Missouri's Little Dixie African American History Tour

African American Schools in Saline County

In 1869, J. Milton Turner, a Black resident of Boonville, Missouri, was tasked by the Western Sanitary Commission and the American Missionary Association with funding from the Freedmen's Bureau to begin efforts to educate Black children in Missouri. Over 115,000 former slaves resided in the state at the time. Before the Civil War, few, if any, Black students were formally educated in Missouri. During the Reconstruction period, Missouri state law began to require local boards of education to establish and maintain schools for Blacks if at least 15 kids between the ages of five and 21 lived in the township.

Many prominent all-Black schools popped up in major cities, such as Lincoln High School in Kansas City and Lincoln-Hubbard in Sedalia, but in the rural areas, most Black students attended small, one- to two-room schoolhouses that were often named after Lincoln or Douglass, or were simply named African schools. These rural schools in Saline County followed the strict Jim Crow social structure and were often built in the segregated neighborhoods or on the outskirts of town. These small and underfunded buildings would educate multiple generations in the county, which covered towns like Marshall, Arrow Rock, Blackburn, Nelson, and Miami. The creation of these schools was often met with resistance from the white community, as funds were often misplaced or stolen and inadequate teachers were hired. The buildings were often subpar and paled in comparison to their white counterparts. Supplies were limited and usually handed down from the white school across town. Despite these setbacks, Black students and families continued to believe in the power of education.

Following the Civil War, Black students in Marshall were educated at the Lincoln School located off Jackson Street, which is Peyton Park today. It enrolled students from first to ninth grade. All students wishing to attend high school had to go to Lincoln-Hubbard in Sedalia, which was about a 60-mile roundtrip on rural, county roads. In Marshall, the all-Black school was largely kept in disrepair throughout its existence. By 1950, it was in desperate need of repairs and additions, as they were outgrowing the building. The school board was mandated to keep "separate but equal" facilities, and began plans to renovate and add an addition. In 1951, the new addition was completed. The Brown v. Board of Education decision would bring about changes, as schools were forced to desegregate. Black students were permitted to attend Marshall High School in the fall of 1954, after families lobbied for the change, with further plans for integration to occur in the 1955-6 school year. The school district was fully integrated in 1961, marked by the closing of the Lincoln School. The building was torn down, and today Peyton Memorial Park stands in its place, named after the last principle, Henry Peyton. 

Prominent Blacks in Saline County also advocated for Turner to help them establish a school in Arrow Rock. Many all-white boards of education, like Arrow Rock's, did not follow the new state law requiring a school for Blacks, and they "avoided" counting Black children among their residents to bypass organizing schools for them. A Mr. Wilhelm represented the board of educated and claimed they had been "defrauded" of the money meant to go to the Black school. Turner quickly disliked the man and found him to be untrustworthy and ignorant. He told the community to push Wilhelm to find the funds and build the school, or the state would get involved. Surprisingly enough, the funds were found to build the school. The community used Brown's Chapel Free Will Baptist Church from 1870-92, until the building was complete. In 1870, 66 students enrolled in the school, with a significant portion being those over the age of 20 who had been denied education previously. In 1892, the school was completed on a lot just outside the city limits of Arrow Rock, on Morgan and 3rd Street. The African Public School provided education for elementary grades and offered one year of high school. However, if one wanted education beyond that, they had to travel to either Sedalia or Boonville for the rest of high school. John Thomas Trigg was the first, and one of the most prominent, teachers at the school, as he worked there from 1889 to the 1920s. He was laid to rest in the Sappington African American Cemetery in an unmarked grave. The original African Public School building partially burned down in a fire in 1939, but was rebuilt in 1948. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Arrow Rock students began to attend the all-white school in town. Today, the school is a private residence.