Monday, January 16, 2017

Remembering old rose and white

Remnants of the old sidewalk at Nineteenth and Tracy.
Eight years ago this week we were celebrating not only Martin Luther King Day but the imminent inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States. There was hope in the land, and good feeling about the future. Now as his service comes to a close, there is anxiety and anticipation of something very different ahead. In this light we revisit a post from that week, now a distant memory. It appeared in slightly different form in my book Paris of the Plains.

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It’s one of those industrial landscapes – in this case a concrete-and-razor-wire parking lot –  that have swallowed whole blocks between the Crossroads and Historic Jazz districts. No street signs exist here, but this used to be the intersection of Nineteenth and Tracy. The area is so bleak it’s hard to imagine anyone using the bus stop on the northeast corner, a vestige of the streetcars that would have stopped in front of the school that stood here. On maps it was sometimes identified as “Lincoln High School (Colored).”

Lincoln High was a predecessor of today’s Lincoln Prep Academy, up on the hill at Twenty-first and Woodland. Actually, the old Lincoln curriculum was preparatory, as well. Students took classes in science and history and English literature. In the vocational-training department they learned sewing and automobile repair, carpentry and brick-laying. Lincoln was well-known for its music education.

The Lincoln class of 1917 included Walter Page, who played the upright string bass, later founded the Blue Devils and eventually became part of the famed rhythm section in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

The class of 1920 included Maceo Birch, who became a local night club promoter, later road manager for the Basie Orchestra as well as Louis Jordan, and national booking agent for the Music Corporation of America's Negro bands.

Walter Page on the bass, far left, from the 1917 Lincolnian yearbook.

The summer before Maceo Birch's senior year had been especially bad for lynchings in America; more than seventy were reported. During the school year a black man was shot to death by a mob in a small Missouri town, 140 miles east of Lincoln High. Another was hanged by a mob in a small Kansas town, 120 miles south.

That year, children in an all-white Kansas City grade school put on a play, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The play included a black character whose lines included:
But chile! Yo’ should hab seen dem rats when dat Massa Pied Piper come in dis ar town. Da’ followed dat man just like a lot o’ white trash after a hunk o’ lasses taffy.

At an all-white Kansas City high school, the play was a comedy called “Alabama.” A reviewer remarked of one character: “No one would ever have thought that George Pratt could make such a good ‘nigger’ as Decatur until he saw ‘Alabama.’ George’s wobbly legs and ‘nigger talk’ brought much laughter from the audience.’”

At Lincoln, the 1919-1920 seniors were imagining the future. They shared their ambitions in the Lincolnian.  To become a nurse, was one. A milliner, said another. An expert typist, an athlete second to none, a great businessman. Or a first-class contractor, a first-class cornetist, a first-class cook, a first-class stenographer, a first-class dentist in Chicago. To be bantam-weight champion prizefighter, chief cook for Fred Harvey, cartoonist for the New York Tribune, leading soprano in Tolson’s Jubilee Concert Company, president of Petty Business College. To become a lawyer, an oil magnate, a drum major in a great band. A vamp, an old maid, Mrs. Miller. To teach English at Wilberforce, travel with Bradford’s band, have a fancy art shop on Petticoat Lane, own a first-class garage on Vine Street. To live as royal as a king. Maceo Birch wanted “to own and operate a sporting goods store.”

The original Lincoln High School.
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Under the bus stop sign at Nineteenth and Tracy lies an old suggestion: a remnant of sidewalk and some brick pavers, cracked and broken. In 1920, Lincoln High, itself, was a handsome brick building. It’s not known whether any member of the class of 1920, in his or her heart of hearts, ever imagined being sworn in as President of the United States.

What is known is that the class colors were old rose and white. Its flower was the sweet pea. The class motto was Vestigia nulla retrorsum – No steps backward.

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