Mexico, like other Missouri communities through the first half of the 20th century was segregated, and that applied to schools as well. While white students in the Mexico district attended North or South Elementary schools or McMillan High School and later Mexico High School, Black students attended Garfield School for their entire educational career.
According to the “History of Audrain County An Update 1936-1986”, “Shortly after 1866, the first Negro School of Mexico, MO was begun. At that time, classes were held in the basement of a Negro Church and were taught by two white women.”
That building was at the corner of Holt and Johnson Streets, where Ward Chapel AME Church now stands. Over the years, the location of the school changed until a permanent site for the school was eventually chosen on East Breckenridge. In 1889, a two-room addition was approved by the school board to enlarge the original structure to five rooms and the school became Garfield School.
As the student population grew, a new 2-story addition was built by Herbert Myers around 1904 to accommodate the growing needs of Garfield.
Garfield wasn’t just for Mexico students, it was a more regional school with students from Auxvasse, Vandalia, Laddonia, Paris, Wellsville and Montgomery City coming in either on foot or by bus.
The building that stands today as United Credit Union, is an addition to Garfield built in 1936 at a cost of $87,000 and included a gymnasium. The building was occupied since the Christmas holidays and was officially dedicated on Tuesday, February 8, 1937.
The Missouri Historic Property Inventory Form for the building at 802 E. Breckenridge describes the 1937 building: “The style was simple. Deco in form and classical in symmetry and detail, it featured eight-over-eight windows and classical pediments over the main doors and windows. Not surprisingly, given the town’s brick industry, brickwork was ornate. The central portion of the façade, surrounding the entrance, was most ornate, with multi-paned double entrance doors flanked by large multipaned side and transom lights.”
Athletics were a large part of life at Garfield, but only as supplements to studying. Known as the Wildcats, school colors were black and gold. Well, mostly Wildcats. The junior high boys basketball team was known as the Mad Magicians and was started by longtime Garfield teacher & principal Mrs. Quinnie Benton. She noticed a large dropout rate at eighth grade and decided to do something about it. She created the basketball team because “all of the boys wanted to play basketball” as she said in a 1979 interview. A certain grade point average was required to be on the team.
In a 1979 Mexico Ledger story, Mrs. Benton said, “State and national honors came to the school in 1947 when the track team won the state Negro championships and was named 10th in the nation among high school Negro track teams.”
Mrs. Benton came to Mexico as a young widow in 1937, riding the bus from St. Joseph to answer an ad for a teacher at Garfield. She was accepted as long as she “could keep the children quiet” which she did for her 29 years at Garfield. She would later go on to become Mexico’s first Head Start teacher. She was educated in schools in Elwood, Kansas and attended Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia. Her bachelor’s and master’s degrees came from Lincoln University in Jefferson City with other coursework taken at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, the Universities of Missouri and Minnesota along with the University of Wisconsin Teachers College. Mrs. Benton passed away on March 31, 1985. Her legacy, beyond the shaping of young minds, is in the OATS program. Mrs. Benton was instrumental in the founding of the transportation program for seniors in Missouri.
The decline of Garfield began in 1954, following the landmark Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ending school segregation.
The next school year, grades 10, 11, and 12 were sent to Mexico High School and in 1955, grades 7, 8, and 9 were sent to Hardin Junior High. The grade school remained all Black until 1969 when students were divided between McMillan and Eugene Field Elementary Schools. From 1970 until March of 1975, Garfield housed all sixth-grade classes for the district until they moved to the new junior high, now Mexico Middle School.
For a brief period, the building housed State School No. 73, a facility for handicapped students.
In all, Garfield had 10 principals:
I. J. Hicks 1884-1893
W. H. Harrison 1894-1902
I. J. Hicks 1902-1926
A. J. Tompkins 1926-1932
Esque Douglas 1932-1951
Levi Watkins, September to December 1951
Mark McGown 1951-1958
Jonathan Jordan 1958-1960
Mrs. Quinnie Benton 1960-1969
Joseph Hodgin 1970-1975
The A.P. Green Credit Union, now United Credit Union, bought the property from the Mexico School District in June of 1979 and razed the 1899 portion of the school, citing excessive cost to bring that part of the building up to code.
While the school itself may be gone, memories live on in the hearts and minds of former Wildcats.
A special thanks to Dr. Ayanna Shivers and Mrs. Jo Ann Thomas for the photos and to Christal Bruner for her critical eye as to historical references.