“If you don’t remember, you have a tendency to forget where you come from. We had a pastor that said, ‘Never forget your beginnings,’ and so I’ve taken that to heart, and never forgot my beginnings. My beginnings were awful, but they were pure, and you had no help from the other side.”
Those words, spoken to The City Wire by 89-year old Euba Mae Winton of Fort Smith, could be taken as a motto for all the classes of Lincoln High School.
Lincoln alumni launched school reunion festivities Thursday (July 19), marking a four-day celebration that will reunite many graduates of Fort Smith’s historic African-American high school from the days before integration. Lincoln opened "some time in the 1890's," according to the LHS Alumni Association website, and closed in the early 1970's.
Winton, a 1941 graduate of the school, chooses to remember the good, but has not forgotten the bad. Specifically, she remembers a time when, as a 9-year old girl, she was forced along with her 7-year old sister to take care of Doris Jean, their 17-month old baby sister.
“My mother was making 50 cents a night, and she would tell us, ‘Take care of the baby, I have to work.’ And she would leave us at night and go take care of this family, where the lady was sick all night. And we were there in that great big house by ourselves.”
Winton continued: “She told them her situation, that she had three girls and asked, ‘Could they come over to our house?’ They came over and inspected it, and found the house clean and orderly, and they brought her (the sick woman) over there. Did you know someone told that there was a white woman staying in our house, and they had to move her out, and take that away from us? You just had to grin and bear it.”
STRENGTH FROM HARD TIMES
Still, Winton admits many of her “hard times growing up” were worthwhile.
“I didn’t have shoes. I don’t know whether you’ve heard about people having to wear shoes with the soles out. The paste board, cardboard — have you ever seen the tablets with the great big Indian on it, the great big tablets? — you take the cardboard off of the back of that, cut it to fit you, stick it in there, and then if it rains ...”
Winton’s laughter won’t allow her to finish the sentence.
“And wearing the real cotton stockings: I hated them, oh Lord, I hated them. And long underwear. But I tell you, I am so happy about that now, because I feel like some of that gave me some strength that I was going to need and didn’t know it. I’m happy about some of the things I had to go through because I survived.”
That strength was tested with the unexpected loss of Doris Jean at nine years old.
Winton was “in Utah, trying to make some money.” She’d been there for “about three weeks” when the telegram arrived from her mother stating that “baby sister’s gone.”
Winton returned home immediately.
“Diabetes. We didn’t know she had diabetes. The doctors didn’t tell us that she had diabetes. She was having these seizures that people with diabetes…” A pause. “We didn’t know.”
“She was in the sixth grade when she passed. She was just the most personable young lady. The whole school turned out that Friday — for her funeral.”
OPPORTUNITIES FROM LINCOLN
Nine was also the age Winton lost her father, who died of Bright’s Disease, telling her mother sometime before his death, “Don’t ever let a man run over you.”
Winton said her mother never remarried and did the best she could on “around $10 per month” while her daughters were in school.
Winton added an extra $3 per month when she was accepted to the National Youth Administration, an organization championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was the founder of the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls, which would eventually merge with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville to become Bethune-Cookman College.
“My father had no pension, so it helped pay for shoes for graduation and put a little food on the table. Gosh, we were poor. But somehow we didn’t even know we were poor. We had to survive, and we did.”
Winton credits Lincoln High School and the opportunities that it gave her for a life that’s gone well beyond survival. She served as Community Developer and Director of the Mallalieu Community Center in Fort Smith from 1971-1996.
She also served as a Sebastian County Justice of the Peace starting in 1980 after receiving appointment to the position by Arkansas Gov. David Pryor in 1979.
Winton’s immaculate dress, carefully controlled movements and walking cane all present a deceptively slight picture of a woman, whose strength and tenacity — her “backbone,” she calls it — are undeniable.
She points to the Negro National Anthem by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, and effortlessly rattles off a section:
“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod / felt in the days when hope unborn had died / yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet / come to the place for which our fathers sighed?”
Winton continued: “I have come to that place, and been around that place, and now going back to that place. I know what it is to be poor. I know what it is not to even have beans. I know what it is to have water-gravy — you know you have to have flour to make the gravy, and you don’t have enough flour to even do that.”
She taps on the table and gives another pause.
“Yes, sir, Mister, I know what it is. All that, and then you have to go to school, and have to study, and your stomach growling.”
‘WANT TO LEARN’
The younger Winton might have been able to use a break from it all, but the faculty and principal, particularly one Charles L. Williams, whom Winton still refers to as “The Disciplinarian,” demanded much of their students.
“There was no athletics if there was no academics,” said Winton, who played basketball and softball at the school. “When you were there, you worked, but the teachers, they made you want to learn.”
Winton credits Williams with the "tenacity to bring those people back in to the school system who had graduated from Lincoln High School under his administration," making it easier to relate to the faculty as time moved on.
One of Winton's favorites was an English teacher named Dora Sullivan.
"She was excellent. What we learned from Mrs. Sullivan and the attention she put on it — you didn't dare get out in public and make a mistake, or she'd say, 'How dare you embarrass me.' Didn't matter if you were a pastor or who you were. And it made me so angry during integration, when they transferred her to Southside High School and put her in the library instead of leaving her in the classroom."
THE BALL GAME
The work ethic and love of learning that teachers like Sullivan instilled in Winton are things she tries to “impress on young people today.”
Winton added, “What are you gonna do when the ball game’s over? Because knees go out, hands go out, arms go out. What are you gonna do then, when you get old? What are you gonna do? Because the ball game does not last always.”
While the “ball game” doesn’t, for Winton — one of the most beloved alumni to graduate Lincoln, obvious in how the younger graduates flock to her at the Lincoln Youth Service Center during registration — the memories do.
Three favorites come to mind.
“One of the first ones is to walk across that stage, getting my diploma because in those days and times you did not know if you were gonna get a diploma or not in this way, because times were so hard. Another was when I won the oratory contest.”
Winton said she won for her recital of the poem, “Black Samson of Brandywine” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, though she confesses she can no longer recite it.
‘PART OF THE COMMUNITY’
Her oratory win also occurred on the same stage where she acted in a variety of Lincoln High School drama productions, including a version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
“You cannot imagine how many kids could act during that time, and often times, kids would get a chance to perform on stage in the play that didn’t get a chance to do anything otherwise. Then you had the stagehand and the people with the lighting.” A laugh. “We were just important.”
“Doing this in front of the auditorium, and oh, when those blue velour curtains pulled back, and the stage was set, and people out there in that audience were cheering you and supporting you. That’s what was so important,” Winton said.
Winton was asked what she wants Fort Smith to remember about Lincoln High School and its place in local history.
“That we were part of the community right from the beginning. The recognition was not there in the beginning, but the recognition is there now, and we want to keep that going forward. Because you may have some chiefs, but you also have to have Indians, and we were the Indians that built the infrastructure of the community. As long as we keep the reunions going forward, we have that to remember.”