Gainesville’s only all-Black secondary school was forced to close its doors mid-semester during the 1969-1970 school year. Alachua County Public Schools had just received the federal mandate to integrate public schools. This is how the community that made up Lincoln High School fought to preserve its legacy.
Barbara Mason Smith, 80, is bombarded by memories every time she passes Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville.
It’s where she started teaching in 1964. Except, back then, the building wasn’t a middle school. It was Lincoln High School – Gainesville’s only all-Black secondary school.
“There are a lot of stories. A lot of stories behind those walls over there,” she said.
She can hear the intercom and make out schoolyard conversations from where she lives, down the street from Lincoln Middle School.
“Will Ms. Song please report to the front office?”
“Will you please send John Joe Jones? His ride is here.
“There will not be a staff meeting today.”
Its history dates back to 1923 when the high school occupied the building that is now the A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center. In 1956, Lincoln High School opened its doors, where it still stands, at 1001 SE 12th St.
Mason Smith, who is originally from Alabama, moved to Florida to teach at Lincoln High School at the age of 24.
“I was very nervous,” she recalled. “The little new girl on the block.”
But her nerves eased when she walked through the door.
When she had first arrived, in 1964, she remembers being wary of Category 4 Hurricane Dora, which was projected to hit Florida.
She had never experienced this type of natural disaster before and didn’t know how to prepare. She soon found out it was a tradition for her colleagues to get together for a hurricane party where they would play games and socialize. They met at a bar in Hawthorne where it was storming outside, but the storm had yet to come through.
“I’m sitting there and they was frying fish,” she said. “We ate and we partied, and we played music. And I thought these idiots don’t have sense enough to know they need to be at home. Find a good shelter. Dora is coming.”
Besides faculty connections, teachers also bonded with their students.
Lincoln High School enrolled 7th through 12th graders. Throughout her time there, Mason Smith taught English and reading to 7th, 8th and 10th-graders.
Former student Albert White, 76, said his instructors molded him into who he is today. They even had slogans to teach students academics and life-management skills.
“Professor Jones will say this: train, don’t care, no sleepers,” he said. “In other words, you can sit there and not get your lesson if you want to, but then you ain’t gonna be on that train. And so when they would do things like that, they pushed us.”
Teaching also extended outside the classroom.
Beyond the classroom, Mason Smith coached the majorettes, a team of baton twirlers that performs with the band, and would drill down the importance of personal hygiene.
She had a slogan of her own, too: “You must always be clean, neat and smell like a lady should.”
Extracurriculars were braided into the culture of Lincoln High School; football, band and basketball were the core of the Black community in Gainesville in the 1960s, said former student Betty Stewart-Fullwood.
“The entire Black community of Gainesville – regardless of logistics or location, what side of town you were on – were all connected through Lincoln High School,” said former student Sulmarie Duncan.
Duncan, 69, said that kids growing up in the area anticipated being able to enroll at Lincoln High School. She believes a big reason for that was the people who taught there.
“There was so much pride and joy about being able to [go to Lincoln],” she said. “That was what you did. You left elementary school and went to Lincoln High School.”
But in January of 1970, that rite of passage was ripped away from future students.
In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education made racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional. By 1968, the Supreme Court had ordered the Alachua County School District to end its dual school system and transition to a single, integrated system.
It was mid-way through the 1969-1970 school year when Lincoln High School was forced to close.
“They’re not gonna wait another week, they’re not gonna wait another month,” Mason Smith said. “We’re gonna do it right now. This is the ruling and this is the mandate, and the doors are gonna be closed.”
Everyone was frightened, she said. It was similar to being thrown out of one’s home. They had no idea what to expect in the coming weeks.
A few years earlier, students were supposedly allowed to choose what school they wished to attend. Duncan decided to stay at Lincoln High School.
But ultimately, the choice wasn’t up to her.
Students, like Duncan, were forced to transfer to predominantly white schools within the city. Many Black students were sent to Gainesville High School.
Duncan was a senior. She was valedictorian. She was looking forward to experiences like prom and graduation with her classmates. Everyone was angry when these rite of passage moments were taken away, she remembers.
“Our hopes and dreams or aspirations didn’t mean much,” she said.
Duncan didn’t get to walk across a stage to graduate alongside her Lincoln High classmates. There was no speech. No big commencement. The only recognition she remembers is her name listed in a paper alongside valedictorians from other schools.
The silence – in the hallways, in the empty schoolyard and practice fields – was deafening.
The bustling activity and music that once filled the building were gone altogether.
Betty Stewart-Fullwood was most sad to see Lincoln’s football, band and basketball cease to exist.
“That was like they cut at the heart of the Black community,” she said.
For the first time, the community felt divided, Duncan said. Though it wasn’t for long.
Alumni quickly recognized the closure of Lincoln High School was meant to be disruptive to Gainesville’s Black community. So, they rallied to keep its legacy alive, even in the worst of circumstances.
“We’re determined not to let that destroy us as a group,” she said.
Some would say Lincoln High School alumni have accomplished just that.
It’s been over 50 years since the high school shuttered its doors and alumni are still determined to keep the legacy of their alma mater alive.
In Duncan’s eyes, the school’s past serves as a history lesson. She feels that there are generations of people with no idea about the Black history of the Gainesville community through historic periods like the Civil Rights era. There’s no one hub in the area that African Americans can call home, she said.
“Much of history has just been erased and thrown to the back-burner,” Duncan said.
She believes sharing the enduring legacy of Lincoln High School is important; it displays the love and pride that exists for the place and for the community it served. This is especially true when talking about the current student body at Lincoln Middle School.
That’s why, in June, Lincoln High School alumni host a symbolic event to pass down their legacy to the middle schoolers at Lincoln Middle School. This also serves as a high school reunion for the alumni.
At the annual event in 2021, a wall to memorialize Lincoln High School was proposed to be built at Lincoln middle school, which is at the same location the high school used to be.
For almost 20 years, former student Albert White has been leading this initiative. The goal is to obtain $70,000 to make this dream a reality. He’s been getting in contact with alumni and selling products like t-shirts to help raise money for the idea.
“It would be bringing it back,” he said. “What we have loved for all of these years.”
A GoFundMe page was created in July 2020. So far, $1,620 of a $30,000 goal has been raised.
“We want to keep Lincoln’s legacy alive for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren,” he said.
Although the school no longer exists as Barbara Mason Smith remembers it, the community Lincoln High School represented is still around every corner. She said at least six former colleagues of hers live in her neighborhood, three of whom attend the same church as her. And whenever she leaves her home, she sees the familiar faces of former students and other people who were connected to Lincoln High School.
“We often talk about how we enjoyed the days of Lincoln High School,” she said.
There’s no escape from the legacy, but she prefers it that way. She cherishes seeing how her old students are and who they’ve become.
Despite the school’s closure, its history is forever embedded in the fabric of Gainesville’s community.
“It’s the spirit, the big red terrier, the spirit is going to live on in the lives of many students,” Mason Smith said.
Her world is a mixture of swirling colors – the past and the present – intricately intertwined to paint a picture of Gainesville’s history.
It’s a painting that deals with segregation and integration.
Pain and loss.
And above all, pride and joy in Lincoln High School and the community fighting to remember it.