GASTONIA John Biggers – a Gastonia native described by poet Maya Angelou as one of America’s greatest artists – was a student at Lincoln Academy; Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young went there one summer.
The Gaston County boarding school for African-American children near Crowders Mountain had a statewide and national impact. Now, after years of effort, the Lincoln Academy National Alumni Association is about to erect a historical marker at the site of the school that touched many lives.
“I’m extremely proud,” said the association’s past president, Hollis Shaw, 81, of Durham. “I’m sorry we didn’t do it earlier. We need to let people who pass by know a school did exist there and that it played an integral part in the education of black children. It was also a magnet for the development of the community, attracting people to the area.”
Association members are scattered across the U.S., and on Saturday a group of them will board a chartered bus in Durham and head to the dedication of the historical marker off U.S. 74. Members pitched in $2,700 for the project after an application for a North Carolina historical marker was turned down. Shaw said that at some point the group will reapply for a state marker.
Started in 1888, Lincoln Academy closed in 1955 when Gaston schools consolidated. The dozen or so buildings on the sprawling campus became targets for vandals who ripped the structures apart and set some on fire. Today, only a few fragments of foundations remain in the woods.
Academy alumni get together once a year to reminisce. They repeat the same stories and remember new ones. But they always talk about their excellent teachers, challenging courses and friendships.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me – until I met my wife,” said Shaw, a retired clinical psychologist. “I met people there who’ve become lifelong friends. We need to keep the school’s memory alive. It was a shining example of inspiring opportunities for success.”
Lincoln Academy began in a part of western Gaston County known as “All Healing Springs.” The name came from a 19th-century health spa and resort hotel. Guests came from all over the U.S. and Canada to drink the mineral water that supposedly cured everything from ulcers and indigestion to rheumatic pains and kidney infections.
In 1881, missionary and educator Emily Prudden bought 50 acres near the springs and started a school known first as Jones Seminary and later Linwood College. A Connecticut native, she founded 15 western North Carolina schools, including the forerunner of Pfeiffer College.
In 1888, near Linwood College, Prudden opened a school for black women, naming it after Abraham Lincoln. She deeded the school to the American Missionary Association in 1891.
Students came from all over the U.S. and from foreign places such as France, Africa and Panama. Many families relocated to the community around the academy so their children could attend a school that not only had top quality academic programs, but social, cultural and religious opportunities.
Association President John Roi Thomas lived in the community when he started going to the academy in the late 1930s.
“I grew up in the school,” said Thomas, 85, of Winston-Salem. “I stayed on campus more than I did at home. My mom and dad worked. All my friends lived on campus. Everybody was everybody’s momma and daddy. It was a family-type situation.”
The academy had a swimming pool, a well-equipped library and a faculty of “the best professionals,” Thomas said. “You had to do. There was no excuse for not doing.”
Academy graduate John Biggers became a nationally known author, teacher and a central figure in African-American art.
In an interview with The Observer before his death in 2001, Biggers talked about his student days at Lincoln Academy. It was there he learned the importance of preserving the environment, studied classical music and discovered a gift for drawing. Biggers called Crowders Mountain “one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
Actor and director Ivan Dixon (he played Sgt. James Kinchloe in the 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”) went to Lincoln Academy. The parents of comedian Martin Lawrence (“Martin,” “Big Momma’s House 2”) met at the school.
In 1951, Andrew Young of Atlanta came to Lincoln Academy with his parents for a summer church conference. One day he ran up Crowders Mountain and had an awakening described in his 1997 book “An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America.”
“I felt at one with the earth and heavens,” Young wrote. “From the moment of that transcendent experience I thought about a religious purpose for my life that was in tune with my nature, a personal religious purpose that would be the center of my life.”
Young became a preacher and pioneer civil rights leader, Atlanta mayor, a member of Congress and ambassador to the United Nations.
Elsie Dunlap McNeil, 80, of Wilmington was an academy student from grades 1 through 12. It was a family tradition. Her parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters had all gone there.
The sights and sounds of those days are always with her. She can still hear the school bell ringing the time to eat, study or go to vespers. Or see the “glorious” gatherings of young people who came from as far away as Charlotte to socialize on Sundays.
‘Mountain was my joy’
They hiked and picnicked on Crowders Mountain and gathered wild blueberries on the slopes.
“The mountain was my joy,” said McNeil, a retired teacher. “I loved to go up and watch the water run over rocks in a little creek. I still have a warm feeling for that high mountain and the academy. I love the place.”
So do her children, who also have an interest in Lincoln Academy’s history. McNeil hopes a younger generation will embrace the school’s story – and keep it from fading away.
There’s been talk buying the school site and turning it into an educational facility.
“My dream is to see the campus developed,” McNeil said. “To bring elders and youth together for gaining knowledge; to inspire them to reach their goals; and have the history continue with honor and love.”