A Time of Transitions
May 17, 1954, marked the beginning of the end of racial segregation in the public school system with the landmark United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
Since the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, African American children in Marshall had been educated at the Lincoln School on Jackson Street -- now the site of Peyton Park, named for the school's last principal, Henry Peyton. Secondary school students were bused to the nearest segregated high school in Sedalia, in neighboring Pettis County.
In the early 1950s, plans for improvements to the Lincoln School were implemented in an effort by the Marshall Board of Education to provide "separate but equal" facilities to all children. "The History of Saline County," published in 1967 by the Saline County Historical Society, recounted that architects Marshall & Brown were employed in December of 1950 "to draw plans for an addition to Lincoln school to consist of an auditorium, gymnasium, home economics rooms, shop and lunch facilities ... to provide junior high school and offerings equal to those offered white children."
The 60-foot-by-60-foot square addition was completed in December 1951, at a total cost of $77,149. Lincoln School Principal Henry Peyton and Superintendent of Marshall Public Schools A.H. Bueker were photographed standing in front of the new addition by the Daily Democrat-News. The school now offered classes for grades 1-9, but the school district continued to bus African American students in grades 10-12 to C.C. Hubbard High School in Sedalia.
Following the completion of the Lincoln School addition, the school board began to focus on improvements needed throughout the rest of the school district. According to a Citizens Committee report to the Board of Education, new buildings and additions would be necessary in order to provide "1. Public kindergartens, 2. Hot lunch program, 3. Adequate class room space in elementary schools, 4. Extensive improvements at the Junior-Senior High School." At this time, the four elementary schools for white students offered classes from first through sixth grade, and the Marshall Junior-Senior High School -- now Bueker Middle School -- accommodated students in grades seven thought 12. A survey was made by architects Marshall & Brown in 1953 for the proposed building program, and in February 1954, Marshall citizens voted to pass a bond issue in the amount of $850,000 to finance improvements for the school district.
Shortly afterward, the Brown v. Board of Education case would bring about historic changes in Marshall's public schools.
The Supreme Court decision declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, as Chief Justice Earl Warren announced, "We conclude unanimously that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." However, the ruling did not mandate how or when integration was to occur, so school districts nationwide were faced with many questions and challenges regarding the implementation of desegregation.
On July 1, 1954, Marshall's Daily Democrat-News ran an article titled "Schools Can Wait On Segregation" in which Missouri's Attorney General John M. Dalton announced that "school districts may at the present time permit white and colored children to attend the same schools. However, in view of the fact that the supreme court of the United States has restored these cases to the docket for further argument with regard to the formulation of final decrees, and has recognized the complexities of the problems, the wide applicability of these decisions and the existence of a great variety of local conditions, we do not rule herein as to whether school districts must integrate immediately or as to the method of which or by what date such integration must be completed."
The History of Saline County (1967) reported the decisions made in 1954 by the Marshall Board of Education which, at that time, was presided over by Marshall attorney A. Lamkin James:
July (1954). Integration discussed in view of the Supreme Court decision barring segregation. Decision was made to continue transporting high school pupils, grades 10-12, to Sedalia, and maintain grades 1-9 at Lincoln school.
August (1954). In response to specific request for immediate integration in grades 10-12, the board of education changed its earlier decision. Students were given a choice of continuing their education in Sedalia or entering Marshall High School. Twelve Lincoln students, mostly sophomores, entered Marshall High School.
In an effort to clarify the school board's decisions to the community, the following statement was published in the Daily Democrat-News on the first day of school in Marshall, Sept. 2, 1954:
School Board Statement on Non-Segregation
Board Announces Its Policy on This Subject
The following statement on non-segregation in the public schools of Marshall was issued today by the board of education.
Upon their request, the Board of Education of the Marshall School District has accepted for admission to Marshall High School Negro students.
The Board, in its previous discussions of the many problems involved, had decided to make necessary changes at the beginning of the school year 1955-56, and to study the problems this year to more smoothly and effectively install the new program.
Since this constitutes a historical change, the Board feels this public statement of its decision and policy should be made.
The Supreme Court of the United States, by its opinion handed down last Spring, abolished the principle of segregation. At the time the law was changed, our contracts had already been made with teachers for the 1954-55 school year. Arrangements had already been completed with the Sedalia school system to take care of the approximately twenty-five High School students who had been attending school at Sedalia. The program for the 1954-55 school year was practically established.
Our more important problem, other than the natural incidents of integration, concerned our overcrowded classrooms, which will be relieved by the building program which should be largely completed by the school year 1955-56. We felt, therefore, that it would be better for the children of both races if we continued with the program already outlined for the school year 1954-55 and complete the integration problem the following year.
After the Supreme Court opinion, however, the Board recognized the fact that some Negro student or students might request admission, and it was felt not wise to precipitate any contest that would likely lead to ill feeling; that since segregation had been abolished, in effect, that if Negro students insisted upon entering High School this Fall that an effort should be made to try to get their cooperation in granting us a year's time to work the situation out; that if such effort failed it was preferable to accept such student or students rather than occasion ill will and discontent.
Since the Board has been compelled to take action, it has accordingly agreed to admit the children who have sought admission. The Board of Education, however, sincerely feels that it will be better for all to make the major integration into the schools next year, and it is hoped that cooperation in this respect will be given by a large number of the parents so that integration can be had in accordance with the manner in which the Board feels is most advisable.
The Board has decided, however, that the above policy shall apply to only Grades 10, 11 and 12; that integration of any students into lesser grades is impractical before the school year 1955-56, because of the present overcrowded conditions and building program.
BOARD OF EDUCATION
Lamkin James, President
Mrs. R.C. Haynes, vice-president
Mrs. J.W. McClure, secretary
G. Donald Huff, treasurer
H.H. Harris, Jr.
Superintendent A.H. Bueker reported a total enrollment of 1,473 students in the Marshall School District in 1954. Students at the Junior-Senior High totaled 652 and included the 12 African Americans who were the first to ever attend Marshall High School. The number of Marshall students enrolled in C.C. Hubbard High School in Sedalia was not reported. That year 110 students in grades 1-9 enrolled in Lincoln School, and the enrollment at the other elementary schools were 216 at Benton, 147 at Eastwood, 170 at Northwest, and 178 at Southeast.
Over the next seven years, the process of integration would continue in Marshall along with the planned building program. Before the 1955-1956 school year began, the Marshall school board announced that "full integration in grades 7-12" was approved and the busing of students to Sedalia's segregated high school was discontinued. Finally, in 1961, with the closing of the Lincoln School, "complete integration was effected with equal facilities and opportunities for all."
The early 1950s were a time of transitions for the citizens of Marshall, as 1954 marked the beginning of the end of racial segregation in America.
History of Saline County, Saline County Historical Society, Marshall, Missouri, 1967, pages 502-503
Daily Democrat-News, Marshall, Missouri, (microfilm): July 1, 1954, "Schools Can Wait On Segregation;" September 2, 1954, "School Board Statement on Non-Segregation;" September 4, 1954, "Marshall Schools Enroll 1473 by End of Week."
This article first appeared in the Marshall Writers' Guild booklet, The Early "50s (2012).