*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
Although vitally important, housing isn’t enough to improve a community. As needed as Lincoln Gardens was, its very existence alone was insufficient to alleviate Baptisttown’s problems. Fortunately, Lincoln Gardens had a neighbor that was deeply invested in its success.
Directly across the street was Lincoln High School at 635 Lincoln Avenue. Built in 1927-1928, it “was the first new school in Evansville built for the black minority community. The school cost $275,000 to build. The school included twenty-two classrooms, a gymnasium, auditorium, sewing room, home economics kitchen, study hall, and manual training center. However, Lincoln didn’t have a cafeteria. The library had no books and the board refused to allocate money for that purpose. To stock the library, Mrs. Alberta K. McFarland Stevenson, Lincoln’s first librarian, went door to door collecting books and money donations. Classes were first begun in 1928. It was a K-12 school. Since Lincoln was the only black high school for miles around, black students from Mt. Vernon, Rockport, Newburgh, and Grandview were bussed to Evansville to attend Lincoln. In 1928, the enrollment was over 300” (i).
Granted, Lincoln was a segregated school, and clearly it wasn’t supported financially as well as non-black schools. (This librarian author is particularly incensed about not allocating money to purchase materials for the library!) What it did have was pride. It had been in operation for about 10 years when Lincoln Gardens was built, and the African American community loved and supported the school. The school had dedicated and forward-thinking teachers and administrators, one of whom was then principal W.E. Best. Dr. William Ebenezer Best (1884-1959), was the first principal of Lincoln School, 1928 to 1951. According to his obituary, Best joined the local school system in 1913 and was formerly principal of Douglass High School. He graduated from Indiana State University, earned a masters from Indiana University, and was granted an honorary doctorate from Wilberforce University.
Best initially “conceived the plan of using Lincoln Gardens as the spark to ignite interest of his people in improved living conditions. Three-fourths of the city’s Negro population of 6,500 lived in the slum area of Baptisttown prior to inauguration of the better housing project” (ii). The first manifestation of this idea was seen at Lincoln’s 1938 graduation ceremony. The theme of the commencement was Lincoln Gardens as a stepping-stone to a better future. In addition to the main speaker, four student speakers discussed “Housing as Related to Citizenship.” They included:
- “What Constitutes a Housing Problem?” by Hazel Gracey
- “The Federal Government and Housing” by Sarah Crutcher
- “Lincoln Gardens: A Contribution to Good Citizenship” by Stephen Wells
- “Making Lincoln Gardens a Success” by Margaret Bass (iii).
In the fall this idea was incorporated into a complete 16-unit curriculum taught at Lincoln. Each unit was taught as part of some related class already established in the curriculum. Related classes were in the social sciences, health, home economics, industrial arts, science, mathematics, and bookkeeping. There was a plan underway to get permission to use one apartment for demonstration purposes. The foundation was to be laid in the 8th grade social science class, which included “material about early housing attempts and traces the awakening of public interest in housing through modern surveys and legislation. Economic and social aspects of large-scale housing are studied somewhat in detail.” Practical lessons covered studying the relationship between sanitary facilities and possible quarantines, how to maintain a clean and orderly household, basic electricity issues like changing fuses, etc., how to do basic plumbing like shutting off water and fixing leaks, handyman chores, and basic “scientific principles incorporated in the apartment units. This [included] mechanical refrigeration, construction features, heating, and ventilating. …We are attempting to make a practical application of classroom work, and we feel that this course of study will help tenants get the most from the use of their new apartments” (iv). If this seems like very basic knowledge that should already be known, take another look at the housing that some Lincoln Gardens’ residents had lived in previously. If this was the only sort of housing you and your family had ever known, how could you know anything about efficient heating? Indoor plumbing? Cleaning your windows?
Best also intended this as “a challenge to the Lincoln faculty, to raise living standards of Evansville’s Negro people to a much higher plane by inculcating permanent ideals into the coming generation.” What might be considered the capstone classes were taught in two 12th grade “American Problems” classes, which included dealing with community relationships. Evidently the then new educational theory of learning by doing met with approval. “An outline of the 17 study units of the new course on housing, built around every-day living problems and largely demonstrated right in the Gardens, has been released throughout the country by the U.S. Housing authority. The release quotes an Indiana University professor who expressed the possibility that the course may be incorporated in the curricula of all public schools.” The article also indicated that a U.S. Department of the Interior representative was expected to visit soon “to designate an apartment of Lincoln Gardens for use of the school in teaching the new course” (v).
Another example of the close connection between the school and the community is this row of houses directly across Lincoln Avenue from the school. Many of these were owned by Lincoln faculty. From the left are Alfred (taught Latin, science, and music at Lincoln for 37 years) and Phoebe Porter’s house, Thomas (Lincoln faculty and coach) and Pauline Cheeks’ house, Boyd Henderson’s house, William (Lincoln principal) and Helen Best’s house, and Raymond (dentist and Lincoln Gardens administrator) and Bessie King’s house.
Our requiem for Baptisttown ends here, with the twin pillars of housing and education serving to revitalize the community. Forward strides have been made, but the struggle for quality housing and quality education for everyone continues.
- (i): Lincoln School webpage—About Us: History
- (ii): The Evansville Argus, October 8, 1938, p. 6.
- (iii): Evansville Press, June 10, 1938, p. 18.
- (iv): Evansville Press, July 4, 1938, p. 3.
- (v): The Evansville Argus, October 8, 1938, p. 6.