Morris Collins,Warrensburg, MO
Collins, a longtime public school art teacher and current UCM art
is president of the Howard School Preservation Association. He stands near the front door to
Howard School From the blog link below by
Howard School (Warrensburg, Missouri)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Historic Howard School)
|Location:||400 W. Culton St., Warrensburg, Missouri|
|Area:||less than one acre|
|Architect:||Newcomer, John; Lowe, William|
|Architectural style:||Late Victorian, three room T-shaped|
|Added to NRHP:||February 14, 2002|
The Howard School was built in 1888 and is the second-oldest surviving African American school in the state of Missouri. It was closed in 1955. The currently vacant building sits on Culton Street in Warrensburg, Missouri. The school was officially entered in the National Register of Historic Places on February 14, 2002.
The Howard School had its beginning in 1867, when Cynthia Ann Reed Briggs and the Rev. M. Henry Smith from the American Missionary Association purchased a Lot 14 in Rentch’s Addition in Warrensburg for the sum of $100.23. Funding for this lot and subsequent school building was accomplished with African American assistance alone. The new one-room, 32'x24' frame building cost $1,001.90 and when half-completed, accepted assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau in the amount of $800 to finish the structure. Grateful for the assistance, the school’s sponsors decided to call it Howard School, in honor of General Oliver O. Howard, Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. The Howard School was the newly established Warrensburg School District's first school building, opening in August, 1867. Rev. M. Henry Smith was named by the School Board to take charge of the city’s black schools and served as principal and teacher in the school. In 1871, Smith resigned his post to become the first President of Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri’s first African American institution of higher learning.
The current building came in to existence as a result of the success of the first Howard School. Attendance grew from an average daily attendance of 45 black students in 1867 to well over 100 students by 1870. After renting space in several buildings on the west side of town to help accommodate the exploding black student population, and prodding from the black community and a few vocal citizens, the Board of Education, on May 21, 1888, approved plans for the construction of a new school building consisting of three rooms, each the size of the first school building (32'x24'), to provide for the educational needs of Warrensburg’s black school children. The cost to the district was $1605. As more students successfully completed instruction in lower grades, demands for more advanced coursework increased. Two years of high school courses were added initially. In 1929, the eleventh grade was added, followed by the twelfth grade a little later. In May 1932, Lillian lnez Visor became the first student to receive a diploma for the four-year high school program. When the State Department of Education adopted new requirements for the accreditation and classification of school in 1948, Howard School could not meet the new higher standards. After failing twice to secure approval for a bond issue that would have upgraded the Howard School, The Warrensburg School Board voted to discontinue the school’s high school program. They agreed to transport any qualified African-American high school student to CC Hubbard High School located 28 miles to the east in Sedalia. The school continued solely as a grade school until its closing in 1955 as a result of the integration of schools in America.
The Howard School Preservation Association has developed a mission statement, filed Articles of Incorporation with the state of Missouri, and has been designated as a 501-C tax-exempt not-for-profit organization by the IRS (September 16, 2003). In addition, an Assessment and Feasibility Study was completed in July 2004 which provides a preservation plan that includes an analysis of the building and recommendations for restoration as well as long term maintenance. The Howard School Preservation Association was officially deeded the property on which the Howard School building is located on December 22, 2004.The Shredfred is written and managed by Matt Bird-Meyer
Group Tries To Save Historic Black School
African-Americans Attended Howard School Before IntegrationMarch 24, 2009
Submitted by Roger Dick, thanks!
WARRENSBURG, Mo. -- It's been vacant for decades, but one of the oldest schools for African-Americans in Missouri is still standing, and some people are fighting to save it. The Howard School along Culton Street in Warrensburg is a historic landmark. For decades, it was the place where blacks from places such as Holden, Knob Noster and surrounding communities went to school before integration."I came out of a one-room school. This was paradise when I got here, even though this was only three rooms here," said Ernest Collins, who was part of Howard's graduating class of 1947. Collins said the school, which was built in the late 1880s, produced lawyers, doctors, teachers and many other professionals. The school closed shortly after schools were integrated in the 1950s, and over the years it has served as a kindergarten and even a library. Now, the building has boarded-up windows and crumbling paint."I hate to see it like this. Although it was not the best then, but it sure didn't look like it looks now," Collins told KMBC's Marcus Moore. "I'd like to see us get it just like it was before."Jacob Derritt is with the Howard School Preservation Association, which wants to turn the crumbling school into a museum and cultural center.But the association needs financial help, as any work will cost tens of thousands of dollars."We're going to have to save as many pieces as we can and then build it back up," Derritt said. "We believe that one dollar will impact generations to come, and we just need for every American who can hear my voice to help preserve history. One bit at time.""Future generations can find out what you can do if you want to do it," Collins said.To learn more about the Howard School, visit howardschoolfoundation.org.
Copyright 2009 by KMBC.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Initially the school was under the ownership of the American Missionaries. In 1870, ownership transferred to the Warrensburg School District and maintained a first through twelfth grade school program until 1948 when the Howard School closed, and the District bused African American students to the Hubbard School in Sedalia, Missouri. After the Supreme Court decision that abolished racial segregation in schools, the Warrensburg school district integrated its schools in 1955 and used the Howard building as a kindergarten facility. The school district later sold the building to a church.
After the Civil War, in 1865, the Freedman's Bureau was established to help the former slaves of the United States get back on their feet. The Howard School was a product of the newly established Bureau. Oliver Otis Howard was the commissioner of the Bureau and worked to further the education of blacks. The school was named after him. The Howard School was built to educate the African-Americans of Warrensburg, Missouri, and the surrounding areas. The new school was built from 1867 to 1868. The 24 x 26 square foot building was built by Cameron Moore & Co. for $800. But the total cost for the one-room building came out to be a little over $1,000. At first, the school was only an elementary school, but a two-year high school was later added. It expanded over the years to a four-year high school. On January 21st, 1868, teachers were elected by the board of education. Some of the first teachers at the Howard School were: J.A. Griffith, J.M. Wilson, Myra J. Ridley, Annie Grover, and Mrs. B. Brown. The first principal of the school was the Reverend Henry Smith. Born in New York, Smith was a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio. He had both academic and theological degrees. Smith was sent to Warrensburg by the Congressional Church. Instead of just preaching, Smith was also a teacher at the Howard School. Although he was very successful here, he left to become the President of the Lincoln Institute (now university) in Jefferson City. The Lincoln Institute was a college founded by African-American Civil War Veterans. G.W. Swan was Smith's successor. The School had limited courses. Felice Hill Gaines taught English and sewing. She helped the students print their first newspaper. The newspaper was hand-printed and the local paper also helped. Olive E. Frear taught intermediate classes and home economics. Fred Frear taught ninth through the twelfth-grade shop for boys. Ernst Collins, who attended Howard School from 1943- 1947 said, "In the 40's, teachers came on a part-time basis to teach classes in art, band and vocal (music). They were dedicated teachers, but typing was not taught. For a time, Verlon Ewing ( a local musician and businessman) taught music after school. He was not paid, and I doubt that he had high school, but he was a genius when it came to music." Sterling White Sr., who attended Howard School from the fourth to the tenth grade said, "I was mad all the time I was in school, because of the way things were done. We were not allowed to mark on our desks, but, in the summer, whites traded their broken-down desks for ours. Our books were bought new, but whites replaced them with their raggedy books. We had no playground and had to play in the road." Leona Gray (now Williams-Mackey) walked four and a half miles to the Howard School. "We didn't know anything about buses in those days," she said. The school was under the ownership of the American Missionaries in in 1869. In 1879, the Howard School was under the ownership of the Warrensburg School District. It stayed as a first through twelfth-grade school for African Americans until 1948, when the school district decided the enrollment was too low. They said there were too few prepared teachers. The Howard School was closed, and the African American students were bused to the Hubbard School in Sedalia for school. In 1955, the schools were forced to integrate and the Howard School was used as a kindergarten. When the school district had no more use for the Howard school, they sold it to the Jesus Saves Pentecostal Church of God. This is when the cross was added. The Howard School is still standing on Culton Street in Warrensburg. Efforts are underway to renovate the Howard School, but the cost is $25,000. The School needs to be in the Register of National Historic Preservation for any funding from the government. It is thought to be the oldest surviving colored school started by the Freedman's Bureau. The school is in poor shape, and needs the funds. Until then, though, the Howard School is still a place of great importance and significance in the Warrensburg community.
BibliographyThis page was created by Lauren, Sarah, Jon, and Tom
Daily Star Journal Dates: 5/15/01, 5/17/33, 3/14/41, 8/28/00 (Mike Greife), and 5/9/36
Lucille D. Gress, Howard School
Dream Still Alive at Howard School
Ten years. It’ll be 10 years in November since I wrote about the Howard School in the Warrensburg Free Press. “The entire structure sags as if exhaling after 114 years of use and subsequent disuse,” I wrote in 2002. I’m not sure there’s much breath left. That’s why I reconnected with Morris Collins, president of the Howard School Preservation Association, to find out if preservation is still an option.
Every time Morris Collins walks into his church, Jesus Saves Pentecostal Church, he sees the tumble-down back of this old school. Remnants of a tarp are barely visible, revealing large open sections it once covered. Scrap pieces of wood cover portions of the back wall, and daylight streams into the building from all over.
But Mr. Collins remains optimistic.
“You have to persevere,” he said. “You have to.”
The school is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but that’s not the story. The story of Howard School is the embodiment of perseverance. Howard School is the second oldest remaining black school in Missouri. The well-documented history of the building serves as a painful history lesson in segregation, but it’s more of a testament to the power and uniting force of education.
It was built in 1888 and still sits at 328 W. Culton St. in Old Town Warrensburg, just across from Blind Boone Park, which was once segregated for black people.
Black families came together to raise part of the money necessary to build the one-room Howard School in 1867 – the first school in the newly formed Warrensburg district. Attendance escalated and a three-room building replaced the one-room school 21 years later.
The black community rallied in the face of segregation because they wanted an education. The Howard School Preservation Association rallied 10 years ago to save the old school with a plan to convert two of the original classrooms into a museum and cultural center.
Well, progress is slow.
The building is still in about the same shape it was 10 years ago. A back section of the school, which was added in the 1940s, was torn down. The church deeded the property to the association, which has since achieved nonprofit status. That opened up opportunities for state tax credits and grants, but these have yet to materialize.
Mostly, the group organizes annual barbecues and other fundraisers. Collins said they are a few barbecues away from having enough money to replace the roof.
“If we get a roof up and stop the rain from getting inside, then we can get inside and reconstruct the floor and hopefully stabilize the walls,” he said.
Collins said $250,000 would be a good starting point toward rehabilitation, and $1 million should make it a destination location for visitors to our town.
The building looks hopeless, but it’s encouraging to hear that the group isn’t giving up.
“The original dream is still alive,” Collins said.
The preservation group connected with a banker from Kansas City a couple of years ago to promote the school in the Kansas City area. The group recently connected with Travois, Inc., a Kansas City company that promotes American Indian housing and economic development.
“I don’t know where that might go,” Collins said. “We’re meeting with them possibly sometime in the coming month.”
How Travois fits with Howard School I’m eager to see. It appears that Plan B for Howard School is to convert the building into some type of living space, which is what happened to the C.C. Hubbard High School in Sedalia. Black students were bused to Hubbard after high school classes ceased at Howard School around 1948.
“Our goal is to turn this into a museum. That option (apartments) is on the table, though, because I’ve been approached with that idea. We could get the money just like that,” Collins said, snapping his fingers.
It would be a shame to see Howard School become an apartment building.
Howard School offers an important history lesson, one that speaks to the power of the human spirit and the ongoing struggle for social justice. We cannot lose sight of this lesson or we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
“It represents what this town, I think, represents,” Collins said. “Education has always held a big place in the community of Warrensburg. And so, in that same vein, the African Americans that settled here had the same focus. They could easily have let that go and they didn’t.”
For more information or to volunteer or make a donation, visit
The current Howard School Preservation Association board is: Morris Collins, Ernest Collins, Virdia Stevens, Ronelle Watts, Stevie Hardin, Robin Grice, Reshelle Rucker, Christa Collins, Jamie Levine-Jordan and junior board member Jaason Levine.
A 120-year-old Warrensburg schoolhouse is still separate and not equalBy Scott Wilson
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 isBlind 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.