Plans are afoot to renovate and reuse the Young School, which taught black students in Independence in the decades before schools were desegregated.

Hiram Young, who was black, is best known for a highly successful business making yokes and wagons for settlers headed west in the years before the Civil War, but among his many accomplishments is support for education for African-Americans. The community’s first school for black children was named for Frederick Douglass and later renamed for Young, and that school moved its last site, on Dodgion Street just off the Square, in 1934.

“He kept working and working for us to get a school and to know more,” said Ann E. Taylor, who attended the school in the 1940s and ’50s.

The Truman Heritage chapter of Habitat for Humanity has the property, having bought it from the Independence School District. Its ReStore – selling recovered and donated home fixtures and related items – has been on the same site for a few years, and the group has had renovation of the school in mind for some time.

The renovation is to include offices, a conference center for public use, turning the cafeteria into a kitchen, turning the gym into a life-skills center and restoring one classroom to tell the story of Young and the students who attended the Young School.

“It’s a rich history,” said Alversia Brown Pettigrew, who also attended the school.

Habitat has been raising money privately toward the $1.6 million renovation and now has landed a large grant from the J.L. and L.E. Mabee Foundation in Oklahoma. It has until the end of the year to raise $715,000 from the public and elsewhere to match it.

Habitat would use the space for classes on such things as homeownership readiness, home repairs and cooking.

“Habitat provides a hand up, not a hand out, and that is what Hiram Young did,” said Carla Simpson, development director for the Truman Heritage chapter.

She said Habitat and Hiram Young shared similar goals – decent housing for people.

“We think that’s an excellent fit,” Simpson said.

The old building needs a lot of work.

“It looks dilapidated, but it’s in good structural condition,” Simpson said.

Years of learning

The Young School was open from 1934 to 1956, teaching kindergarten through the eighth grade, generally had two grades to a room. For high school, students would catch a bus at the school and go to Lincoln High School in Kansas City.

Taylor did that: kindergarten to eighth grade at Young, then Lincoln and then, after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling to desegregate the nation’s schools, her senior year at William Chrisman High School. The Class of 1955 had 277 graduates, two of them black.

Today she and Pettigrew, author of the local history book “Memories of a Neck Child,” sit on a Habitat board overseeing the Young School project.

Walking through the building, they discussed memories: the good teachers, the hand-me-down books, the racial issues of the day.

One thing that stands out for Pettigrew is that even though they went to the Young School, they weren’t taught Hiram Young’s name or story.

“All you heard about was George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington,” she said. It was only years later that she learned Young’s story.

Both Pettigrew and Taylor worked in the school’s cafeteria. Lunch wasn’t much – 11 cents at one time, 15 cents years later – but that was beyond reach for many, and home was too far away to walk for a hot lunch.

“Our teachers – bless their hearts – they worked it out. … so no kid went without a hot lunch,” Taylor said.

And Pettigrew has a ready answer when asked what, overall, she learned from good teachers at the school.

“I learned to be the woman I turned out to be,” she said.

Habitat for Humanity is launching a public campaign to raise money for the project. It has gotten help from local and Kansas City area foundations, including the Schutte Foundation, the Victor E. Speas Foundation, the Goppert Foundation, the Sunderland Foundation and the William T. Kemper Foundation. If fundraising goes well, work on the old school would start next January and be done by December 2018.