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One-room schoolhouse restoredOne-room schoolhouse restored

Missouri Mile: An African American school in a small town shares its history.

Mindy Ward

March 26, 2020

7 Slides

Phyllis Dean was working in a nursing home when she met residents who once attended a small one-room schoolhouse down by the Mississippi River. They told stories of their time spent at the only African American school in the small northeastern Missouri town of Canton. Dean wanted to preserve those memories.

The Lincoln School was built in 1880 in Lewis County. It remained open until 1955. In 1983 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the red brick building with white doors was only available to view from the outside. Inside, the interior was deteriorating. Dean knew she wanted to do something.

Protecting the past

The city of Canton agreed to sponsor a fund drive. “It is part of our history,” Dean says. “I want children from schools, and anyone interested, to be able to learn about this part of our history.”

Dean took an active role. She wanted the schoolhouse to be an educational museum.

Inside is a recreation of the schoolroom. However, she admits to taking a little liberty in design. Back in the early 1900s, the front of the classroom was by the double doors to welcome students. To accommodate tours, she moved the teacher’s desk to the opposite end.

Still, many items remain the same. There are just three books on the teacher’s desk. “They only had three books to learn from,” Dean explains. “Not every student had a book. They learned the same things over and over and over from the time they came to school until they graduated in the eighth grade.”

Personal touches

Along the north wall are signatures. “Last year when we opened the school up, a few members were still alive,” Dean says. “We had them sign the wall.”

There are also photographs of classes and individual portraits of students. Two of the students pictured were the first black students to graduate from Culver-Stockton College. One of the most notable students to attend Lincoln School was children’s book author Eleanora Tate, whose first novel, “Just an Overnight Guest” (1980), was later released as a television movie on Nickelodeon.

But it is a copy of the Lord’s Prayer on the desk that took on a special meaning when a former student came through and shared its significance.

“Every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance, they would say the Lord’s Prayer,” Dean says. “Then their teacher, Ms. Birdie, would tell them that others were not better than them because they went to different schools. She told them they were all equal in the eyes of the Lord.”

Small one-room schoolhouses shaped rural America. Preserving their history and sharing their stories is important for our future. As the placard by the doors state, “A testament to rural education.”

About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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