Lincoln University Celebrates Black History Month
Author W.E.B. Dubois called Lincoln University the Black Harvard of the Midwest.
LU now has more than 4,000 students on its 150-acre campus, a far cry from its early days.
Prof. Antonio Holland wrote a book about LU's beginnings, so he knows the university's past.
"Over 100,000 slaves in Missouri, and Missouri had laws that banned the teaching of reading and writing to slaves, he said.
During the Civil War, former slaves from Missouri enlisted as Union troops and were given an education.
Holland said, "They were organized in St. Louis and a western sanitary commission, sort of a missionary group, taught them how to read and write."
When the war ended, black soldiers wanted to continue their schooling.
"An idea sort of came up among them, the idea of establishing a school back in Missouri for recently-freed men," explained Holland. "And they asked one of their officers, who was a graduate of Dartmouth College and who had previously been a teacher, Richard Baxter Foster, if he would lead this venture."
Foster agreed to, after he saw how dedicated the soldiers were about getting an education.
"The men only made $13 a month. Some of the soldiers gave their whole year's salary towards this venture," added Holland. "Many of them realized that, with them having family and such that, when they came back to Missouri, they would not have the opportunity to attend."
Foster tried to establish the school in St. Louis, but didn't have enough money. So, he moved west to Jefferson City. But, he wasn't the first person to try teaching blacks in the capital.
"There had been attempts to establish a black school by American missionary women before Foster got here, and they were run out of town," Holland noted. "And their property and school was destroyed."
Foster also encountered opposition.
First, he tried to hold classes in one of the white churches, but they wouldn't let him because the students were black. He tried to move the school into a black church, but they wouldn't let him because the teacher was white.
Foster finally received permission to use an abandoned school house on Hobo Hill, now the site of Simonsen Middle School. Classes started on Sept. 17, 1866, with only two students. Foster had another problem as well: the school historically was underfunded.
So much so that Lincoln representative James Milton Turner said notorious outlaw and Missouri native Jesse James gave money to the institute on two occasions.
"Students were asked to bring money to the sewing deparment and the seamstresses would be the ones to make the uniforms," said Carmen Beck, LU archivist. "The agricultural students produced a lot of the food. And some of the cooking students prepared the food for all of the students on campus."
Financial support finally came to Lincoln in 1891 when it became a land-grant institution under the Morrill Act, which provided additional federal funds to such schools.
Lincoln became a university in 1921, and blossomed into one of the nation's most prestigious black universities.
Like many schools across the nation, LU faced a big challenge in 1954 with racial integration.
"That was a crucial turning point," said Holland. "Not only the fact that it was made peaceful, but the whole idea of, 'Well, now that segregation is over, should the institute keep going or not?'"
But, LU kept going and today is the only historically-black university in Missouri.
Lincoln alumni include former professional football player Leo Lewis and disc jockey Joseph Deighton Gibson Jr., who performs under the name of Jack the Rapper.