This story was originally published by Ozarks Alive.
Sunlight streams through the wall of windows in the small white school, the beams – figuratively and literally – helping illuminate a dark piece of Ozarks history. It’s Lincoln School, a one-room landmark in West Plains, Missouri, few are alive to remember but none should forget.
For generations, it was there that Black students received an education before Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court case that ended school segregation in 1954.
Decades later, it will soon resume its tenure as an educational facility. But instead of supporting division, its purpose is to foster unity.
It’s at the hands and heart of Crockett and Tonya Oaks III, who purchased the property from the city of West Plains in July 2023. Work is already underway to renovate the school, which the couple plans to use as a place to learn about the past, but also a touchstone for cultural and community conversations.
“Lincoln School was founded through the lens of segregation,” says Crockett Oaks. “I think those remaining citizens who attended Lincoln School, and certainly those who were aware of Lincoln School’s use as a facility for Black folk, would be grateful and smile that now it’s providing education for all folk.
“That’s what we really want Lincoln School’s mantra to be: It’s education for all, and it’s education that comes from various points of view.”
Guided by conviction, the work is also led by personal connection. Oaks’ grew up in West Plains, and his family moved to Howell County in the early 1900s from northeast Arkansas, where they were enslaved. His Oaks name was from the plantation where his ancestors once lived.
And his father – Crockett Oaks, Jr. – attended Lincoln School. He is the only known Lincoln student who still lives in West Plains today.
Understanding Lincoln’s History
Lincoln School came to be after the end of the Civil War. It could not have existed prior, as the Missouri Legislature “passed an act that prohibited ‘Negroes and mulattoes’ from learning to read and write and assembling freely for worship services,” notes information from the Equal Justice Initiative.
This changed in 1865, when the Missouri Constitution allowed that “separate schools may be established for children of African descent.”
At some point after that decision, the first iteration of Lincoln School opened its doors.
The late 1800s was a period of growth in the Black population throughout Howell County, which sits along the Missouri-Arkansas state line. That is not to say Black people did not live thereabouts before: At least 36 did, as information tied to the 1860 U.S. Census tells us, because they were enslaved.
It’s not immediately known if those individuals stayed local after the abolishment of slavery, but others began arriving in the following years.
After the Civil War – and specifically in the 1880s – is when the population of Black residents really began to increase, says Dr. Jason McCollom, associate professor of History at Missouri State University-West Plains.
“I’ve looked at the census data and you just see after 1882, ‘83, ‘84, the number of African Americans in Howell County … just began to increase relatively significantly,” says McCollom. “They’re never big; they’re never more than maybe one percent of Howell County’s population. But it’s a vibrant community.”
While McCollom notes the topic needs additional research, he also says that economic opportunity and land sales were likely drivers.
“I think emphasizing economic opportunity and land for sale is probably a safe conclusion,” he says.
Eventually, the local Black population led to the start of Lincoln School. Compared to the number of schools for white children, it was one of a very limited number across the region and most assuredly was under-resourced.
Classes, however, weren’t initially held in the building that stands today. In 1915, local white students — responding to a belief that Black individuals were better-served educationally when they were enslaved — made a visit to a former facility and wrote about their experience in the yearbook.
“Possum started the argument. It was over the slavery question,” says text on the yearbook page. “He made the statement that the slaves, before being emancipated, had better educational facilities than they have at the present time. To support this statement he suggested that a committee visit the colored school in our city and report the conditions observed. This suggestion being made, others followed and it was finally decided that the entire class should make the visit.
The report details the field-trip-like visit to the “uncouth” building, and the academic performances the Black students gave before the onlookers, at times creating ridicule.
“As it was drawing near time for adjournment of the afternoon session, we departed somewhat of the opinion that Possum’s statement was not wholly untrue.”
It’s believed the current building came to be about 1920. Operating similarly to rural one-room schools, Lincoln gave education for the first eight grades. If Black students wanted to attend high school, they had to leave the area.
The Reality of Racism
The Ozarks’ anecdotal overwhelming whiteness complicates its racial history. In the early 20th century, numerous Missouri Ozarks communities led racial cleansing events that drove out Black communities and altered diversity makeup for generations to come. Expulsion did not happen in West Plains — one threat of it turned out to be a joke — but racism did exist.
In addition to schools, restaurants, hospitals and the local swimming pool were places where segregation was legal. It also came through in attitudes; just one example is a 1920 that reportedly ran in the West Plains Journal that described “Aunt Jemima,” an elderly woman who was “a typical slave of the type which preferred their ‘white folks’ to freedom and which is now practically extinct.”
In 1930, a Black fraternal lodge was used as a hospital when a local Black resident needed an emergency appendectomy to save his life. The West Plains hospital would not allow him treatment.
“As there are no Negro hospitals near West Plains and the boy’s condition was too critical for him to be taken to Memphis where the nearest Negro hospital is located, the lodge hall was hastily equipped as a temporary hospital and local surgeons operated on the young man Monday night,” noted a transcription of an article attributed to the West Plains Daily Quill in February 1930.
It seems there were few racial incidents in West Plains — leading to a feeling that “everything is fine” — but perhaps that was fueled by communities staying separate.
An example of that reality is shown through “Pony” Thomas, a Black man who served as a connection between the communities in the early 1900s.
“Pony Thomas was a Black man who worked in the barber shop downtown. He was the liaison between the Black community and the white,” says Toney Aid, a historian, generational Howell County resident. “Being in the barber shop, the bankers came in, the lawyers came in, everybody knew him, and he got to know them. So if there was a problem between the two communities, they communicated back and forth (through him).”
Aid was born in 1950, but was cognizant of the realities of racism from an early age. Segregation was still legal — and found throughout the Ozarks ranging from hotels and department stores in places like Springfield, the largest city in the Missouri Ozarks and the third largest in the state, to rural Ozarks communities where sundown towns overtly existed through at least the 1960s.
As a teenager, Aid recalls riding to a speech and debate tournament to a nearby community where a “sundown” sign sat on the edge of town.
“As we rode into town, we looked out there and there was the old sign: ‘N-word, don’t let the sun set on you in Ava’ or something similar to that,” recalls Aid, who was traveling to the tournament with a Black friend.
He says they didn’t say anything and the bus continued to the tournament.
“Although things were very racial here — we were segregated by where we lived, by schools, by what we did and social activities — (West Plains was) a little bit friendlier to Black people which gave them a chance to establish a community,” he says.
One, however, with parameters.
“You had your boundaries – you knew what to do, and what not to do,” says James Talton, now 79, who grew up in West Plains and today lives in Springfield. “What you could do, and what you couldn’t do.”
Recalling Lincoln’s Era
The realities of why Talton and others attended Lincoln stand alongside good memories. He spent much time there, resulting in nostalgia of school days and family ties that come from growing-up years.
“I enjoyed it,” he says. “I’m glad I went to a one-room schoolhouse. Not that I didn’t want to be integrated … but going to the same school my mother and father went to was a big thrill.”
Talton speaks of the teacher calling individual classes up to go through lessons, after which they’d sit back down and continue their individual work.
“When it came time for the third grade to read or whatever, they would take time and do that,” Talton says, giving an example of how the teacher would serve so many different ages and classes. “He gave us an assignment, so we studied and were quiet while he continued with the class.”
He also recalls fun moments, too: Of programs and pie sales and bobbing for apples.
“I remember that every Friday, you’d bring money to school,” he says. “We had a little country store maybe a block away from us. We’d each go there and pick somebody to go buy candy and they’d come back with whatever you ordered.”
Shirley Oaks Thompson recalls those activities vividly, too. She began attending Lincoln when she was just 5 years old, which was earlier than most students were allowed.
“I remember we were all out on the school grounds playing until the kids were called into class,” shares Thompson by phone from her home in Pennsylvania. “After they were all called in, I was left out on the swings by myself, since I knew I wasn’t allowed to go because I wasn’t 6. The teacher sent someone out and told me to come on in and come to class. So I started first grade at 5.
“In May, we did May Day and got flowers and passed them out to the local moms there on Washington Avenue. We liked that. And we had what we called socials – usually chili,” Thompson continues, adding that there were some points where they also had chitlins, the cooked intestines of a pig.
“Then there were times that the teacher and some of us kids would go to the local slaughterhouse and get the chitlins and clean them.”
Thompson and three other students represented the last class to go all eight grades at Lincoln. In 1955, the year following Brown v. Board of Education, it consolidated with the larger West Plains district.
“We were the last graduating class – there were four of us. That was in 1954,” she says. “After that graduation, they integrated the schools there.”
Prior to integration, Thompson planned to attend high school in Kansas City as other local Black students were known to do. Instead, she stayed in Howell County and graduated from West Plains High School in 1958. She followed her sister, who came home from Kansas City for school and became its first Black graduate.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s former students say that the integration was generally smooth. But it wasn’t seamless.
“We didn’t really have the knowledge that they did of learning,” says Talton of the white children. “It was sort of hard, in a way. You really had to buckle down and get up to that level that they was already at.”
“I can remember – the grown folks, they wanted at least two of us (Black children) in the class to kind of check on each other,” says Crockett Oaks Jr. “It got to the point where my brother and I were the youngest and we were separated. The Black parents took it pretty serious; since they couldn’t bring our brother up to my grade, they put me back. I had to repeat the third grade. That’s how serious the grown folks had taken it.
“Us kids, if you played with us, we played. That was it as far as the kids were concerned.”
A New Future for Lincoln
After Lincoln closed as a school in 1955, it transitioned to being a V.F.W. post, and later, as a home for local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Yet it also stood as a reminder and backdrop to life in the community, proven by snapshots Oaks’ family has amassed over the years.
“It was just a building that you saw, you knew what it was, but no one ever really paid much attention,” says Oaks. “It’s literally always lurking in the background.”
It was still used for AA meetings when the Oakses moved to West Plains in 2021. It wasn’t long before they became involved in highlighting, restoring and preserving the area’s local diverse heritage.
One of their first projects was the Sadie Brown Cemetery, a burial ground for Black residents that dates to the late 1800s. Located at the buzzing vantage point at U.S. 63 and Missouri 14, the cemetery has long been seen – but perhaps not realized – by travelers from across the United States. Yet the identities of many who are buried there have been lost to time, interred in graves marked with field stones or none at all.
The Oakses worked to remedy the situation by successfully applying for grant funding to locate graves, and identity them with markers. They also purchased property on the town’s square, and ultimately brought Dr. Bolaji Ogunwo of Nigeria to town twice to install large-scale murals on the side of the building.
The momentum continued building in late 2022, when Oaks contemplated a future for the former Black school. After approaching the city of West Plains, the Oaks were granted the right to purchase the property for $1,200, the cost of appraising the land.
“(Crockett) has made a positive impact on the community,” writes Mike Topliff, mayor of West Plains and one of the Oakes’ key representatives when discussing the sale of Lincoln School, in an email. “I know he reestablished old friendships and made several new ones, including myself.
“I have a great interest in the history of West Plains. The Lincoln School is a part of that history. One that hasn’t been shared as it should have been. The work that Crockett has done for the Sadie Brown Cemetery shows his commitment. I look forward to seeing this project completed.”
Work quickly began: Wooden beams show in that sunlight, perhaps seen for the first time since the school was built for a vastly different purpose than today.
Visiting the School
While the Oakes are underwriting initial costs related to the project, they also seek community support from both financial and emotional perspectives.
They note they are in the process of applying for non-profit status, and are working with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to set up an account to hold funds until that process is complete. In the meantime, contributions may be made to the project’s bank account here.
“All along we’ve had in our minds what it could be,” says Tonya Oaks. “We want to refurbish to a higher standard than what it had been currently kept at, to ensure the viability of the building for generations to come. Our efforts to restore it are with products and materials that will last 30, 40, 50 years.”
“Our efforts are kind of surrounded around bringing in different artists to talk about art in the area … and heritage in the Ozarks, not just for the African American community but for the community at large. We can utilize Lincoln to be a resource and a place for podcasts – if there’s a particular month we want to do a special on – bring in speakers, bring in talent to show people things that are indigenous to this area.”