Former students at all-Black school in Higginsville working to preserve history

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HIGGINSVILLE, Mo. — For almost 70 years from the post-Civil War period, to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, Lafayette County and the greater Higginsville, Missouri, area had one school for Black children.

It has sat vacant for years, and now a former student is leading an effort to restore and preserve its history.

“I learned to have joy and peace with people,” said Minnie Williams-Elmore, a former student at the Douglass School.

She returned to its front steps, reminiscing with her friends Wilbur Conway, Frederick Smith and Travis Benton.

“Great memories,” Benton said.

“I really enjoyed it,” Conway said. “Taught us back then the 3 R’s — reading, writing, arithmetic. We got our history and math, I felt pretty good about going to school here.”

Williams-Elmore says she came out of her shell back in the day.

“I learned to be able to talk to people, and be able to touch people’s lives and they touch mine, and that’s the way you make it in life,” she said.

Their school lives, and those of fellow Black students, started on those front steps.

“We didn’t know any different, really. We enjoyed life itself as kids,” Conway said.

Through eight grade, the Douglass School was the only option for Black children in Lafayette County.

“Many of our desks and books were hand-me-down types from the white schools,” Conway said.

“We were treated bad, but we didn’t know we were treated bad because we were taught to obey,” Benton adds.

For high school, they were bused to Lexington, Missouri.

“Segregation and integration wasn’t a part of our vocabulary at the time,” Conway said.

The Douglass School closed when the Brown versus Board of Education decision integrated classrooms in 1955.

After graduation, these former Douglass students weren’t welcomed everywhere.

“There was no place around that would hire Blacks like that, the only thing that was around was the military,” Benton, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, said.

He returned to Higginsville, and bought the Douglass School building in 1990.

Original desks and wood shop equipment are just some of the artifacts left in a building that’s now a shell of itself, sitting empty for decades.

Now, Benton and his family have launched a restoration effort, the Douglass School Project, to turn Douglass into a museum.

“It’s a part of history a lot of people need to know about,” Conway said.

The project hopes to restore and preserve that history.

“What was here, and how we were treated and how we lived and everything,” Benton said.

These four students, lead by Travis, are all 84 and older. Their final act, they say, is to tell the story of t his school.

“I hope that Travis can get more help, if I’m not here today or tomorrow, but I hope that he can keep on pursuing his dream that he’s trying to do,” Smith said.

To learn more about the Douglass School Project, and for the opportunity to donate to the effort, click here.

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