The legacy of Lincoln Heights School in Wilkesboro was celebrated during an event with a full house at Rickards Chapel African American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Sunday afternoon.
The event was also the beginning of a campaign to restore the 94-year-old brick building, recently approved by the state of North Carolina for the National Register of Historic Places.
This protected status for the building still needs federal government approval, announced Dr. Alexander Erwin during the two-hour program.
Lincoln Heights School, for grades 1-11, was completed in 1924 and educated thousands of African-American students. It was the only school for black youths in Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany, Alexander, Surry and Yadkin counties for many years.
“Where would your family, your children and the community be without Lincoln Heights?” asked Erwin.
The school was funded through the Rosenwald Fund, which provided grants for 5,300 schools in the South for African American students.
Sixteen of those schools, including Lincoln Heights, were brick. There were six other Rosenwald schools built in Wilkes, but Lincoln Heights is the only one still standing.
“The other five were demolished and have fallen into decay. We cannot let Lincoln Heights fall into decay,” stressed Erwin.
The school cost $18,000 when it was built. The Rosenwald Fund provided $1,500 and the rest came from the community and the Wilkes County Schools.
The school was named Lincoln Heights by Ruben White, a member of the school board. He suggested the name “to encourage our children to reach the heights of Lincoln.”
The building could be used as a community center for youth where they could do their homework and also as a senior center.
“There are limitless possibilities,” said the Rev. Richard Watts, minister of Rickards Chapel and a recently retired Forsyth County principal.
Watts retired as principal of Atkins Academic and Technology High School, which was also originally a Rosenwald-funded school.
“They had a vision to keep the school alive and we should keep Lincoln Heights alive also,” stressed Watts.
Margie Howell, a 1952 graduate of Lincoln Heights high school, remembers her long bus ride each morning and afternoon. “It was 50 miles round trip,” said Howell. “I passed several white schools on my way to Lincoln Heights including Mount Pleasant, Ferguson and Wilkesboro.
“Children would leave at 5 a.m. in the morning and get back at 5 p.m. at night,” said Howell.
She remembers Elizabeth Grinton, her eighth-grade teacher, as a particularly motivating teacher, a comment repeated by several speakers.
“My mother died when I was in the eighth grade and Mrs. Grinton was a mentor and great friend through my life,” said Howell.
Her memories of lunch room meals of pimento cheese sandwiches, salmon patties and peanut butter sandwiches brought several comments from the crowd.
“Seeing my former classmates gives me joy,” exclaimed Paulette Turner, a 1962 graduate of Lincoln Heights High School and part of the largest graduating class.
She remembered playing in the Rhythm Band which led to her always loving music. “We always felt safe. There was plenty of love from our teachers,” said Turner.
“We joined everything…band, chorus and clubs because we got to travel for free. Our class was also part of the sit-in movements under Dr. King. We were members of the NAACP and wanted to make a difference,” said Turner.
She remembers one incident with three other classmates, including her cousin Floyd Barber. The four went to drug stores in North Wilkesboro to see if they could be served a meal at the lunch counter.
“One of the owners was very nice and said he would serve us, if the other three agreed,” said Turner.
Their venture into a local movie theatre was not so positive, however. “He dressed us down,” remembered Turner.
“Lincoln Heights shaped our lives,” said Turner. “If it wasn’t for Elizabeth Grinton and Fay Byrd, who fought to keep Lincoln Heights from being torn down in 1984, we would have lost it.
“Please support us now to keep Lincoln Heights open,” said Turner, a member of the Lincoln Heights Recreation Corp. who manage the school.
She encouraged the crowd to attend the meetings of the Lincoln Heights Recreation Corp. on the third Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at the school.
Ann Watkins, a 1958 graduate of Lincoln Heights High School and Floyd Barber, a 1962 graduate also spoke.
“Lincoln Heights needs you. It is the foundation for so many of us,” said Barber.
The program on Sunday was the sixth annual Wilkes Black Pioneers Program. Past honorees are Deneen Graham Kerns, Paul Robinson Jr., Elizabeth Grinton, Faye Hill Hairston, Leroy Harris, the Rev. William Rowe, Dr. Alexander Erwin, Catherine H. Barber, Pauline Whittington, Lady Sara Lou Harris Carter, the Rev. Richard Watts Jr., Bessie Harris, Luther Parks, Sam Dowell, Helena Barber, Felix Stevens, the Rev. Richard Harris II, Dr. John Walter Paisley, the Rev. Millard Harris, Robert Thomas, Ella Jean Williams, Jordan Harris, James Ray Harris Sr., School in Wilkes, Harrison Anderson, Carrie Ruth Harris, Joseph Thomas Redding, Margie Howell, Robert and Lester “Shorty” Wilfong, WATCO Cleaning-Ernest Coles and Marty Watkins, John Ander Harris, Rufus Wilborn, Glenda Denny Adams, Queen Blackwell, Hazel Chapman, Mary Johnson Crank, Brenda Adams Dobbins, Dr. Bobby N. Graham, Jean Walker Graham, Camie Dean Harris, Wilton Mitchell, Sylvia Robinson, Anne Watkins and Jane Wilborn.