EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WEHT) – The history of a school can be told in part through the history of its culture. A big part of the culture at Lincoln High School was its football team. A tradition that ended 59 years ago, is being kept alive by those who were there and remember how hard the hits were.
It’s a building that still stands, but a school that looks different.
“Lincoln Avenue was bristling then. There was businesses on Lincoln Avenue. Black businesses
Lincoln High School is just a memory to some but to a group that’s become fewer and fewer it’s still alive.
“I’ll be 88 in July so I’m trying to get to 100,” said Lincoln High graduate George Flowers.
Flowers and James Anderson have been friends since they were teenagers, and now they’re remembering that time.
“I went and taken a job with Chrysler from 3 to 11. Go to Chrysler my Senior year,” recollected Anderson, when thinking back to high school.
A look back on high school is nothing without talking football.
“I remember some big hits because fullbacks got big hits. I’d like to forget them. You’re pushing against three lineman. That’s probably why my back is out of shape now. I think that’s when it started, when I was 17 or 18.” James was a star on the team, and George a younger classmate who looked up to him.
“Teams would come from St. Louis, Paducah, Cairo Illinois, Nashville to play us on Thanksgiving. I think after ’49 they stopped all of that because we played Mater Dei,” said Anderson.
It’s that game against Mater Dei that’s etched in the city of Evansville’s history. It was the first time a white school would agree to play the all black public Lincoln High School.
“That was the first white school that we played in ’49. We played them out at Bosse Field. That’s the first time Lincoln had played out there.”
A stage set for history. The first time Evansville’s all black schools played on it’s premier stage it came away with a victory. The first integrated game was the end of a long road for Lincoln. One that included a lot of actual travel.
“East St. Louis out of Illinois. Their school was named Lincoln like ours. I think they got some older fellas to come down when they played us because they were big, big ,big,” remembered Anderson.
With no white schools in town willing to play, Lincoln spent most away games on the road in other towns, towns that were segregated in the 1940’s.
“We didn’t have no hotels or motels we could go to. Once you got to Nashville, or St. Louis, or Webster Grove the families of the students would come and pick who they would let stay with them during the time they would be there while they play them. That was alright sometimes. You didn’t have any choice. The people that would house you. They would choose who they would want to stay with them,” said Anderson.
At school, on the road, and at their home movie theater, life was segregated for George and James.
“But we still had to sit upstairs. The whites would sit downstairs in the cushion seats. We sat down stairs on wooden benches. The first four rows you sat down normally on the bench, with your back against the wooden back like a picnic bench. The others six rows on back you sat on the ridge on the back with your feet in the seat. You had to be able to see over the people who were sitting in front of you,” remembered Flowers.
Not all memories of the way things were come with a smile. Both George and James remember what their mothers had to do at home before it was time to buy them shoes.
“She would have to measure our feet at home. She would take a string. We couldn’t put our feet in shoes. Couldn’t try them on. That’s the way it would be. There wasn’t going to a dressing room to try stuff on,” said Flowers.
The memories of being seen as second class in their hometown can bring pain, and questions that still don’t have good answers.
“Those are the type of things that would lay on you. Why not? Why can’t I? When you begin to see the change take place, like people marching. I know the other race couldn’t understand it. ‘They’re giving people what they want. Why are they?’ But there was more to it than that. There was more to it than that. I’m a human being. Why am I being denied this. I’ve worked hard. I had to take s***. I’ve stayed clean. I’ve not broken the law. Here I am, and I’m still treated as a second class citizen. Why? Because of this? That doesn’t make sense. It does wear on you a little bit,” said Flowers.
After graduating Lincoln, Flowers began a career with the Evansville Fire Department, eventually becoming the city’s first black fire chief.
As two old friends look back, once again they find their feet on the turf of Lincoln’s football field for examples of proof they were equal. The football team had support from white fans for as long as they could remember.
“They could drive themselves around. That was mostly white fans that would sit in those cars. We were always in the stands. It was the Lion Club, that was the biggie. They would in fact display their banner when they came in. They supported Lincoln football.”
A time and a school that may not exist for kids today, but Lincoln High is alive in this room.
“As far as growing up? Man we enjoyed it. Right there in our community, you didn’t have no more than I did. I had big fun like you had big fun. Only it was a different way we did it,” said George with a smile, as his friend of decades James nodded with a smile.