Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Black students living in West Plains, Missouri were educated at Lincoln School. After the high court declared segregation illegal, the school closed down. But now, a Black family has purchased the school with plans to renovate the building and turn it into a cultural center.
Crockett Oaks, Jr. is the last alumnus of Lincoln School still living in West Plains today. His father, the first in the line of “Crockett Oaks came to Missouri in the 1920s from Arkansas. A descendant of slaves, he ended up in Howell County looking for work.”
Decades later, Oaks Jr.’s son and daughter-in-law Crockett and Tonya Oaks III bought “the building from the City of West Plains,” earlier this year.
Amidst the restoration efforts currently underway at the school, the Oaks family spoke with ESSENCE about their motivations for buying the school and what they hope to accomplish.
Oaks Jr. says, “I am so proud of my son’s ability to bring attention to this cause. His vision for this place will bring so much value to the community. Lincoln School is worthy of preservation, its rich history should continue to serve as a source of remembrance for all.”
Oaks III, founder of Lincoln School Project, believes that “the community will be greatly impacted by the cultural exchange that will take place through the dialogue that will come about through its programming. We envisage that guest speakers will come from a variety of areas and interests to help shape our views on several worthy topics, not least racial reconciliation.”
“#WeAreLincolnSchool, has proven to be an appropriate hashtag; the community’s response to our efforts has not been a disappointment. This truly gives me the encouragement to invest my personal time and resources towards this project. It has taken on the form of a movement in our community,” Oaks III added.
“Although I did not grow up within this community, I have a deeper appreciation for it given the outpouring affection by the community,” Tonya Oaks and co-founder of Lincoln School Project stated. “The feedback that we have received gives us a clear signal of this project’s impact. Lincoln School reminds us of past wrongs, but most importantly, it provides us with a great opportunity to change the narrative.”
Overall, the Oaks want to ensure that the rich history of Black people in the Ozarks is not forgotten. As efforts to whitewash the past abound, saving the original school is more than just preserving family history. It’s also about ensuring that the true story of West Plains is told and ensuring that “history doesn’t repeat itself.”
“Lincoln School was founded through the lens of segregation,” Oaks III noted. “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.”
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