Missouri's Lincoln University: The Soldiers' Dream

February 21, 2019

You'll find many echoes of the origin story of Lincoln University in the artwork at the Inman Page Library. One painting in particular, by David Phillip Bradford, class of 1963, sums it up perfectly. Students dressed in the fashion of the mid-20th century stand on the university's campus in Jefferson City while the ghosts of the Civil War soldiers who founded Lincoln look on.

With the outbreak of war in 1861, the world began changing rapidly. Many of those who had been held in slavery escaped and followed the Union Army.  When the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863, the men (and at least one woman that we know of) enlisted. While they were serving, the soldiers were taught to read by the Army's white officers. What makes this all the more remarkable is that just a few years prior, many of these men had been enslaved in Missouri, a state that had outlawed teaching blacks to read in 1847.

These soldiers had a dream – they wanted to ensure that others in Missouri received the same opportunity to learn. As the war wound down, the soldiers of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries – most of whom had never before been paid for their labor – pledged up to a year's salary to found what they named Lincoln Institute, a school for the newly-freed black people in Missouri.  

Private Logan Bennett was probably the best known of the founders. His $10 check, dated May 10, 1866, was one of the first checks written by one of the soldiers to Lincoln, according to research done by a Lincoln University historian. Private Bennett lived in Jefferson City and was known for attending Founders Day ceremonies in his uniform up until his death in 1933 at the age of 91. He is buried in the National Cemetery in Jefferson City along with several other founders.

Classes began at Lincoln Institute on Sept. 17, 1866. The school continued to grow and advance the soldiers' dream. It became a state institution in 1877, a land grant school in 1890 and in 1921 became Lincoln University.

By the middle of the 20th century, Lincoln had become known as the "Black Harvard of the Midwest," due to the efforts of administrators to attract the best and brightest academics, researchers and scholars. These professors became notable in their fields and helped produce subsequent generations of students who, despite living within the confines of a segregated society, made names for themselves as well.

  • Lloyd Gaines graduated from Lincoln in 1935 with a degree in history. He considered law school, but the segregation laws of the time (known as Jim Crow laws) would not allow him to be admitted to the University of Missouri School of Law. Gaines applied and, as expected, was refused admittance. With the support of the NAACP, Gaines sued. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling upheld segregation and the idea of "separate but equal," but found that forcing black students to go out of state violated the 14th Amendment. All Jim Crow states must either provide the same programs at "black" schools or allow blacks to attend "whites only" schools. Missouri's legislature created a law school affiliated with Lincoln University. Gaines never attended either school: he disappeared in March 1939 while living in Chicago and was never heard from again. The University of Missouri granted him a posthumous degree in 2006.
  • The following year, Lucille Bluford, a young woman from Kansas City applied to the University of Missouri School of Journalism's graduate program. She had received her bachelor's degree with high honors from the University of Kansas in 1932. However, like Gaines, her application was denied; her suit also went to the Supreme Court. She won, but by that time World War II had begun and the university closed its journalism school, supposedly because so many students and instructors had joined the war effort. Fifteen years later, Ms. Bluford's suit was one of the cases cited in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down legal segregation.
  • In the interim, Lincoln had developed a journalism program. Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first black woman to work at the Washington Post, graduated from that program in 1957. She describes her experience in her new book, Trailblazer, "I felt nurtured there and gained the skills I needed…the curriculum encompassed everything from putting out a newspaper to typesetting – those were the days of hot-lead type." Ms. Gilliam recounted other ways in which Lincoln enriched her, including a black history class under Dr. Lorenzo Green, who had interned with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the Harvard-educated historian who created Negro History Week in 1926. She wrote, "It hit me as if somebody had turned on a fire hose filled with knowledge, new insights and understanding."
  • Other notables with a connection to Lincoln University include Althea Gibson, who taught physical education for several years before going on to be the first African-American to win a Grand Slam in tennis in 1956.

Today, Lincoln University is one of approximately 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the country. Visitors can take in the Soldier's Memorial Plaza, dedicated in 2007, which stands at the center of the quadrangle of the historic hilltop campus. The memorial features life-size statues symbolizing the soldiers who made the school a reality. Two soldiers approach a monument. The farthest back wears a full pack while the next has dropped his weapon. Another reaches up to a solider on the top edge of the monument, who reaches back to lend a hand. On top of the monument, facing forward, three soldiers hold books. A bas-relief on the side of the monument shows three soldiers heading toward "the future."

After stopping by the monument, explore the art in Page Library, which includes an original Thomas Hart Benton painting as well as a painting depicting the early presidents of Lincoln by James D. Parks, a nationally renowned artist who was head of the university's art department. The national cemetery, where several of the founders are buried, is a few blocks away.

The school often makes reference to the "soldiers' dream." More than 150 years later, the university continues to deliver on that dream.

Written by Lori Simms

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