He was a headmaster straight from Central Casting–a stern, bespectacled black man from Barbados with a clipped accent, perfect manners, and a passion for equal education that would change Wake Forest for the better.
When Lincoln Robert Best arrived in 1936 to take a job as principal of the Wake Forest Colored School, one of his first acts was to change its name. Evelyn Alston Jones, who lived a block from the school as a third-grader that year, remembers.
And so he had the parents to come to the PTA and give a name. So everybody gave different names. I had never heard of W.E.B. DuBois. Nobody had. And everybody sent in Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and all of those different names, because that was who we had heard. And so, he said, ‘No, I have a name.’ And he, that’s the name he gave us.”
Best chose the name to make a statement. DuBois had been the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and was an outspoken proponent of civil rights. He believed it was essential for blacks to defy racial stereotypes by exhibiting superior talent, intelligence and hard work.
Deeply committed to this philosophy, Best developed a new curriculum. At the DuBois School, students memorized the poetry of Byron, Shakespeare and Longfellow and recited passages in front of the class. Best lectured them on the value of good citizenship and gave instructions on etiquette. If he heard improper grammar, he’d make the student repeat the statement correctly several times.
In this way, Best worked to shatter the complacent traditions of the Jim Crow South. He debated the merits of higher education for blacks before an audience at Wake Forest College. He advised black children to set their aims high and to disregard the references to black inferiority they saw in their schoolbooks. This is not who you are, he would tell them. Nor your parents or grandparents. Don’t you believe this.
One semester, when the state of North Carolina offered a set of used textbooks discarded by the white school the previous year, Best simply said no. (Perhaps he’d reached some internal, invisible limit?)
According to his son Eric, a retired doctor of internal medicine in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Best refused to back down. His response was daring, unyielding and loud.
If you don’t take them away, I’ll throw them away! I’ll teach them myself without books before I’ll use these old texts!”
Astonishingly, the state relented. New books arrived.
Best took them in hand and, performing a task he repeated religiously each year, methodically thumbed through their chapters. Striking out racially offensive sections of prose. Tearing out pages about the limited capabilities of blacks. Occasionally tossing out entire volumes.
Best’s wife, Doris, worked alongside him as a home economics teacher. Their sons finished the DuBois School, graduated from Columbia University, and became doctors. True to their name–they were the best.
As they say in the movies, you can’t make this stuff up.
But in 1954, Best died of a massive heart attack. Devastated, the school leaders asked Doris to take his place as principal, but she declined. As time progressed, the crackling atmosphere of constant excellence he had cultivated proved very difficult to sustain.
And then in 1970, integration came. Although the campus remained in use until 1989 as the fully integrated Wake Forest Junior High, the DuBois School was no more.
Older residents in Wake Forest still remember the Best family. For many, they represent a golden moment in town history–a moment neatly defined by the bible verse Lincoln Robert Best most enjoyed sharing with his students.
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”