Lincoln School (1880-1951)

A brief history of the first school for African American children in the Greater Lafayette area

Author
Nah’Shon Williams

Project Date
Spring 2023

Since the admittance of Indiana to the Union in 1816, the right and measures of free education in the state were a hotly contested topic in the government. Prior to the integration of Indiana schools, the state assembly passed legislation designed to prevent Blacks from having educational benefits whilst relieving them of taxes that would be used for school maintenance. In 1853, the Indiana State Assembly passed a law that clearly states, “The civil township trustees shall establish and conveniently locate in each township a sufficient number of schools for the education of the children therein: Provided, however, that in all enumerations the children enumerated, and of negros and mulattoes shall be omitted” (State of Indiana, 1853). Laws like this excluded educational opportunities for Black Hoosiers to private and religious schools.

In 1869, Governor Conrad Baker addressed the Indiana General Assembly decrying the state’s discriminatory laws in the education of Blacks. He stated that “Indiana stands alone in her adherence to this unwise, unjust and exclusive policy” (Indiana General Assembly Senate, 1869). In May of 1869, in a special session held by the Indiana General Assembly, the governor approved a law to, “render taxation for common school purposes, conform and provide for the education of colored children…[and]…the establishment of separate schools for colored children” (Waterloo). This provision made it possible for most Black Hoosiers to get access to education.

This is where the story of the Lincoln School in Lafayette starts. In 1869, the Lincoln School opened its doors as a public institution for colored children for the first time. The school had technically been in existence since 1866 when it was started by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Lafayette. Noticing the need for a school for colored children, the church bought land and property that belonged to a Lutheran church at 8th and Ferry Streets, which is where the Bethel AME Church still stands today. The property consisted of three buildings: a church, a parsonage, and a brick school. The passage of the 1869 colored education law made it mandatory for communities with enough African American children to maintain a separate school for Black children. After all Black children in Tippecanoe County were enumerated, plans to establish a separate school were put in place. With limited funds for construction and no available facilities to conduct school, the A.M.E church of Lafayette offered to give the Lincoln school to the school board, to which the board gladly accepted (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

The school’s initial attendance had fluctuating numbers, with between 27 and 49 students attending during the first year. The students’ ages ranged from 6-35. All these students were taught by a single white teacher named E.R Johnson. Over time more and more teachers would join the Lincoln School staff to accommodate the growing class size. In 1872, the school was separated into day and night shifts, with evening classes being held for adult pupils. The school served grades K-8, with its alumni attending the integrated Jefferson High School. In 1877, the school got its first African American teacher, Isaac Burdine. Burdine was a teacher from northwest Indiana that had migrated to Lafayette. Burdine taught at Lincoln School from 1877 to 1886 and was, for a brief period of time, the principal of the school. Burdine was, as his students described him, “a hard task master”. Many contributed Burdine’s discipline to the growth of the school. Under Burdine’s supervision, the school population grew significantly as the 1880s saw the school’s population swell, eventually outgrowing the Ferry Street location (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

In 1886 a new wood building was erected on the southwest corner of Salem and 14th Streets. This would become the new home for the Lincoln School for the next three decades. In mid-1910’s, after years of active enrollment, the Lincoln School building began to deteriorate as the school began experiencing issues. In 1916 the Lafayette Royal Crescent Club conducted an investigation into the condition of the school. Among the club’s findings were overcrowded classrooms, understaffed faculty, and poor sanitation (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

It wasn’t until 1922 that plans began being made for a new building at the Salem Street location. The following year, on December 6, 1923, the school dedicated its new location on 14th and Salem Streets, where the edifice still stands today. The building was designed by Reidel and Zinc Architects and cost $60,000 to construct. The dedication ceremony for the new building was an eventful affair, with the Mayor of Lafayette and city school board officials being among the speakers at the event. The principal of the Lincoln School, who was the keynote speaker for the evening, was Sterling McElwaine (Journal and Courier, 1923; Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

Sterling R. McElwaine served as principal of the Lincoln School for nearly 50 years from 1909-1951, with the exception of a few months between September 1915-June 1916 when he served as principal at a school in Indianapolis. McElwaine came to Lincoln as a freshly graduated teaching student from Indiana University (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).  

View of the new Lincoln School and a photo of Principal McElwaine from Journal and Courier news article.

During his tenure as principal, he impacted the lives of several students earning him great acclaim and respect from the community. Many of his students endearingly referred to him as “Unk”. In recognition of his work with the Lincoln School, McElwaine was awarded a lifetime teachers license from the Indiana State Board of Educators in 1920. McElwaine would remain the principal of the school until its closure (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

Sterling Rudolph “Unk” McElwaine is congratulated by Mrs. America Joplin, left, and Mrs. Ethelyn Bass on his completion of 40 years of active teaching at Lincoln School. Photo from Journal and Courier, Feb 19, 1949.

The Lincoln school also had great acclaim in the community and was the frequented site for community meetings. The school’s basketball team was also a shining star in the school’s extracurricular programs. The boys’ basketball team was hailed by the Lafayette newspaper Journal and Courier as one of “the best colored teams in the state”. The school won city championships in the 1931-32, 1941-42, and 1942-43 seasons for basketball (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

The Lincoln School also produced several successful alumni. Several Lincoln School alumni went on to graduate from college with several students attending  Purdue University, including sisters Ella and Delia Silance who were two of the first Black women to graduate from the university. Delia received a scholarship to attend Purdue and graduated as a distinguished student. Some of the other graduates and their accolades include:

Arletta B. Winrow: M.S Purdue University–one of the teachers of Lincoln School

Leo Bohanon: B.A. University of Minnesota–State Director of Relief Minneapolis Minnesota

Louise Bohanon B.S. Purdue University—Drama High School Teacher in Ashville, N.C

Clyde Silence Ph.B. Purdue University

Mary L. Hines: B.S. Chicago University. Internship Freedmans Hospital, Washington D.C. & Dietitian at Parkside Hospital, Detroit MI.

In 1949, the Lafayette School Board desegregated all elementary schools in the city with no resistance. The principals of Linwood, Washington, and Lincoln Schools held meetings so that a plan of integration could be established. In January 1949, 6th-8th grades were integrated, and by May of the same year, the Lincoln school closed its doors (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

Integration and the closure of Lincoln School brought to an end the 80-year long history of dedicated Black education in Tippecanoe County. After its closure, the Lincoln School was home to several different entities. It housed student populations from Vinton Elementary and Sunnyside Junior High while their schools were building built. For a time it hosted the Lincoln School Community Center, a center with programs for the city’s children (Sterling R. McElwaine Collection at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association).

Today it serves as a transitional housing for the city’s homeless population. In either case the Lincoln School stood as a beacon of hope for African Americans in the city of Lafayette and its story reflects the resilience and resistance of African Americans remains a testament to the American ideals of liberty and equality for all.

Works Cited

“Delia Silance.” Tippecanoe County Historical Association, https://tippecanoehistory.org/finding-aids/biographies-african-americans-in-tippecanoe-county-part-2/. Accessed 7 May 2023

Gerlach, Cindy. “Remembering Lincoln School.”  Journal and Courier, 31 Mar. 2018.

Journal and Courier. “Lincoln School Dedicated with Throng Present .” Journal and Courier , 7 Dec. 1923, p. 1.

Journal and Courier. “Lincoln  Alumni Team Meet Marion Tonight.” Journal and Courier, 9 Dec. 1927, p. 17.

State of Indiana. Laws of the State of Indiana, Passed and Published, at the Session of the General Assembly  (1853). 1853.

State of Indiana. “African-American Education in Indiana.” IN.Gov, http://www.in.gov/history/files/African-American_Education_in_Indiana4.pdf. Accessed 8 May 2023.

United States, Congress, Indiana General Assembly, and   Indiana General Assembly Senate. Indiana Senate Journal, 1869, Alexander H. Conner, 1869, pp. 50–65.

Most of the reference material for this site was found at the Tippecanoe Historical Association Archives in the Sterling R. McElwaine Collection.

This project has been made possible with funding from: 1) Research Project Grant from the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University; AND 2) Seed Grant Award from Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (ODIB) at Purdue University

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