Researched in 1976
by Idella J. Childs, Class of 1921
A little more than a decade ago, while making a study of Negroes holding Ph.D. degrees, Dr. Horace Mann Bond was struck by the fact that a disproportionate number of these persons had family roots in Perry County, Alabama. Further study of their backgrounds led Dr. Bond to conclude that Lincoln Normal School, located in Marion, in Perry County, was the decisive factor in the unusual number of doctors of philosophy as well as other records of higher achievement on the part of Negroes who came from this predominately rural, black, impoverished and culturally deprived county in the very "Heart of Dixie". Another illustration of the school's influence was revealed at the twenty-fifth reunion of the Lincoln Class of 1943, when the assembled graduates discovered that all of their children who were old enough were either attending college or had completed four years with education at an institution of higher learning.
How did this powerful little school with its far-reaching influence develop in an area in which racism flourished and hostility to Negro education prevailed? Stories of the hunger for learning on the part of the Freedmen following the Civil War and the dedication of their northern teachers are legend. Without question, it was these two ingredients that built Lincoln Normal School and kept it alive and active for over a hundred years.
A crippled Union soldier left behind during the Civil War started to teach the black children around him. This kindled the fire that was smothering in the hearts of the ex-slaves and a group of them came together on July 17, 1867, formed and incorporated "The Lincoln School of Marion;" their petition for incorporation reads as follows:
"The true intent and meaning of this declaration being, that although we, for purposes of convenience, associate ourselves into a corporation, ...every colored man and child in Marion is equally interested in the objects of our association ... and we expect to obtain the property which we shall acquire from them principally, and for their benefit."
The original trustees, only recently released from slavery, were James Childs, Alexander H. Curtis, Nicholas Dale, John Freeman, David Harris, Thomas Lee, Nathan Levern, Ivey Pharish, and Thomas Speed. They acquired a lot in the west part of town and a small building for the school, but found it difficult to recruit and pay teachers. Consequently, on September 10, 1868, the trustees sought the aid of and entered into an agreement with the American Missionary Association (A.M.A.), an auxiliary of the congregational churches. The building and grounds were released to the Association without charge for a period of ten years. In return, the Association was to keep the building in repair, pay teachers and maintain a school for at least seven months each year. The trustees promised "to induce colored citizens of Marion to assist in the maintenance of said school." It was specified that the school house was to be "used in such a manner as to afford the means of education to the largest practicable number of applicants, preference being given to those preparing to teach."
The A.M.A. bought an old plantation house and farm nearby. This plantation house, which at one time had been headquarters of the local Ku Klux Klan, was remodeled and made into a teachers home. The name given it was "Forest Home."
The Rev. Mr. Steward from Ohio was the first principal and also the first minister of the First Congregational Church of Marion, which was organized in the school in 1869. With him came several other teachers. The school was growing so large that in 1874, the AMA asked the State of Alabama to take over the normal department, but it kept the primary department. In 1870, the new Congregational Church was built in its present location and later its members built a little one-room primary school next to it where the primary department was located. The minister and teachers of the primary school continued to live in Forest Home.
The State sent Mr. G. N. Cord to become principal of this normal school. Although run by the State, it retained its original name. Four years later, a Mr. Patterson came to Marion from Greensboro, Alabama, to become principal of the school. William Burns Patterson was born of humble parentage in Tullibody, Scotland. As a boy, he read much of Livingston's work in Africa. He drifted to America. From Mobile he came to Demopolis, Alabama, and worked on a dredging crew on the Black Warrior River. He came to Hale County and worked with a Negro ditching crew. He began his educational work by teaching them at lunch hour. Later he started a Negro school in a log cabin at Hopewell. In 1871, he moved his school site to Greensboro and established "Tullibody Academy." In 1878, he moved to Marion to become principal of Lincoln Normal School. In 1879, Mr. Patterson bought an old plantation house and five acres of land, tore down the old three-room school and built a new school on the five acres. He used the farm-house for himself and his teachers to live in. It was called "Patterson's Plantation Home for Teachers."
For thirteen years the two divisions of Lincoln Normal School worked very harmoniously together. Then in 1887, an incendiary fire burned down Mr. Patterson's school, so the State School and Mr. Patterson were moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where it became State Normal School, now known as Alabama State University.
The people of Marion prevailed upon A.M.A. to give them again a school that would meet the needs of the local residents and surrounding area. The A.M.A. then bought the Patterson Home and the five acres. It fitted up the large rooms in the house with boxes and benches and resumed the normal school work. It also fitted up the old barn with blackboards and turned it into classrooms. The school continued in this plant for nine years, growing larger and poorer.
The A.M.A. was finding it difficult to finance its vast educational system through the South and Lincoln presented particularly distressing problems, although good work was done under difficult conditions. That the school did not die resulted from the leadership of Miss Mary Elizabeth Phillips and the determination of Marion parents and students. Miss Phillips, a Yankee who had been teaching at Talladega College, was sent by the A.M.A. to Lincoln as its sixth principal in 1896. She found 150 students crowded into the small house. When she died in 1927 after years of hard work, there was 26 teachers and more than 596 students enrolled from kindergarten through twelfth grade. There was a spacious campus, a 40 acre farm, two large academic buildings, three dormitories, a domestic science-teachers' home building, a shop, a laundry, a small gymnasium, a barn and old plantation mansion. All this had not been easily accomplished.
Mary E. Phillips was born of Scottish parents near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was a graduate of Washington and Jefferson College and began teaching at the age of sixteen, but continued studying during the summers at Chataugua, New York. It was at one of these summer sessions that she met Dr. Beard, President of the A.M.A. He was always on the look-out for good teachers for the American Missionary Association Schools. He sent her to Talladega College.
The school at Marion was in such a run-down condition that only a person willing to make every sacrifice could save it. Dr. Beard thought of the ambitious young lady he had sent to Talladega. He asked her if she would give up her position and come to the rescue of a dying secondary school. The challenge of the work so appealed to her that she finally accepted.
The first year was one of the great hardships for both teachers and pupils, but the teachers had the true missionary spirit and the students were eager to learn. Yet at the end of the year, the New York office sent word that they would have to close the school. Since Lincoln was one of those with the poorest plant and would require the largest expenditure to make it efficient, it was decided that it must be abandoned. However, the Negro people of Marion, determined that their children would not grow up in ignorance, assembled in the Congregational Church and, out of meager resources, pledged $1,300 to pay outstanding debts and the school children pledged to raise $100. The teachers agreed to return without salaries when told they would not be allowed to starve. One parent promised a supply of eggs, another milk, another vegetables, and others pledged meat, flour and potatoes. Realizing the determination of the people, the AMA, of course, could not refuse do its best for the school.
Miss Phillips telegrammed the $1,400 pledge to the A.M.A.'s New York office and took her teachers to Forest Home to await results. While waiting, the teachers wrote many letters to northern friends, heaved them in a chair, knelt around the chair and prayed that their appeal would bring results. By this time, many students and parents had gathered in the courtyard. At last the telegram came saying Lincoln would continue. The boys rushed to raise the flag and ring the school bell and the whole neighborhood joined in the celebration.
The pledge money was paid. Unfortunately, some of the children were not able to enroll at the beginning of the term. Many of those who had redeemed their pledges by chopping cotton had to return to the fields to pick cotton in order to pay their tuition and buy books. The school grew rapidly. The old Patterson Home was crowded. The community, students, and teachers again met and raised $1,000 which Miss Phillips sent to New York where it was matched. She was told to go on with her plans. She bought the cornfield in front of the Patterson Home and in 1902 began Livingston Hall, a fine brick structure. When less than half finished, the workmen struck for higher wages. There were no funds. The principal was absent for several days. When she returned, she called the students together and said, "Our new building is less than half finished, but we have no workers. In the last few days I have learned to lay bricks. If you will help, we can learn our lessons while mixing cement and handling the trowel. I will be your teacher, if you will construct your own building." The "line of demarcation" showing the point at which experience gave way to inexperience, and a woman teacher in 1902 taught masonry, was visible until the building was demolished in 1972.
In 1904, Hope Cottage was built from timber the boys cut to be used as a girls' dormitory along with the old Patterson Home. The boys cut more timber from the school property and remodeled the old barn into a boys' dormitory.Miss Phillips' father died in 1905 and with the money she received from the estate, she added a new front to the Patterson Home so the girls would have a modern dormitory called Phillips Hall.
In 1908, the teachers and students raised another thousand dollars which was sent to the New York office of the A.M.A. where it was matched. That summer, Douglass Hall, a boys dormitory was built by the boys themselves with the help of Charles Davis, a graduate of Lincoln.
In 1909, five hundred dollars was sent to the A.M.A. to go with a thousand dollars that Mr. Van Wagenen had sent Miss Phillips. This elementary building was named for Mr. Van Wagenen. Ten years later in 1919, two large rooms were added for kindergarten and primary grades. Electricity was also installed on the campus.
At a Lincoln's Day Chapel service in 1922, Miss Phillips raised four thousand dollars which was sent to New York to be matched for a new building. It was named for Rev. and Mrs. Woolworth who gave one thousand dollars. This was a science and home economics building with quarters for some teachers.
In December, 1922, Miss Phillips became Mrs. Cloris Leonder Thompson. All through the years, the school had been growing. Mrs. Thompson added a junior college during the 1926-27 school term, and several of the graduates returned for another year of work. After her death, the junior college year was discontinued.
Phillips Hall was overcrowded now with girls, so during the summer of 1926, Ranny Hall was built for high school girls. In September when Mrs. Thompson returned to Lincoln Normal, she was quite happy with the new building. Several times she was heard to remark that her next project would be to landscape the campus and work toward a new auditorium. A sever illness overtook her during the winter of 1926-27 and on March 2, 1927 she went to join her Master.
On the Sunday after her death, several of the alumni gathered on the campus and planned a memorial--an auditorium. A fund was started by the alumni, with both black and white contributing.
Phillips Memorial Auditorium was dedicated May 30, 1939 in the presence of many students, alumni, teachers, and friends. Little Jean Childs unveiled the bronze plaque and Mrs. Phillips-Thompson's portrait. The Rev. Fred Brownlee, Secretary of the A.M.A., conducted the dedication service. A beautiful tribute was finally paid to a great woman.
Miss Phillips built a beautiful school, maintaining high educational and moral standards. In her own words--"The purpose of the faculty is to make the school so thorough in its instruction and so whole-some in its discipline that it shall be worthy of the confidence of parents who desire for their children a sound, Christian character and trained Christian workers, in fulfillment of the school motto: 'Our School for Christ.'"
In all, Mrs. Phillips-Thompson's teaching years were fifty-three, thirty-nine of which were spent in the service of the American Missionary Association in Alabama. As graduates do, they have scattered to the four quarters of the country. You will find them in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Fort Wayne, Los Angeles and all of the other leading towns and cities in the US. And when you meet them, you will meet men and women known by their Christian virtues. Such are the dividends of a life investment.
In them she still lives. In her memory they and those who come after them will never forget Lincoln Normal School. In her honor will make her visions of the future. "Good enough" was never one of her mottos. Frequently she said during her last years, "Whenever I can no longer help Lincoln Normal grow and improve, I want to give up." That time never came. She dreamed and planned and worked until within two weeks of her death.
Her brother, Mr. J. Lloyd Phillips became the next principal of Lincoln School. His term was short. He became ill and died shortly after school opened in the fall of 1927. He was succeeded by Miss Ester Nichol. A larger percentage of black teachers were sent from the North. The previous colored teachers were local. Then came the Depression. The attendance dropped, the boarding department was closed in 1932 and the school saw hard times again. The PTA was organized and put to work to keep the school open.
Much of the local revenue had come from the sale of old clothes that were sent in barrels from the Congregational Churches in the North. Every Saturday morning people could be seen from miles around in wagons or walking, going to the "storeroom" to purchase clothes, shoes and household linens. Some had money, but many carried farm products to exchange for clothing for this family. Without this help many would not have had sufficient clothing to attend school. This source of income was severely affected by World War I when clothes were sent to Europe and later by the Depression.
Miss Ruth A. Morton became principal in 1935. She introduced a health program with a trained nurse heading a school clinic. The agricultural department was reorganized; buildings and equipment were improved. Work was started on the Phillips Memorial Auditorium. Tuition was reduced from $25.00 to $9.00 per year.
Rev. W. Adelbert Redfield came when Miss Morton left to work in the New York office in 1937. He was interested in all the people--in schools and communities. He organized community centers, and interested students in the cooperative movement. He looked forward to the day when a cooperative group would be organized in each of the county sections. All who came in contact with Mr. Redfield will always remember his eagerness to help solve any problems at school or in community. This caused "local" complaints to be made to the A.M.A. concerning his activities. As a result, the A.M.A. decided to terminate his contract. The people met again in the Congregational Church and demanded that he continue to serve here. Fearing racial trouble, the A.M.A. replaced him with Mr. Fred Gamble in 1938.
Mr. Gamble remained until 1943. He was able to do quite a bit for the school and community. Like Mr. Redfield, he created much interest in cooperatives. The tuition was reduced to $4.50 per year. Community groups were active in the discussion of health, transportation and cooperation in a hot lunch program. The belfry was removed from Livingston Hall, the building renovated and painted inside, an electric bell installed and the campus beautified.
The students assumed more and more leadership in campus matters, and the curriculum was revised to more adequately meet the needs of the students. The famous "Little Chorus" was organized by Miss Ollie J. Williams who, with the assistance of Mrs. Fran Thomas, toured many Northern States.
Mr. Gamble was the last white principal. In 1943, the Perry County Board of Education began to cooperate with the A.M.A. in providing some of the financial support for the school. This meant that the white members of the faculty had to go. Negroes had served along with whites on the faculty for decades. Even Miss Grace Newell who came in 1908 as the Matron of Douglass Hall, the boy's dormitory, and taught math and music for 35 years, had to go.
When school opened in September of 1943, the Rev. E. A. Smith, a local minister, became the first black principal. He and his all black staff began the transitional period of about ten years during which Lincoln gradually went from a private to a public school. The A.M.A. continued to own the buildings until 1960 when they were sold to the State of Alabama. The school was used during the summers of the middle nineteen-forties as a summer camp for the Alabama-Mississippi Conference of the Congregational Church. A swimming pool was constructed in the Forest Home grove. Local churches took part in "Camp Bessie McDowell" activities.
From 1945-46 Mr. Ralph Martin served as principal. He organized a farmers cooperative which helped the farmers very much.
In 1947, Mr. Charles Fancher (now Dr. Fancher), an ambitious young man just home from the Army, became the next principal. He served well until 1955. During his administration the school he became a member of the Southern Association of Secondary Schools.
Mr. John H. Dickerson was principal from 1955 until 1970 when, as a part of the integration process in Marion and Perry County, Lincoln School was formally closed in May, 1970, marking an end to a great school. The 100th Anniversary of Lincoln School was celebrated May 7, 1967.
© 2008 Marion Chapter, Lincolnite Club, Inc.