Dream Still Alive at Howard School

The city of Warrensburg erected wayfinding signs some years ago, including signs directing people to 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.

Morris Collins, a longtime public school art teacher and current UCM art instructor, is president of the Howard School Preservation Association. He stands near the front door to Howard School.

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.

The back wall of Howard School reveals wide open sections. The workhorse for the preservation association's fundraisers, a large barbecue grill, is parked behind the school.

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 http://www.howardschoolfoundation.org/home/.

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.

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