Higginsville, Missouri — For nearly 70 years after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement, Lafayette County and the Higginsville, Missouri neighborhood had one school for black children.
For many years it remained vacant, but now a former student is leading an effort to restore and preserve its history.
Minnie Williams Elmore, a former student at the Douglas School, said, “I have learned to have joy and peace with people.
She returned to the front steps, remembering her friends Wilbur Conway, Frederick Smith, and Travis Benton.
“It’s a great memory,” said Benton.
“It was really fun,” Conway said. “At the time, he taught us the three Rs: reading, writing, and math. We mastered history and math.
Williams Elmore says he once came out of his shell.
“I learned that I can talk to people, that I can touch people’s lives, and that they touch my life. That’s how you succeed in life,” she said.
Their school life, and that of their fellow Black students, began at those front doors.
“We didn’t know any difference. We were just enjoying life as a kid,” Conway said.
By eighth grade, the Douglas School was the only option for black children in Lafayette County.
“A lot of our desks and books were white school hand-me-down types,” Conway said.
“We were treated badly, but we were taught to obey, so we didn’t know we were treated badly,” Benton adds.
In high school, I took the bus to Lexington, Missouri.
“Separation and integration were not part of our vocabulary at the time,” Conway said.
A Brown v. Board of Education decision closed the Douglas School in 1955 as the classrooms were consolidated.
After graduation, these former Douglas students weren’t welcome anywhere.
“There was nowhere to hire black people like that. All there was was the military around,” said Benton, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.
He returned to Higginsville and purchased the Douglas School building in 1990.
The original desks and wooden shop equipment are just some of the artifacts left in the building, which has been empty for decades and is now a shell of itself.
Today, Benton and his family have begun the Douglas School Project, a restoration effort that will transform Douglas into a museum.
“This is a piece of history that many people need to know,” Conway said.
This project hopes to restore and preserve that history.
“What’s here, how we’ve been treated, how we’ve lived, everything,” Benton said.
Led by Travis, the four students are all 84 and older. Their final act, they say, is to tell the story of this school.
“Even if he’s not here today or tomorrow, I hope Travis can help more, but I hope he can continue to pursue the dream he’s trying to do,” Smith said.
For more information on the Douglas School Project and the opportunity to donate to this effort, please visit click here.