by Debbie Coleman-Topi
A group of modern history enthusiasts recently marked the role of a tiny, modest schoolhouse in educating the children of freed slaves during Missouri's mandated school segregation.
More than 100 supporters of the Banneker School restoration project attended an annual fundraising breakfast Monday morning, where they celebrated ongoing efforts to restore the modest site, constructed in 1885.
The one-room schoolhouse, one of the first located west of the Mississippi River, was responsible for literacy among early area African Americans.
Program leaders recounted the history of the school as an important local landmark of the civil rights movement and told how area enthusiasts have worked to preserve the site.
Banneker School Foundation leader Carla Barksdale told those who attended that nearby Park University students participated in an early work-study program by creating masonry bricks used in the building's construction.
In a fitting tribute, the 7:30 a.m. event was held at the university's Underground Distance Learning Center. Members of the South Boulevard Singers of Park Hill South School District provided live music at the event while Jeff Ehrlich, associate professor of healthcare administration at Park University, donned period clothing while portraying George Park, founder of Parkville.
“We've got such a rich history, you can actually reach out and touch it,” Barksdale told the group of the building at 31 W. 8th Street, Parkville.
Today, the schoolhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been named one of Missouri's Top 10 Most Endangered Historic Places. When the area outgrew the modest structure, a second, larger schoolhouse, Banneker II, was created at a different location.
Barksdale told those gathered that Lucille S. Douglass, a former teacher at Banneker II, decided the legacy of the first building was important enough to protect and she led a group to save the building during the 1980s.
In 1994, the group first purchased the then-dilapidated site and deeded the property to the Platte County Historical Society.
Douglass died in 2004, watching efforts unfold to create a museum at the site. In 2008, the group formed a non-profit organization, the Banneker School Foundation. The group's ongoing research has uncovered some surprises, including a diverse course of study, even at the first site, including music class and live performances.
Kiki Fane, vice chair of the Banneker School Foundation and Historic Site, said she “met with countless contractors who'd scratch their heads” before finding Grant Shifflett of G.S. Construction, who has restored many area buildings.
“He has the vision and experience and desire and passion,” she said.
Shifflett said the project has been one of discovery, including a stove pipe and other signs that the building probably was heated using a wood-burning stove.
In an interview following the program, board secretary Judy Shafe' said the school featured only crude elements, including benches, instead of school desks, and blackboard paint on top of plaster walls instead of blackboards. She said many area teachers have expressed interest in converting the site to a living museum, where modern students can experience education as did the school's early attendees.
Adrian Singletary, a history teacher in the Park Hill School District and member of the Banneker board, told the group that he's “very passionate” about the project.
To date, the massive restoration has cost more than $53,000 and resulted in a new split shake roof, tuck-pointing of exterior brick walls and interior stone walls, a new floor joist system and sub flooring. Windows and doors will be installed during the next few months, making the building “secure, weather-tight and structurally sound,” Barksdale said. Contributions collected as a result of the fundraiser were not yet available.
Lucille H. Douglass, daughter of the schoolhouse's original supporter, said her mother would be proud of the group's restoration progress.
“She'd be so amazed and grateful,” she said, adding that her mother lived a very busy and involved life. She said, “she was not one to linger.”