By Barry Dalton
VANDALIA—Constructed in 1927, the Lincoln School in Vandalia taught African American students in the area for 30 years.
Joyce Holman of Vandalia remembers attending first grade there. Like all of the founding members of Concerned Citizens to Save Lincoln School, she remembers her teachers there fondly. Little did she and the others realize, though, how dramatically their world was about to change. In second grade they were integrated.
“For some reason, they did not prepare us,” Holman recalls. “We just drove up to the new school, and I saw all of these new kids. It was culture shock.”
Her family, after all, had known only the Lincoln School for a generation. Holman’s parents, Robert and Eunice, had also gone there.
“My mother was valedictorian in her year,” Holman said. “My father had to quit in his sophomore year, because his father, Albert, became disabled, and he had to support the family. So he worked for the brick plant until he was drafted for World War II. So he did four years and came back to Vandalia and worked for 42 years at [the brick plant].”
When Holman entered second grade it had been less than 100 years since emancipation. Her mother’s father, Charles Essex, had once been an enslaved person in Ralls County.
“His family came here from Kentucky to harvest marijuana,” Holmes said.
When Essex, who was 6 foot 2, decided he didn’t want to be a farmer anymore, he moved to Vandalia from Center to work in the salt mines.
“He was too tall. He had to stay stooped all day,” Holmes said. “So that’s when he became an entrepreneur, and he was a good carpenter.”
Holman eventually graduated high school and moved away from Vandalia before returning in 1992. She had worked as a cosmetologist in Kansas City and for an Anheuser-Busch distributor. Having been civic and politically active in Kansas City, the Rev. William Givens asked her to join a group he was forming. He wanted to save Lincoln School by getting it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The group of former Lincoln School students formed a 501-C(3) nonprofit organization.
It was Holmes, though, who the reverend encouraged to take the lead on his vision.
“I did all of the paperwork,” Holmes said. “I was making trips back and forth from Jefferson City and making phone calls. Oh my God, it was a lot of work that they trusted me with, but I got it done.”
In 1996, the Lincoln School was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service, making it one of only four places on the list in Audrain County. In 1997, Missouri Resources magazine said that Holman was “instrumental” in getting the school on the registry. It also credited Givens and other members of Concerned Citizens to Save Lincoln School.
Concerned Citizens bought the Lincoln School building from a local businessman for $38,000. A photo was taken by the DNR in 1997, which shows the disrepair the school was in when it was sold. In spite of not having any work done on it since the ’50s, it was apparent that the structure had good bones, but the lawn was littered with spare tires, bare wheels, rods and boards. The school’s wooden doors were damaged and its windows dark. Posted above the school’s entrance was a hand-painted sign that read “Carpet, Used Trucks.”
It would take more than a decade before Concerned Citizens could afford any major repairs. Up until then, it had concentrated on paying off the mortgage. Beginning in 2012, the group began work on a restoration plan. Charles Overton, who attended Lincoln through fourth grade, began helping out with the restoration after moving back to Vandalia from Detroit.
“You can put a level anywhere in this building and everything is level and plum,” Overton said.
As a result of their efforts, the historic brick school you see today stands in stark contrast to how it had looked in 1997. The building, although still needing a lot of repairs on the outside, exudes strength and elegance. It has a well-kept lawn, new windows and a flagpole that was installed in 2018 by the local chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.
The inside remains a work in progress. Because of limited funding, Concern Citizens has been concentrating its efforts on the first floor of the building, particularly the foyer, bathrooms and kitchen. The old Vandalia library donated the kitchen cabinets.
The second and third floors are in such disrepair that Holman isn’t sure when they’ll be able to fix them up. The short-term goal is to complete work on the first floor so that rooms can be rented out for small gatherings, meetings or classes. The long-term goal is to complete work on the entire building and make the Lincoln School into a center for performing arts.
Although Target Windows donated beautiful windows for the second floor, and the staircase to the upper floors are still sturdy, most of the upstairs rooms remain in poor condition, too expensive to repair anytime soon. All of the slate has fallen off the blackboards, and the floors, high ceilings and walls are worn, patchy and peeling paint.
Even so, the upstairs transports you back in time with its old desks, large auditorium, panoramic window views and cozy theatrical stage. It’s here that the Lincoln School’s potential really shines. The principal’s office is also uniquely designed, raised above the stairway, signifying its prominence.
“This was the principal’s office, where I got my first whoopin’,” Holman says with a laugh. “And if you were good, you could come up here and buy penny candy from the principal. No gum, just candy.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Concerned Citizens hasn’t been able to have its monthly fried chicken dinner fundraisers at the Modern Maturity building on Joe Street, but it hopes to have one again soon, perhaps at the Lincoln School this time.
“We’ve had to all pitch in and just donate ourselves, which we do anyway,” Holman said. “Each board member has been able to donate $50 a month to cover things.”
To completely restore the entire school, including the second and third floors, it would likely take at least $200,000, and several years, so the group is focusing on what’s achievable in the immediate future, namely the first floor.
“If we could get the heating and cooling in, we could at least be functional downstairs,” Holman noted.
To raise money, the group has begun posting donation requests on Facebook and is looking into possibly setting up a GoFundMe page. It will use the donations to make payments on its mortgage, pay for lawn maintenance and make repairs.
Tax-deductible donations for Lincoln School can be made to “Concerned Citizenry,” PO Box 242, Vandalia, MO 63382 or directly to the Central Bank of Audrain County.