Lincoln Center Freedom Walk
Each June 19, boys and girls—and a sprinkling of adults of all ages—gather at College Station’s Lincoln Center for a three-mile “Freedom Walk.”
The event appropriately begins at the site of College Station’s old Lincoln High School and ends at the George Bush Presidential Library and Conference Center. There, storytellers, exhibits, and games help celebrate one of the most important dates in both Texas and U.S. history.
Juneteenth is a celebration of emancipation, a journey which still continues.
Texas Independence Day is recognized as March 2, 1836. Texas independence wasn’t truly won, however, until April 21, 1836. That day, General Sam Houston and his “Texian” fighters defeated the Mexican army of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, near present day Houston.
More a “skirmish” than an all-out “battle,” the confrontation was decided in just 18 minutes. With the victory, Texas officially broke loose from Mexican rule.
“Freedom” for blacks in America was a much longer journey.
One of the key issues which ultimately drove America into Civil War was the question of slavery. The North, with most of the nation’s industrialized resources, favored the abolishment of slavery on moral, political, and economic grounds. The South’s agricultural economy revolved around slave labor.
Eighteen months after America’s union split, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that all enslaved persons within the Confederate States of America be freed. The move, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, was a tactical one on the part of Lincoln. With it, the gauntlet was thrown down as the president took a firm stand on the principal issue which had led to the nation’s divide.
College Station’s all-black Lincoln High School was named for the “Great Emancipator.”
As a slave-holding state at the time, Texas sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Few significant battles were fought on Texas soil, thus many southern landowners moved to Texas—with their slaves—in a war-time exodus that increased the census of blacks in the state significantly.
The Civil War came to an end on April 9, 1865, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s official surrender at the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia. It took several weeks for word to get to Texas. Finally, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, with a garrison force of some 2,000 troops, took control of the Texas port city of Galveston and officially put into law “General Order No. 3,” announcing the emancipation of those being held as slaves.
The following year, freedmen in Texas organized what eventually has become the “Juneteenth” celebration, now officially observed on June 19th in 46 of the nation’s 50 states.
Hawai’i, Montana, and North and South Dakota remain the lone holdouts in officially declaring the date a holiday.
Although most of those who participate in Lincoln Center’s Juneteenth Freedom Walk come from the local area’s African-American community, the event is open to all.
As is today’s Lincoln Center.
“This is not just Texas history,” says Lincoln Center director Cheletia Johnson, “it’s also American history.”
The walk began in 2003, representing, as Johnson says, “the solidarity of freedom, all of us coming together representing America.”
The Lincoln Center campus, comprised of several buildings, including two gymnasiums, as well as an outside playground area and covered basketball courts, falls under the authority of the College Station Parks & Recreation Department. In fact, for a time, Lincoln Center was the administrative home for Parks & Recreation before the department moved to its present “world headquarters” at Beachy Central Park.
Funds for a major redevelopment of the Lincoln Center campus were approved by local voters in 2008. Ten years later, a new 15,000-square-foot main building, featuring classrooms, administrative offices, meeting rooms, and a gymnasium was opened.
Local residents of every age and ethnicity now populate the venue.
The story of the old Lincoln High School, the grounds of which are now home to today’s Lincoln Center, is an interesting one.
Formal education in Texas for children of ex-slaves didn’t exist until the Public Schools Act of 1871. From its beginning, the College Station school district only accommodated elementary students of color. Older black children were bussed to the segregated Kemp High School in Bryan.
Finally, in 1941, the A&M Consolidated Negro School opened its doors on the site of today’s Lincoln Center. In 1946, the name was changed to Lincoln High School.
In a fine online essay by Kelli Nesbit, a College Station Parks & Recreation marketing coordinator, Lincoln High School blossomed in the years after World War II.
“Lincoln High School served as the social hub for College Station’s black community and developed a unique personality as it continued to grow,” Nesbit writes. “The school colors were purple and gold, and students chose the panther as their mascot. The school’s motto was, ‘Forward forever, backward never.’”
That motto is today emblazoned on the transom above the main entrance to Lincoln Center’s original gymnasium. Within that building is a remarkable mural on the west wall high above the court. On it are illustrations of African-American leaders Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, Barbara Jordan, Maya Angelou, and General Colin Powell.
Also included in the rendering, created by Texas A&M architectural professor Russell Reid in 1995, are depictions of a pair of local community stalwarts: Willie Tarrow, the first principal of Lincoln High, and Lillian Jean Clark Robinson, the former supervisor of the Lincoln Recreational Center.
On the night of January 20, 1966, one of three classroom buildings comprising Lincoln High School was destroyed by fire. Soon after the blaze, Lincoln was closed permanently and its students integrated into other College Station schools.
It would be another five years before Bryan schools were fully integrated, by court order.
Henry Lewis was a member of Lincoln High School’s final class, graduating in 1965. After a year of college, he accepted a job at the Alenco Window and Doors Company in Bryan.
About that same time, Lewis also took up residence—with the blessing of the College Station school superintendent—in the old home-economics building on the abandoned Lincoln High School campus.
“It was like a little apartment,” Lewis remembers, “bedroom, kitchen, everything I needed.”
Since his retirement as a teacher, Lewis has again become a fixture at the site of the old Lincoln School.
In fact, Henry Lewis played a key role in preserving his old school grounds.
“Living at the school,” Lewis says, “I noticed a lot of young boys hanging around with nothing much to do. I thought it might be a good idea to try to clean up the old gymnasium to give those kids something constructive to do.”
With window donations from his employer, Lewis and three friends—Lawrence Smith, Clarence Brittian and Tyre Thompson—volunteered their time and talents to restore the old gym.
They called themselves the “Community Knights.”
And that’s how the Lincoln Recreational Center came to be.
Cheletia Johnson grew up just a block away from the old Lincoln High School campus. She went to work at the rec center on a part-time basis in 1993. She now serves as director of the facility.
“I think many people have a mistaken notion that Lincoln Center remains exclusively for the local African-American community,” Cheletia says. “That’s just not the case.
“On any given morning you’ll find an elderly group of retirees—a lot of them Lincoln High School grads—socializing in one of our adult meeting rooms. Across the hall you’ll find a preschool group of mostly white, Asian, and Hispanic boys and girls.
“Out in our new gymnasium in the hour before lunch, you’ll find ‘pickle ball’ players representing a cross-section of ages and ethnicities.”
The fact that Lincoln Center today is a hub for the entire College Station community speaks to the city’s robust spirit of inclusion.
“When I was in high school,” Henry Lewis says, “everything in College Station was separate, based on racial lines. That’s no longer the case.
“The Juneteenth Freedom Walk”—which began in 2003—“helps us remember the long road to equality. It’s important that our young people understand that story and that none of us forget the lessons from our past.”
Forward forever. Backward never.