Works Progress Administration.
Outside of the major cities, students travelled long distances to obtain a high school education. Although the first high school for African American students west of the Mississippi River, Sumner High School, was established in St. Louis as early as 1875, by 1915, there were still only 15 high schools in Missouri that black students could attend.
Salaries for teachers were lower in African-American schools than white schools. The 1873 "Annual Report of the Superintendent of Schools" reports an average monthly salary for male teachers in white schools of $87.72 as compared to an average monthly salary for male teachers in the African-American schools of $46.70. Women teachers of both races fared much worse. Both white and black Missourians held a preference for African-American teachers in African-American schools.
That bias and the discrepancy in salaries made it difficult to recruit white teachers for African American schools, but there was a shortage of qualified black teachers. To remedy this situation, the Missouri Legislature granted the Lincoln Institute, located in Jefferson City, an annual sum of $5,000 for the training of teachers in 1870. The Lincoln Institute had been established in 1866 with funds contributed by the soldiers of the 62nd and 65th U.S. Negro Infantry out of their pay at the close of the Civil War (refer to "Preservation Issues, Vol.4, No.1). The state acquired complete control of the Lincoln Institute in 1879 and college and industrial departments were added to the previous curriculum.
The majority of early schools for African American children were taught in churches or homes or other make-shift facilities. When school houses were built, they were built in traditional one-room school house design, not really much different from other rural or small-town school houses during this time period, although often with fewer amenities and with second-hand furnishings. In an 1869 speech to the state teachers' association, Richard B. Foster, who was instrumental in the founding of the Lincoln Institute, pointed out the discrepancies between school facilities for African American and white children: the school house for colored children in St. Joseph was frame, while the city's schools for white children were all brick. The situation was the same in Jefferson City.
Although the Benjamin Banneker School in Parkville, built in 1885, is a brick building, an 1890s news article in the "Parkville Independent" indicates the modest level of its furnishings. "New seats are being placed in the primary room of the public school building. The old ones will be put in the colored school building, where benches have been heretofore used." The school house itself, is a simple rectangular, one-room building with a gable roof. On the interior, the blackboards are black paint on plaster (rather than slate). Fifty-eight students attended this school in 1898. The construction of this school and a second Banneker School, built in 1903-04, were made possible by the interest and support of Park College, a Presbyterian school located in Parkville. Land for both buildings was acquired from Park College and the bricks for the 1885 school house were manufactured by Park College students.
By the turn of the century, more substantial schools were built for the education of African American children. The Lincoln School of Clinton, a two-story brick building with a central hall and stairwell, was built in 1894. Grades one to four were taught in the south room on the first floor; grades five to eight were taught in the north room. An auditorium space occupied the south end of the second floor and a three-year high school was taught in the north end.
Charles Sumner High School (ca 1909) in St. Louis replaced an earlier school for blacks with the same name. Sumner was named for the Massachusetts senator (1811-74) who was one of the first to support laws to ensure civil rights for blacks. Naming the school, rather than numbering it, was regarded as a significant move toward racial equality. From the time of its construction in 1909 until 1916 when Dunbar School in Washington, D.C., opened, Sumner High School in St. Louis was considered the finest African American high school in the country.
Washington School in Monroe city is one example of several schools in Missouri that were built for African American students by the Works Progress Administration program grants during the Depression. Built in 1937, Washington School is unique in that it was designed by an architect, the St. Louis firm of Bonsack and Pearce. However, it is still a modest three-classroom building that housed upper and lower grades and high school (more than 60 students). A grade school for white children built in Monroe City at the same time, in contrast, encompasses six classrooms, an auditorium, activity rooms and offices.
A 1939 report on African American public school education in Missouri
indicated the existence of approximately 260 elementary and high schools
at the time of the report. How many of these schools still exist is
unknown. Unfortunately, the significance of these schools to Missouri's
heritage often goes unrecognized.