It would not be a stretch to say that the future of Bartlett High School, the city’s secondary school for Blacks in segregation days, was sealed from the start. You figured that society eventually would change and the races would be integrated. When that occurred officially in 1954, the school became, well, a victim of the times.
But one that had produced some pretty impressive alumni, including Dr. Jacqueline Belcher, former president of the Georgia Perimeter College, a part of the University of Georgia system; Clarence Mabin, the first black civil engineering graduate at the University of Missouri; businessmen Robert Armstrong and Charles Martin; and Minneapolis attorney Paul Thornton.
The school is still remembered fondly.
“I enjoyed my years there,” says James Dodd, a 1951 graduate. “I got to play the bugle in ROTC, and then I played the trumpet in our marching band. We performed at different events and always were in the Apple Blossom Parade.”
His time in ROTC helped prepare Dodd for the Air Force, which he joined after graduation, serving four years. Upon returning to St. Joseph, he began working for St. Joseph Light & Power and retired from there after 38 years.
“We had good teachers at Bartlett,” he recalls. “I liked history, especially American history.”
The history of this school goes back to 1885, when the new “colored high school” began holding classes in a rented room at 20th and Frederick. Three years later, a school was built at 18th and Angelique to educate Black students.
At first, all grades were taught at the new school. As the years passed, however, Lincoln School was built in the North Side for elementary Black students, and Douglas School served the South Side. They acted, of course, as feeder schools for Bartlett.
The high school kept its “colored” name until 1905 when it was changed to Bartlett and a Panther was chosen as the school mascot. Why Bartlett? “The brothers W.H. Bartlett and D.L. Bartlett have treated the school generously, taking much interest in its welfare,” the News-Press reported (The Bartletts ran a successful company that specialized in farm loans).
One of the most significant events occurred on Jan. 10, 1951, when the Panthers played Christian Brothers in the first game ever between Bartlett and another St. Joseph school. The public schools did not play Bartlett in those days.
C.B. won, 65-55, but the Panthers put up a good fight. “They’re the best team we’ve faced all year,” C.B. coach Dale Kessinger said afterward.
The Brown v. Board of Education ruling ending school segregation came down on May 17, 1954. A new school had been in the works on the Bartlett site, and it became Horace Mann Elementary.
The final graduation took place June 3, with Harold Slater, News-Press city editor, as the speaker. “There is a world of opportunities out there,” he told the graduates, “and a striking demand for persons who know how to get along with each other.”
Their school now closed, the Bartlett students entered the public high schools on Sept. 7, 1954. Sixty-one were enrolled at Central, 35 at Benton and 30 at Lafayette.
The News-Press sent a reporter to Central the next day. “It’s nice, being here,” one Black student said. “The whole school seems very friendly to me. “
“We got along at the ‘Y’ all right; why shouldn’t we here?” a white student told our reporter. Another added that integration would be more successful “if parents stay out of the picture. A lot of them are prejudiced.”
That likely was true then. Perhaps, some might say, still now.