Missouri’s Oldest One-Room African American Schoolhouse Gets A New Chance At Life
Doris Frazier always knew the value of education.
Her mother was a teacher. Her father pushed her and her siblings to go to college.
She followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a substitute teacher at African School #4 in the 1950s. The small, one-room schoolhouse was exclusively for African American children in the Chesterfield area.
“I remember walking up these little steps and through the front door, and a little desk up front, you know, waiting for the kids to come,” 90-year-old Frazier recalled. “And I’d have the roll call of course as to who was there.”
It was far from what Frazier was accustomed to after attending school in the Maplewood Richmond Heights district, where the buildings were more modern.
At 19, Frazier taught first through eighth grade, all at the same time. She created lesson plans for each grade and taught on four chalkboards around the room. Frazier said it wasn’t easy.
“You had to be everybody,” she said. “You had to be the gym teacher, the arithmetic teacher, the reading teacher. So you had to be kind of experienced in all of those classes to keep the kids interested. It’s a long day — long day.”
Generations of Black children in Chesterfield made their way through the school stretching back to 1894. Today, it’s the oldest surviving one-room schoolhouse for African Americans in the state, according to St. Louis County Parks officials. Soon the building will be moved to Faust Park’s Historic Village, where it will be restored.
“It’s one of those things that you hope things survive,” said Jesse Francis, cultural site manager at Faust Park. “Some things don’t, and this one was one of the luckier ones for us that we can save a piece of history.”
It’s not just the building’s survival that makes it special, but the struggle it took to get it built in the first place.
While Missouri’s Constitution established free education for all people ages 5 to 21 after the Civil War, the reality was far different. An attendance rule made it so that Black schools had to have at least 20 students. If attendance dropped below 20, the school would be closed for six months.
Even though Black residents had enough students, the directors of the Chesterfield School District refused to build it.
“They actually had to take it through the county court to get them forced to,” said Faust Park Curator Lori Ritchey.
The city’s Black residents won their case in 1893. The following year, the school was built for $600. It would remain open into the 1950s.
A new chapter
Eventually the little schoolhouse would be sold along with the surrounding property. Its new owner built a house and converted the school into a one-car garage.
St. Louis County Parks officials kept their eye on the property for decades, hoping the owner would give up the structure. Finally, after 25 years, St. Louis County Parks officials got their wish when the latest owner gave it up this year, said Francis, who recalled the conversation.
“He said, ‘I love history, and I want to save this piece of history, and you can have it for the park,’” Francis said. “So now it’s ours.”
Francis said converting the schoolhouse into a garage was a blessing in disguise. It was flooded in ‘93. He said if the previous owners hadn't turned it into a garage and repaired the roof, it would have likely collapsed.
“It probably would have been lost,” he said. “The thing that makes me a little giddy about this thing is that you can see how they made it and people can see it. This, I think, was a group effort.”
Francis and his team have been meticulously disassembling, photographing and tagging every inch of the wooden log schoolhouse. It’s clear, he said, that a lot of time and care went into building it. In some ways, he said, it’s like reading a book. The craftsmanship tells its own story.
“You open the first page, which is the outside,” he said. “You go inside and you’re into the next chapter, and you just kind of read the book backwards. So you go from the last thing done back to the first thing done.”
But saving history comes at a steep price.
The St. Louis County Parks Foundation has raised $15,000 to disassemble and transport it to Faust Park’s Historic Village. Foundation President Mark Ohlendorf said it will take another $20,000 to restore it. He hopes people will donate to the project to help turn the school into a living piece of history.
“We want to bring it back to where it was when those children went to school here,” Ohlendorf said. “That’s why we’re looking at the paints and anything we can find to see what it looked like back then so that we can do it.”
Now they’re working to connect with people who went to the school or have pictures or mementos, so they can replicate the smallest of details.
Frazier recently got the chance to go back to the schoolhouse.
One of her first thoughts on stepping inside the building was that it was smaller than many bathrooms in today’s homes.
“To think, my God, the way we’ve been treated,” Frazier said.
She said her students deserved better. The textbooks were always used. There was no playground equipment outside. Education past the eighth grade wasn’t the norm.
“I was appalled that you only went to the eighth grade and then you were through,” she said.
After her time as a substitute teacher, she went on to work with a poverty program in the 1960s and ‘70s. She wanted to expose children in the Chesterfield area to other cultures.
“I’d take them to the art museum,” Frazier said. “We’d take them to a lot of things that would enhance their knowledge of what the world was like.”
She said those experiences matter.
That’s why she’s all for the restoration of the schoolhouse. Frazier believes it’s important for all people to see history with their own eyes.
“Because their children's children will be able to see what their parents and grandparents have gone through to get where we are today,” she said.
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