A 120-year-old Warrensburg schoolhouse is still separate and not equal 

The signs help.

On the western edge of Warrensburg, Missouri, past Sunset Hill Cemetery and south of West North Street, new-looking markers point out the easy turns that lead to the Howard School.

Spotting the weather-beaten landmark isn't hard once you're on West Culton Street. Perched atop a slim tract of patchy grass that slopes into a wide gravel lot, the old building must be the place. Nothing else in sight is boarded up and covered on its southern face by flapping blue tarp. No other structure on this quiet residential strip remembers Reconstruction.

But the signs help. They demonstrate that Warrensburg at last knows the value of the second-oldest surviving black school in Missouri.

Still, even though the Howard School has immeasurable worth, the cost of making it postcard-ready — shoring up the sandstone foundation, preserving the rotted walls, leveling the buckled floor, adding a roof — will be many, many times what its backers have ever been able to bank.

Next door to the Howard School, inside the Jesus Saves Pentecostal Church where he preaches, Morris Collins sits at a table and considers the challenge ahead. His church bought the vacant Howard School in 1969 and held services there until the mid-1980s. He never attended Howard, but he is president and chairman of the Howard School Preservation Association. In front of him now are poster-board mock-ups of future museum exhibits: photocopies of aging Howard class pictures and graduation portraits. The material is fascinating, despite the low-budget presentation.

"We want to have listening stations, video, a place for people to tell their stories and for people to hear them," he says. "We've captured some of that but not nearly enough of it, where they actually tell their own stories."

At first, he says, others weren't so eager to examine the Howard School's story.

"In the past, it was as though people wanted to close the door on that history. Like segregation, the attitude was, let's forget it happened. We had to convince the public that it was a viable thing to do. And we've come a long way."

Getting onto the National Register of Historic Places took almost a decade — time spent generating excitement about the idea, then researching the history, then enlisting help with the application. Coaxing grant money now is harder than ever. And preventing the Howard School from falling further into decay becomes a more expensive prospect with every cold snap, rainstorm and heat wave.

If you stand outside long enough in this part of town — the west side, the section settled by African-Americans — you will see someone wave at Morris Collins.

Morris will wave back. Recognition, warmth, understanding — these things pass between the 62-year-old pastor, school-board president and retired art teacher and the people who know him.

Some of these people, the ones who honk their horns and slap the outside of their car doors when they roll by and see him on the street, will go to the annual Howard School fundraising barbecue in July. They will remember last summer's barbecue and last fall's fundraising banquet. He will thank them — again. And because every Lincoln penny pledged to the salvation of the Howard School counts, he will remind them to remind someone else to find the school's nondescript Web site and donate — a dollar, he'll say, even just a dollar.

So far, the group's largest single donation has been a 2003 check from the Warrensburg Rotary Club for $15,000, and the nonprofit's bank account hasn't held more than $20,000 at any one time. "When we get money," Collins says, "we spend it."

Volunteers spent the summer of 2005 taking apart an unsound 1948 addition to the school before a contractor, for safety reasons, finished the job over the next three years. Hauling away rotted wood and broken concrete and paying the contractor cost almost $10,000. That, Collins says, was Phase 1. Now that only the original 1888 building remains, the search is on for contractors to replace the roof and then work on the foundation and the floor. There will be estimates, permits, expenses.

Remember how Barack Obama raised money, Collins will tell supporters. There are 6 billion people in the world. If just a million of them gave just a dollar... .

The Howard School Preservation Association has about $8,000 right now. That's more than Warrensburg will budget in 2009 for its own citywide preservation efforts.

"We now have a preservation group, but they don't have a pot of money to dole out to private entities," says Barbara Carroll, Warrensburg's director of community development. Since the Warrensburg Historic Preservation Commission's revival in 2005 (an effort in the 1990s sputtered out before it could get going), the budget has been small — less than $10,000 a year — and has been devoted to studies and internal organization rather than awards or grants.

"When the Howard School started getting legs, five or six years ago, the city didn't have a historic preservation body," she says. "The city sent me as a representative to the Howard meetings, and we reviewed its grant applications. Whether we would offer money to it in the future if asked, I don't know."

In Warrensburg, though, things have a way of taking care of themselves. Carroll cites projects, such as an abuse shelter and the Kansas City-affiliated Warrensburg chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs, as examples of initiatives led privately and established without municipal funding.

"The Howard School is very grassroots," Carroll says. It has its place on the National Register, not because the city lent assistance, she explains, but because the foundation pursued the status.

"I think the city has always been excited that a group of citizens wants to do this," she says. "Down the road, tourism would be a nice ancillary benefit, but we're most interested in preserving architectural and cultural resources and increasing awareness in the community that we have these resources."

Hence, the signs.

State and federal funding for projects like the Howard School have dried up in recent years. Mark Miles, director of the State Historic Preservation Office, says Missouri is a model of how tax credits can motivate the redevelopment of historic properties — as long as those properties are for-profit enterprises.

"For example, loft conversions in Kansas City and around the state have made great use of historic rehabilitation tax credits," he says. In Missouri, that means a state tax break of 25 percent on top of a 20 percent federal cut. "But house museums and nonprofits that have no tax liability can't use them, and we don't have a funding mechanism to help privately held nonprofit rehab projects.

"It's going to be tricky," he says of the Howard School's rehab. "But I think any building can be renovated. It's a matter of money and finding people to do the work. We wish them well."

The project does look daunting, agrees Delia Gillis, director of the Africana studies program at the University of Central Missouri. "It's expensive, and it does make you wonder if we're wasting our time. But it's just really, really important. It's one of only two Freedmen's Bureau schools in the state that still stands. And it emerged from a diverse effort that included not just African-Americans but the Methodist church. Just for that, for the history of cooperation alone, it would be worth saving.

"We do these things piecemeal," Gillis continues, "because we don't fund these things in our society. Unless you have a Helzberg who can write a check, you have to work in phases with small grants. This is the only way I've seen things done. I've never been part of a project where someone writes one big check. In some ways, the process in which the school will be restored will parallel the way in which it was founded: collaboration and cooperation."

Near the southeast wall of the original building, a thin strand of pipe pokes up to hold a shallow basin and a still-gleaming metal hood — a drinking fountain, the kind that never had a sign over it reading "Colored" because no white students were there to need water of their own.

Collins estimates that finishing the next phase will cost about $250,000. His calculations are based on a 2004 feasibility study conducted by the Kansas City preservation consultants Susan Richards Johnson & Associates, Inc. That study alone cost about $15,000, about half of which came from a grant from Miles' office.

The study cautions, "The building in its present condition is stable but precarious ... a collapse of the structure could be sudden and without much warning. ... The building can be salvaged, but the construction sequence will be complicated."

Still, Collins believes his group can pay for finishing exterior work on the school by the end of this year. This summer, he says, it's all about the roof.

There's a pause in conversation as a starling dives into a hole up high in the old façade. All eyes move off the building and back to the street in time to see a man on a children's bicycle, his knees visible well above the handlebars, coast down the grade in front of the building.

"I know that boy," says Ernest Collins, Morris' third cousin and the foundation's treasurer.

The boy has a mustache. He looks about 30. The bike rider glances at the school and the people standing on its balding lawn, then aims the bicycle at a driveway down the street as the hill bottoms out. He steps off, straightens up, looks satisfied, and resumes his Saturday-morning duties outside the house. "I've seen that boy," Ernest says.

Ernest, still trim and imposing in his eighth decade but grandfatherly in his flat cap and iron-weight denim overalls, lets his soft, dry voice trail off before he can call the bike rider a foolish so-and-so.

Because he is in the presence of a reporter today or because he is always in the presence of the Lord, Ernest curbs his tongue. As in: "I could tell you some stories about that so-and-so." Maybe there were harsher words in his Air Force years, or when he worked as an airplane mechanic at Whiteman Air Force Base, or even as Warrensburg's first black city councilman. But probably not.

As Morris and Ernest Collins talk in front of a crumbling symbol of segregated education, people from their small town ease up and down Culton Street and wave without stopping, long since used to seeing the men and the disused building. In the 2000 U.S. Census, Warrensburg's population was 16,340, and about 7 percent of the community claimed African-American heritage. If rebuilding the school remains merely a local concern, it's going to take a lot of barbecues and a lot more than a dollar per person. And to keep the lights on after that, the Howard School will need to draw visitors and resources from all over.

Warrensburg had fewer signs in 1866, a decade after its incorporation. As many Missourians adjusted to the Confederate Army's loss, bandits and opportunists moved in, and authorities troubled themselves little with educating — or even recognizing — the area's black citizens.

At the November 1917 dedication of the city's Odd Fellows Hall, Maj. E.A. Nickerson recalled his introduction to the area:

"The political and racial condition of the place was in a state of civil chaos," he said (according to Ewing Cockrell's homey but authoritative 1918 History of Johnson County, Missouri). "The camp gangs that had followed in the wake of both armies lingered around and about the place ... robbing the people of their property and murdering strangers from other states who came to buy land and settle amongst us. ... They dominated the town in every way and by their criminal, brutal force made Warrensburg an unfit place for human habitation."

A year earlier, an aging Warrensburg settler named William Lowe told the Warrensburg Star-Journal what he found when he arrived from St. Louis after the war (a $12.50 ticket bought a 12-hour ride on a wood-burning train).

"I stopped the first night over in the west part of Old Town. I remember when I got up the next morning I saw a regular procession of Negroes going by and I asked the folks if the whole population were colored folks. They explained to me that there had been a soliders' camp in a field west of town. The soldiers had built a lot of huts for winter quarters and when they left these the Negroes took possession — that's how that section of Warrensburg came to be called 'nigger town' and it is the favorite Negro haunt yet."

Lowe added: "The first school house here was for colored people; it was built in 1867 by the Freedmen's Aid Society." According to Lowe, the Reese School for white students was built in 1868. Lowe built another white school, the Foster School, in 1870.

Cockrell's book spends more than a few words noting the particulars of the Reese and Foster schools, naming their teachers and the school-board members who hired them. But other than including Lowe's passing reference to it, that early chapter on Warrensburg fails to mention the school for blacks, the one named for Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who administered the funds of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Before the Civil War, in 1847, Missouri had outlawed education for black people. But 20 years later, the American Missionary Association, using funds raised by Warrensburg's black population — a few hundred people — and $800 from the Freedmen's Bureau, put up the county's first school at a cost of $1,001.90. (Between its founding in 1865 and its disbanding in 1870, the Freedmen's Bureau helped support more than 9,000 Freedmen's schools and their 247,000 students.)

Local histories only grudgingly acknowledge that the Reese School went up a year after Howard. The editor of the Warrensburg Standard wrote at the time, "It is a burning shame that our $13,000 school house should hang fire so long, and that the first school house ever completed in this town, should be accomplished through the energy and zeal of the colored people and their friends." Emphasis his. (His humiliation was presumably intensified when, because its original walls were defective, the Reese had to be rebuilt in 1879.)

In 1875, Missouri amended its constitution. The law mandated that any district with a certain number of black children (at first the number was 20, then eight) provide a school for them. But because the census was often controlled by people who had different ideas about how to spend state funds, undercounting the black population was more common than building new schools for black children.

By the mid-1880s, Warrensburg's black population had outgrown the original Howard School, which gave way in 1888 to the building that stands today.

The second Howard housed three classrooms, 32 feet by 24 feet, that were lined, even between the windows, by blackboards. It was a design following standards set by noted schoolroom planner Henry Barnard. The school cost $1,605, and this time the Warrensburg School District helped pay for the construction. The school continued to add rooms and grades until desegregation in 1955 — which altered or ended the careers of many black teachers, who couldn't get jobs in integrated schools.

"Some of our old folks believed in education," Ernest Collins says. "I liked school. I did. My brother hated it, but he graduated." He laughs. "My mother pushed it.

"Teachers, preachers, a doctor — they went to school here. I knew a lawyer. Got too smart for his own good, but that's all right. I went to school with a girl — we started out in the first grade — Sally. When I graduated, I think Sally was still in the seventh grade. She'd come to school religiously when school was starting, then wouldn't come back. She never did get enough credits to get past seventh grade. She'd come to school, and I'd say, 'Uh oh, we got her this time.' Oh, she'd be there. She'd go for a while. Then I kind of lost track of her."

"I always like to hear your stories," Morris tells Ernest.

"I put in 27 years with Toastmasters."

"I don't think a lot of the people today know the story because they don't hear it told," Morris says. "They don't know the background."

Before he moved to Warrensburg and transferred to Howard, where he would graduate with two other seniors in the class of 1947, Ernest attended the East Lynne School in Mt. Olive, a settlement about 12 miles northeast of Warrensburg. That school, built in 1931, was the last in the area to be built for blacks; it closed in 1955, the year after Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

"I grew up on the west end of town," Ernest says. "White kids, black kids all played together. We did everything together but go to school together. We'd fight, but before the day was over we'd play together again. We swam in the same swimming hole. Now, we didn't play with white girls." He laughs again.

After that relatively integrated upbringing, Ernest graduated from Howard in 1947 and joined the military, which President Truman would integrate a year later. During the two decades that followed, the G.I. Bill paid for him to take classes at Central Missouri State University and earn certification as a heavy-equipment mechanic, the vocation he continued after leaving the service.

For Morris, a generation later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement offered direction but not necessarily answers.

"I was angry," Morris says. "I didn't like being a teenager. I was going through the era when we didn't know who we were. We heard things that indicated that we weren't up to par. My parents did what Martin Luther King said to do: Don't start fights. Be yourself. Don't instigate.

"I can remember being 14 at the height of the civil rights movement, when the school I had to go to didn't want us, and my parents telling me to be quiet and not say anything. No one put his hands on me, but there was the intimidation of not being recognized as a person. It does something to you after a while. If you're not careful, you begin to believe it yourself."

Finally, a teacher gave him some simple advice: "Don't let anybody else define you."

In the four decades since it stopped being an all-black school, Howard was defined by utility, not historic value. For five years, it was a National Guard armory, then the library. An integrated Howard held classes from 1960 to 1965 before the district shuttered it again and auctioned the property. Jesus Saves nailed a cross atop the front gable when it took over the building in 1969, and the rickety wood remains there today, as distressed as the structure it overlooks.

After graduating from Central Missouri State University, Morris became the Warrensburg School District's first black teacher in 1969. Later, he was the district's first black school-board member and the first black president of the board. As with many teachers, Morris has a broader legacy in mind: teaching the value of education itself. For him, the Howard School is its own lesson.

"Seventy-four percent of the African-American kids in the Warrensburg School District right now are below the average of what they should be," he says. "In other words, they're failing.

"And then I see the ones who went to Howard and are still alive. And everyone I know who went there and left went on to make something of themselves. The more I found out about the history of the Howard School, the more I heard people talk about the effect it had on their lives, the more I sat up and wanted to know what went on there to make them want to make something of themselves."

The minister in Morris takes hold as he tells a story.

"Back in 1994," he says, "our church had a national convention in Kansas City, and east of downtown we took food and clothing to one of the projects. A lady who had been around for 30 years said, 'I've watched you do this for years, and they've gotten so used to people doing for them, and that's all they've ever known.' People doing things for them took their strength away. And so when we started this, I wanted African-Americans involved. There are whites in Warrensburg who would take this on. But is that what we want? To sit back once again and let someone else take control?"

No matter who's in charge, though, the effort will need more than an influx of cash. When people in Warrensburg want to pull off something like this, they can: Just across the road to the south of the school is Blind Boone Park, which hums with children at play. Once a blacks-only recreational spot, the park — named for blind ragtime pioneer John William Boone — had languished for years before Warrensburg resident Sandy Irle organized a volunteer group to rebuild it and establish it as a nonprofit. Where weeds once overgrew the land, an enormous sculpture of Boone, its empty eyes lifted to heaven, plays a curving, abstract keyboard and anchors what the park's Web site calls a "sensory walkway." Farther along, there's a "scent garden," a wind harp and a rope walkway for the blind. (The bronze signs include Braille writing and audio stations.) The Web site features a call for ideas for a "multi-use trail" alongside happy photos of Boy Scouts and civic-minded white people remaking the space as a flowered parade float of a place.

It's beautiful, and it all but mocks the stagnant Howard School, the park's neighbor, a block away.

Boone's house in Columbia (though he was raised in Warrensburg, the pianist migrated east for the promise of regular work), having secured its own place on the National Register and a grant from that city, awaits a face-lift, too — and seems likely to get one before the Howard School does.

A musical legacy is an easier sell than a museum dedicated to education's struggle against racism. Yet, Gillis points out, the park complements the school — it shows that its rebuilding is possible. "In June 1954, a month after Brown v. Board of Education, Blind Boone Park opened as a segregated park," she says. "Now the park is an example of how Warrensburg embraces its past and can have redemption. People from all races and backgrounds came together to rebuild a park designed to keep people apart."

And in a town of fewer than 20,000 people, where three other structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and community leaders have paid for a study to find more buildings to protect, the Howard School preservationists will raise money any way they can.

In the church, Morris disappears for a moment into a storage area next to the pulpit. Returning, he lays out an XXL T-shirt printed with smart blue lettering: "Howard School." Next to it, he puts down a brass Christmas-tree ornament commemorating the school. The foundation sold the ornament two years ago to raise money.

"We're not a fly-by-night operation," he says with a gentle chuckle.

Twenty-two years after Jesus Saves moved into its new building just behind Howard, and more than 10 years after the first stirring of interest in saving the school's structure, movement remains slow, but optimism is high. There's an African-American in the White House. There's the barbecue next month. The Web site is set up to accept donations. And there is the hope that someday, there will be a museum instead of a sign noting that this was where the Howard School once stood.

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