Half-hidden behind two newer school buildings, a stone’s throw from busy Mack Avenue in the heart of the Detroit Medical Center campus, a hundred-year-old brick structure in Midtown Detroit hides an extraordinary story.
In 2016, as the Michigan Legislature debates the future of the Detroit Public Schools, the tale of Detroit’s forgotten Lincoln School holds the key to understanding what has become of Michigan’s largest public school district.
It’s a story that Michigan has forgotten for a reason.
In a city littered with old school buildings, this one isn’t especially remarkable for its physical structure. It’s a three-story brown brick building, not lavish, with some decorative geometric details. Two newer schools have been built around it on three sides: Spain Elementary, which connects to the old building via an aging breezeway, and Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine to the south.
What distinguishes the old building are the inscriptions on its north side – now all but hidden from public view, since they front an interior courtyard. They read, in fine script, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN SCHOOL ANNEX, AD 1916.”
Relatively few people today remember the Lincoln School. Closed more than half a century ago, it does not appear in Jeffrey Mirel’s The Rise and Fall of an Urban School District, the best-known history of DPS. Its listing in the recent Loveland Technologies report, “A School District in Crisis,” contains few details. But its name is a clue to the remarkable history of this century-old edifice – and its role in the tangled history of racial segregation in Detroit.
The story of the Lincoln School can be found not too far away, but you have to know where to look.
A knowledgeable source led me to the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, which contains the massive set of volumes that make up the Histories of the Public Schools of Detroit – published, as fate would have it, in January 1967, six months before the civil disorder of that year rocked Detroit and accelerated the exodus of whites from the city, and its schools.
The entry for Lincoln in the Histories consists of eighteen pages of mimeographed text. The story it tells is only fragmentary, but from it, we can begin to piece together the circumstances of the school’s origin, its expansion, and its tragic end.
The long-gone building that was Detroit’s original Abraham Lincoln School was constructed in 1872, seven years after President Lincoln fell to an assassin’s bullet.
Detroit was a different city then, a growing but still sleepy town of 80,000 souls. Much of what is now downtown consisted of residential neighborhoods, and what would become the Cass Corridor was suburban in character, a neighborhood of Victorian mansions on leafy streets. To the time traveler of today, perhaps the most remarkable fact would be that nearly all of them – 97% – were of European descent.
The city’s black community was established, but small, at just over two thousand. In 1863, a terrible race riot had broken out, driven by Irish and German immigrants uneasy about Emancipation and infuriated at President Lincoln’s compulsory draft law – and the fact that wealthy men could pay $300 to hire a substitute. Fanned by a rape accusation and the racist rhetoric of the Detroit Free Press, mobs of whites attacked the homes of blacks east of downtown, burning 35 buildings to the ground and prompting the formation of the Detroit Police Department.
However, despite the racism of many Detroiters, as Northern states went, Michigan as a whole was relatively liberal for the time when it came to matters of race. Lincoln’s Republican Party, after all, had formed at an anti-slavery meeting in Jackson in 1854. Michigan’s Civil War governor, Austin Blair, was a founding father of the Party who initially thought Lincoln too soft on slavery.
And yet, for all the liberal sentiments of Michigan’s politicians, the state was far from guaranteeing blacks full equality. In 1865, amidst the end of the Civil War, the Detroit Public Schools hired its first black teacher, Fanny Richards, the daughter of a London-educated West Indian carpenter. (Richards had opened her own, private school for “colored” children two years earlier.) However, DPS forced Richards to teach in a segregated school, keeping its existing schools whites-only, and it offered only six years of schooling to blacks, as opposed to twelve for whites.
In 1868, Detroit resident Joseph Workman tried and failed to enroll his “mulatto” child in a white public school. Aided by the Second Baptist Church, a mainstay of Detroit’s black community, and by prominent Detroit Republican (later Governor) John Bagley, Workman sued the Detroit School Board, taking the case to the Michigan Supreme Court – and won. At the end of the 1870-71 academic year, Detroit’s schools were officially desegregated. Fanny Richards became Detroit’s first kindergarten teacher, of any race, and taught at the Everett School until her retirement in 1915.
It’s not clear whether the Abraham Lincoln School was constructed and named as a direct result of the desegregation of Detroit’s schools. Yet, considering that the school opened in 1872, and given Lincoln’s strong association with rights for black Americans, particularly in the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the facts strongly suggest that it was. Not only that, the school was located in a predominantly black neighborhood, the so-called “Kentucky District” between St. Antoine and Hastings, north of Mack, at what was then the fringe of the city.
Without further evidence, we can’t say for certain, but it seems likely that the Lincoln School may have been named as a landmark for the desegregation of education in Detroit.
For some of Detroit’s black residents, however, some aspects of the desegregation of DPS soon seemed – so to speak – a mixed blessing.
The Histories contains the record of an 1872 petition to the School Board by several dozen “colored citizens of Detroit,” who sought to have Mrs. Sarah A. Cook, formerly a “provisional teacher” at the temporary Ohio Street School, retained at the new Lincoln School which replaced it, as “a teacher of the children of their people.”
The black parents’ preference for a black teacher fell on deaf ears. The Detroit Board of Education retorted that “the petitioners in effect ask that their children may as colored children, receive a different kind of instruction of lower grade and by a teacher less qualified, than is received by the white children of the other public schools.”
The Board went on to accuse the parents of practicing what modern pundits might term reverse discrimination, as opposed to an ostensibly “colorblind” policy. “To appoint an applicant to a teachership, simply because she was a person of color, would be as unjust as to remove a teacher from her position for the same reason.” The Board noted that Mrs. Cook had failed to present herself for examination to receive a teaching certificate, and the parents’ hopes for a black teacher were dashed, at least for the time being. Desegregation of the Detroit Public Schools would happen on the white majority’s terms.
The Lincoln School and the Ghetto
In his book Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century, historian David Katzman illustrated that in the late nineteenth century, the homes of Detroit’s black community were not rigidly segregated. Blacks were clustered in a few areas of the growing city, generally the poorer parts of town, but they lived side-by-side with other ethnic groups, especially poorer immigrants.
Apparently, the neighborhood of the Lincoln School was no exception, until the Great Migration changed it – and the larger city – forever.
The Histories’ entry on Lincoln contains testimony from a number of longtime Lincoln School teachers on the change. In an 1961 interview, Mrs. Lucy Jones, a teacher then in her 43rd year at Lincoln, recounted that she was only the third “Negro” teacher at the school when she was hired on in November of 1918, as the First World War came to an end. Yet, Jones related, “the community at that time was largely Jewish and all the teachers looked forward to observing the religious holidays.” It seems likely that a number of the teachers, including Miss Mary Cohen – a kindergarten teacher in her 44th year at Lincoln, though ailing, in 1961 – were Jewish themselves.
Indeed, at that time, the nearby commercial avenue of Hastings Street was the main artery of Detroit Jewry. Practically no trace of that era remains today, except the handsome 1902 synagogue of Temple Beth El on Woodward at Eliot, designed by Albert Kahn, which is today the home of Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theater.
When Mrs. Jones was hired on, the Lincoln School had recently been expanded to accommodate the area’s burgeoning population. “The Brady Avenue Building of the school was built five years before and the Livingstone side was two years old.” A photograph in the Loveland report shows what must be the Brady Avenue Building, a handsome three-story brick structure that went up in 1913. The “Livingstone side” must be the “Annex” that survives to this day – though Livingstone, like Brady Avenue, is long gone, a casualty of the urban renewal program that cleared the way for the Detroit Medical Center.
Mrs. Jones recounted that of the other two “Negro” teachers in 1918, “one was a homeroom teacher like Mrs. Jones and the other taught English to the foreign born” – most likely, eastern European Jews – “who had language problems.”
The Great Migration – spurred on, in Detroit’s case, by Henry Ford’s Five-Dollar Day – would transform the community, and the Lincoln School.
“[P]ractically overnight the community changed,” Mrs. Jones is quoted as saying in the history. “Henry Ford started paying five dollars a day and the Negroes in the neighborhood wrote all their relatives and friends to come to Detroit. This influx of population from the South changed the entire complex of the school.”
If data on Lincoln’s historical demographics exists, it’s buried somewhere in the archives. Detroit’s Jewish population was already moving northwards along Hastings, towards Oakland Avenue north of Grand Boulevard, and spilling over into the city’s “old northwest” from Twelfth Street to Dexter and Linwood Avenues. Coupled with the “influx” of black refugees of Jim Crow, and the tightening of residential segregation that occurred all over the North, it’s likely that Lincoln’s student population became almost entirely black in the course of a decade, as Hastings became Detroit’s African American Main Street.
Segregated schooling had, for all intents and purposes, returned to Detroit – just a half-century after the Lincoln School’s opening had spelled its demise.
A Center of the Community
Despite the harsh reality of segregation, however, the Lincoln School became a center for the Paradise Valley community it served. In the 1940s, the school’s enrollment averaged a remarkable 1500 students, and the brightest stars of Detroit’s thriving black community, including boxer Joe Louis and hotelier John White, made a habit of giving gifts to Lincoln’s pupils. According to one Mrs. Swan:
“When Joe Louis was Heavyweight Champion of the World, he visited Lincoln several times although he was never a student here. On his first Christmas as a soldier in 1943 he personally brought the school a Christmas tree which he had cut down himself at his farm in Utica, Michigan. For several years the auditorium Christmas trees came from the Joe Louis farm. One year he brought candy for every child in the school.
In 1956 John White, owner of the Gotham Hotel [located just a few blocks away, at Orchestra Place and John R], sent a box of candy for each child in Lincoln School.”
Despite segregation, the Lincoln School benefited from the fact that the Detroit Public Schools were then among the wealthiest and most progressive big-city school districts in the nation. Among its best-known programs, according to the Histories, was a lunchroom kitchen established in 1947, and doubtless welcomed by Lincoln’s many less than affluent students. “It was such a popular attraction that many students kept it a secret when they moved so that they might continue attending Lincoln School.”
Lincoln was also distinguished by its music program. As of 1961, the school was home to the DPS South District Chorus, supervised by music teacher David Williams. Lincoln’s more prominent alumni included Herb Jeffries, “well-known singer and recording artist,” and dramatic soprano Gwendolyn Walters, who graduated in 1944, went on to Wilberforce University in Ohio, and “appeared in the leading role in Aida in Cleveland where she now teaches music.” According to Jet, Walters went on to be a two-time winner of the Marian Anderson Award.
Sadly, Lincoln’s days were numbered – the consequence of racist state and city policy.
A Community Destroyed
By the 1950s, Detroit’s black middle class was following the path of the Jewish community that preceded it, moving north and west out of Paradise Valley towards Twelfth Street, Dexter, and Linwood.
Bulldozers moved in in its wake.
In 1959, the state of Michigan began construction of the road originally dubbed the Hastings Expressway, later the Chrysler Expressway or I-75. The expressway tore out the commercial spine of black Detroit – and forced many of Lincoln’s students from their homes.
A 1961 update to the Lincoln entry in the Histories gave the sad facts. “The progress of the expressway has meant that Lincoln’s territory as a school district has been restricted,” it stated. “Many homes have been torn down and, consequently, enrollment has dropped to 1122 pupils.”
Shorn of a third of its enrollment, Lincoln was merged with a new school, Charles L. Spain, built around it in 1963. Most of the school was demolished, with the exception of the 1916 annex building, which stands to this day, connected to Spain; whether it is still used for classrooms, or simply for storage, is not clear.
The Key to Understanding DPS Woes
Lincoln’s successor, Spain Elementary-Middle, recently became the object of national attention due to hazardous and unsafe conditions, the result of years of deferred maintenance. It has since been toured by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and received a $500,000 gift from Ellen DeGeneres, with added contributions from Justin Bieber.
Yet the Lincoln School’s story indicates the deeper systemic problem behind the ongoing crisis of the Detroit Public Schools – now deep in debt after more than a decade of control by state-appointed emergency managers, and struggling for their very survival as the Michigan Legislature considers bills that, in ironic counterpoint to the 1872 petition of “colored citizens,” would allow DPS, and no other district, to hire on non-certified teachers.
Quite simply, that problem is racism.
As the Lincoln School story indicates, the story of DPS is incomplete without mention of the deep structural bias that African American children in Detroit have confronted on any number of levels.
Black students in Detroit experienced segregation first through explicit Jim Crow segregation under Michigan law, then through so-called “de facto” segregation of housing – which was actually underwritten by the federal government and enforced as municipal policy, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and an entire generation of historians have been at pains to observe.
Today, in the wake of 1973’s disastrous Milliken v. Bradley decision prohibiting cross-district desegregation busing, the Detroit Public Schools are for all intents and purposes a segregated school district: 87% African-American, 10% Hispanic, 1% Asian, and just 2% white. (It’s likely that many of those white students are the children of immigrants from the Middle East.) The students of Spain are 99.3% African American – less than a percentage point from full apartheid. 77% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
It wasn’t just segregation that Detroit’s black students faced, however, but an unsympathetic school board and the active hostility of the city and state’s political leadership, expressed in the total destruction of Lincoln’s neighborhood for purposes of “urban renewal.”
Students and staff worked courageously to learn and teach in the face of these barriers. Yet, at the end of the day, the education of black children in Detroit was systematically hobbled – as it is to this day, by longstanding segregation and deliberate state policy.
Coming Clean with History
As the history of the Lincoln School suggests, it is hard to imagine a substantive analysis of the Detroit Public Schools – its history, trajectory, and its present condition – that does not grapple with the history of racism in DPS, Detroit, and Michigan.
Yet, incredibly, that is what we see happening today.
Neither DPS’s foes in the Republican-controlled state legislature, nor its friends in the teachers’ union or the foundation-backed Coalition for Detroit Schoolchildren, acknowledge how the reality of racism has fundamentally shaped education in Detroit.
The Coalition’s report does contain a few scattered mentions of race.
There’s the sickening fact that test scores for African American 4th-graders in Michigan are the worst in the nation, behind states like Mississippi and Alabama – states that don’t have half the wealth that exists in the Great Lakes State.
There’s the careful reference to the fact that the Coalition contains a “very diverse group of stakeholders” – including “white, black and brown” and “rich and poor.” Indeed, the coalition includes the leaders of Detroit’s two top race/ethnicity-based organizations, the Detroit NAACP and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. It also includes top business leaders in the Detroit region – although, naturally, none of those business leaders send their children to the Detroit Public Schools.
Yet there is no mention whatsoever of the manifold varieties of racism that have condemned Detroit’s children to separate and unequal schooling.
The coalition’s glossy report is titled The Choice Is Ours. It’s unclear who the “we” in that statement is. It certainly isn’t Detroiters, who have no say in the running of the school system under state emergency management. The fate of DPS now rests in the hands of a state legislature dominated by Republicans from overwhelmingly white suburban and rural districts.
More broadly, the choice is up to everyone in this state – particularly the white people who constitute the great majority of Michigan’s population.
Writing more than fifty years ago, on the hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin told his young nephew that if there was to be any hope for America, white people had to be convinced to overcome their willful blindness and amnesia to the facts of racial injustice.
“[T]his is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them,” he wrote, “that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand,” he continued, “and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Nor, we might add, is there much hope for the children of Detroit, until Michigan chooses to confess and repair the racism that shaped Lincoln’s story and stalks DPS to this day.