A future for Lincoln School
Tue, 09/05/2023 - 3:48pm admin
Amanda Mendez, publisher
A small, unassuming building stands on a corner lot in West Plains. From the outside, even a casual observer can tell that something is afoot at the historic location of Lincoln School. From the deep trenches in the red dirt piled up around the foundations to the new roof to the busy activity of the workers inside, day by day the old schoolhouse is slowly transforming.
A West Plains family purchased the building from the city in July. Crockett and Tonya Oaks III are spearheading The Lincoln School Project, an effort to restore and reclaim the building for the entire community.
“Lincoln School has done a lot for this community,” said Crockett Oaks III on Friday morning. Standing on the original hardwood floors under the exposed, hand-cut trusses of the roof surrounded by walls torn down to the studs, Oaks and wife Tonya, spent an hour walking Howell County News through the project and its future.
Built in 1920 as a school for the African American children of the surrounding neighborhood, the Lincoln School building has remained in near constant use in service to the community for more than 100 years. After the segregation era, ownership of the building passed from the county to the city of West Plains. In the years since, it has been a meeting place for the VFW and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It has to stand here because we can’t forget,” Crockett said. “To forget is to repeat. We think about how it started, how it was repurposed --it’s come full circle, but this time it’s for everybody.”
The Oaks’ vision for the school both honors the history of the structure and shapes a future in which the Lincoln School is a touchstone for the community at large. With shiplap walls, the original rough-mortared chimney, and six-foot windows, the finished project will look very much as it did when African American children gathered to learn there. But the building will also feature modern technological amenities to welcome community events featuring local artists to speakers to politicians.
“We want anybody who launches a community project to have to stop here. We want to be the credentialling organization for anybody who wants to do something. We want to hold politicians, community leaders accountable in here,” he explained.
So far, restoration efforts have accomplished a complete gut of the building. Rewiring work has begun. Repair of the foundation is underway. The old school building has a new roof. Plans include installing central heat and air and finishing the basement to double the usable space from 625 square feet to 1,250.
Despite modern improvements, the Oaks family intends to retain as much of the original craftsmanship as possible. For example, the hardwood floor laid in 1920 will remain. The handmade trusses that have held up the roof for a century do not form perfect angles, but they are staying too.
“Maybe it didn’t have the best craftsmanship, but it’s solid,” Crockett said, placing a hand on the red-brick chimney that rises through the floor in a slightly uneven column held together by thick layers of original mortar.
The vision of a community center is the natural off-shoot of the relationship this building has always had to those who lived around it. Stepping to a window on the south wall, Crockett pointed to the places where his great-grandfather’s and grandfather’s houses once stood. He pointed out the church founded by his family. He shared memories of having his picture taken in his Easter Sunday-best clothes – with the Lincoln School in the background.
“Whether we noticed it or not, it’s always been here,” he mused.
Members of the Oaks family attended Lincoln School. So did Jeanette Forbes, the first female and first African American to serve on West Plains City Council. World War II heroes and veterans throughout the years began their educations in the humble structure.
“I do think about my ancestors and what they would be thinking about my actions today. I know they would be very proud and be very proud of the community’s response. I have witnessed them being marginalized, and I am standing on their shoulders,” Oaks said.
The Oaks initially approached the city about taking on the restoration project, but it soon became clear that this project could only be a success if it were championed by people who were deeply passionate about it.
“That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. We have more interest,” Crockett expanded.
“It’s a priority for us,” Tonya added.
“I would want to do this in my father’s lifetime,” Crockett said, “for him to see it at its best. To see the look in the eyes of people who are passionate about it.”
To that end, the Oaks family is deeply appreciative of the Young Visions project helmed by Carol Silvey. The school building’s condition garnered a lot of attention when the project simply painted the exterior walls.
Attention, and money are what the project really needs now.
“Keep following us. Talk us up. Set up a donation challenge, community competitions. Lincoln School has been a central figure in helping people since its inception…we need some contractors to exercise their philanthropic muscles to help the Oaks family achieve this,” Crockett said.
The estimated total cost of the project will be $350,000.
To learn more, or to donate, visit https://lincolnschoolproject.com/.