Howardville High School named to National Register of Historic Places

Thursday, January 18, 2018

HOWARDVILLE, Mo. -- The name has changed -- often. Originally Lilbourn East High School, the building became Howardville High School, then Howardville Junior High School and later Central High School West Campus.

Add a new designation for the large building which anchors the middle of Howardville -- a national historic place.

Vannessa Frazier, Howardville Community Betterment executive director, hopes the new title will bring new life to the building and the community.

According to Frazier, the building was state-of-the-art when it opened as an all-black school for students in first through 12th grades in 1958.

It was "a beautiful new home, with waxed floors, long halls, banging lockers, the biggest gym in the Bootheel, strong instruction and the best cooks were offered to the students who attended," she said.

But time had taken a toll on the building and in an effort to save it, Frazier and others sought to have it included on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally submitted in 2002 for consideration, she said it was turned down but with an explanation.

"They sent a postcard that said in many places across the country, schools were slow to integrate but never have they known one that was built to house, educate, graduate all black students (at that time period). If so this was an act that flew in the face of the Supreme Court decision in 1954," she said.

"(They said) it could go on the Historic Register with special significance because of the span of years that it continued to be an all-black school but we needed more proof. So that is where the project ended because our proof was missing."

While that project ended, Frazier and others continued to search for ways to restore the building. In 2013, the community received a Brownfield Initiative Grant to fund the cleanup of asbestos, lead-based paint and other hazardous substances from the old school. While that work was under way, Frazier returned to what she described as a "burning desire" to obtain the historic designation.

The proof she needed wasn't far away.

Frazier located the school's composites of its senior classes at the school at Lilbourn, where they were stored after Howardville High School closed. Those were gathered up along with numerous trophies won by the Howardville High School athletes and now line the walls at the Howardville City Council room.

This time with research complete, in August the building was certified by the state of Missouri, which then submitted the site for the National Register of Historic Places. On Nov. 22, Howardville was advised the building had received the designation.

"We loved our school," said Frazier, who began attending classes there as a first grader in 1966. "It was like our home."

The last all-black class graduated in 1968. Frazier and the other students through eighth grade stayed at the school and by 1970 the classes at Howardville were integrated.

The transition from all-black to integrated went smoothly Frazier recalled.

She remembered the first few weeks of classes the white children all brought their lunches to school.

"But in a couple of weeks, they threw those lunch boxes away and they were beating us to the cafeteria because we used to run to cafeteria because the food was so good," she said with a laugh. "Everybody said now they had adjusted."

As the New Madrid County Central High School campus was being developed, the building would once again be filled with high school students. The gym was used for athletic events and the cafeteria serving student meals. After the Central campus was completed, the building provided storage for the district.

When the building was no longer needed by the school district it was deeded to Howardville along with the 16 surrounding acres originally set aside by the town's founder, Travis B. Howard, for a school building.

But over the years, time, the elements and vandals damaged the building.

Frazier said when the Brownfield Grant was sought, engineers determined the building was still structurally sound. As workers cleaned up hazardous materials, they worked within the constraints of the historic designation, saving important elements of the building.

In a large binder, Frazier pages through before and after photos. There is the former choral music room with a hole in the roof and trees and plants growing up through the floor, then the photo taken after work is completed revealing the three tiers where students once stood to perform.

"After all the analysis of the building, it made sense to clean it out and reuse it. It would have cost just as much to tear it down than to clean it out and fix it because if we tore it down we would still have to have it remediated," she said.

Now the community intends to seek funding for redeveloping the site. Possible uses suggested by community members include job training and creation, health services and programs, office space and a museum.

The city of Howardville has indicated it would like to use part of the building to house its police department and the city court, according to Frazier. As one of the largest buildings in the area, she noted, it could also be an emergency shelter.

"We want to offer the things that the community needs," she said. "I want it to live again."

Roof and window replacements will begin this year. Because of it the National Register of Historic Places designation, efforts will continue to preserve the originals fixtures and artifacts and restore those which were damaged.

Frazier said work will include making the building energy efficient and rebuilding the original water-recapturing system. But, she emphasized, all the work will be done while striving to maintain the building's original design and construction.

She is in hopes the designation as an historic site will bring the possibility of more grant funding for the building's restoration. Breathing new life into the old building will take time, Frazier admitted.

"It is an ongoing project," she said. "Remember I told you we got started in 2002, so it has been 15 years; it may be another 15 years until we get it up the way we really want it to be.

"The school is the target but it is not the focus," Frazier continued. "The focus is the community. Rebuilding, revitalizing the community. The citizens of Howardville do not see just four walls, but tomorrow inside."

A celebration of the designation as an historic site is planned for this spring.

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