On a few previous occasions, I’ve written about my love and fascination with history.
Well, here’s another story.
Recently, I got the chance to visit the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Va. This museum examines the war from the multiple perspectives of the Union, Confederate and African-Americans who lived through it. You may be wondering why I am talking about a museum in Virginia, but it’s because they missed what I think is a very important Missouri story. I don’t think enough Missourians know this story either and they should.
In 1847, the Missouri Legislature outlawed education for blacks, stating, “No person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of Negroes or mulattos, in reading or writing, in this State.” When the war came to Missouri, many enslaved blacks ran away to take shelter with the Union army. Once blacks were allowed to enlist, many joined up and the white officers taught them to read and write.
In 1866, the soldiers of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Troops took up a collection to open a school for the newly freed blacks in Missouri. Richard Baxter Foster, who was a first lieutenant with the 62nd, became the first principal of Lincoln Institute.
The story is that the first classes were held in a dilapidated building. In the early days, Lincoln also held classes in the log cabin that was home to Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, another historic gem in Jefferson City that was founded before the war by a mix of people still held in slavery and free blacks. One of the early church members had worked to buy his freedom and then purchased the church for the congregation.
Lincoln became a state school in 1879, and obtained land grant status under the Morrill Act in 1890. Land grant schools came about to focus teaching on more practical areas such as agriculture, science, military science and engineering rather than classical liberal arts.
In 1921, Lincoln gained university status. During the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s while Missouri still practiced segregation, Lincoln University became known as “the black Harvard of the Midwest,” in part because then-president Nathan Young recruited top-notch professors who had been educated schools such as Harvard and Columbia, located in states that didn’t segregate their schools.
Today, Lincoln University honors its founders with a breath-taking sculpture sitting at the center of the campus in the Hilltop Campus Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Soldiers Memorial Plaza, created by Ed Dwight, captures the story of Lincoln and depicts the journey from soldiers to students. Two life-sized statues stand at the approach to the monument. The farthest wears a full pack, the next has dropped his weapon. A bas-relief on the side of the monument shows three soldiers heading towards “the future.” The next life-sized figure is reaching up to the full-sized solider on the top of the monument, who is reaching back to lend a hand. Finally, on top facing front, three life-sized soldiers hold books. It’s a powerful image that you need to see.
An interesting side story is that of Cpl. Logan Bennett, a life-long resident of Jefferson City. Mr. Bennett never attended Lincoln, but his daughter, Rosetta, graduated from the school. He is reported to have attended every Founders’ Day celebration in his uniform. A dormitory on campus bears his name and he is buried in the national cemetery on McCarty Street, just a few short blocks from campus.
Other treasures to be found on campus include an original Thomas Hart Benton mural. Benton captures the founding of the school with Abraham Lincoln looming large in the middle ground, holding the hand of a black man in tattered clothes. In the foreground, a young black woman teaches two young boys with a table of books in front of her. In the background, the mural depicts the vestiges of war. When you view the mural from back to front, you get the story of LU.
While you’re in the library, also check out a painting of the early presidents of LU, done by James D. Parks, PhD. Dr. Parks taught art at Lincoln.
For more of the history, click here.
By the way, before I left the museum that day, I suggested that they include Lincoln University of Missouri’s story in their collection. When I got home, I mailed the curator a copy of our Missouri Civil War brochure along with a nice letter.
Written by Lori Simms, the deputy marketing director for the Missouri Division of Tourism.