Last days of Lincoln

Alainyah Nesbitt and the other 25 graduates leave the gymnasium at Lincoln Middle High School in its 62nd — and final – commencement exercises Friday night in McClellanville.

MCCLELLANVILLE — The procession turned right onto Pinckney Street, emerging from behind a bulwark of live oaks dripping in Spanish moss. Thunder crackled, but the storm rolled westward over Francis Marion National Forest, sparing Lincoln Middle-High School’s last parade Thursday from even one drop of rain.

Miss Lincoln, class salutatorian Mary Autumn White, wearing a neon-yellow gown and rhinestone crown, waved to passersby atop her tinsel-covered throne hitched to the back of truck. Her sister, Tiarra White, Lincoln’s homecoming queen, smiled from the float behind hers.

A cavalcade of classic cars rolled down their windows and beeped their horns. Led by white-haired Dollie Powell Johnson, class of 1961, Lincoln alumni clapped their hands and cheered from aboard a blue and white float: “Lincoln High School. I can’t hear you! Lincoln High School.”

Shionnah Wallace, a 17-year-old Lincoln junior in jeans and flip flops, sipped a can of Sprite on the sidewalk while some of the younger kids plucked scattered Jolly Ranchers and Dum Dums from the pavement.

“I’m gonna cry,” Wallace’s grandma, Caroline Maxwell moaned, herself a Lincoln alum. “She’ll be just one in a number now. She’s so smart.”

When she heard the news that the Charleston County School Board had voted to close Lincoln at the end of this school year, Wallace was shocked, hurt and even a little angry. She’s the valedictorian of her class of 15 students at Lincoln. Next year, she’ll go to Wando High School, like most of her current classmates, or School of the Arts if she gets in, one of hundreds of faces in a maze of crowded hallways.

And McClellanville won’t be the same.

“With the school being gone, the community might fall apart,” she said. “Lincoln really brought everyone together.”

For generations of families in this quiet fishing village, Lincoln is the heart of McClellanville. It beats down historic Pinckney Street during every homecoming parade, drawing neighbors out of their front doors to hear the pounding of the steel drum band or wave to the smiling homecoming queens.

It’s history in the northernmost corner of Charleston County dates back to a wooden “Rosenwald” schoolhouse, funded by the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., built in 1925 to serve black children. The current Lincoln building opened in 1954, half a mile from all-white McClellanville High, as an “equalization school” through a state-funded program intended to circumvent integration.

Lincoln survived five feet of flood waters from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and in the years since, multiple threats of closure due to declining enrollment and a reputation for low performance. The school district’s multimillion dollar shortfall, discovered last fall, sealed Lincoln’s fate.

“This school means a lot to a lot people,” said Jeanette P. Singleton, who worked as Lincoln’s librarian for 37 years before retiring in 1992. “It’s just like, it’s a part of your life — gone.”

The last class of Yellow Jackets graduated on a balmy Friday evening before a standing-room only crowd. Lincoln’s steel drum band played pomp and circumstance as the procession in the gymnasium began. The audience fanned themselves with paper programs.

Twenty-five students crossed the platform for their diplomas and picture with Interim Principal Pamela Jubar.

“This class has blazed so many trails into unfamiliar territory,” Jubar said.

And they’ve made history in more ways than one. Sixteen will go onto college. Two will join the military. For the first time, three students graduated with 4.1 grade point averages or better. Lincoln’s last athlete placed second in the state track and field championships in the 100-meter dash. All told, the class of 2016 raked in more than a quarter of a million dollars in college scholarships.

When the entire gymnasium rose to sing Lincoln’s alma mater, Lucretia Swinton, 71, swayed her hips.

Swinton graduated from Lincoln. So did her daughters, in 1985 and ‘90, and two of her grandsons, in 2013 and ‘14. Her son would have graduated from Lincoln in 1995 if he hadn’t gotten injured playing football.

For Swinton, Lincoln is so much more than a building.

“The community at large, they rallied behind us,” she said. “It was like one big family.”

She watched Lincoln’s last parade Thursday at Bethel AME Church on Society Road. Sitting in her walker, she joined alumni afterward in front of the school to sing Lincoln’s alma mater for the televisions cameras. She sobbed as she sang the song’s final words:

When we’ve gone, we’ll ne’er forget

How dear you’ve been to us;

When we’ve gone, we’ll sing and pray,

God bless us all.

Swinton didn’t cry at graduation Friday.

“I feel much better than I did yesterday,” she said. “It’s in God’s hands, and what it is it is. The legacy will live on. We promise.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843- 937-5764.