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Education and conversation weave through Lyle Foster’s work – in the classroom, his coffee shop and the community. He says it’s the key to understanding.
“I fundamentally believe that dialogue is one of our primary solutions to those things that separate us,” he says.
His current project is using the past to help him meet that goal. Although not a Springfield native, Foster has taken on the role of curator for the city’s African-American community through Missouri State University oral history project, The Journey Continues. It was the catalyst for the planned African-American Heritage Trail, which plans to mark 16 locations in north Springfield.
“What was life like for people in the African-American community in Springfield?” he says of the project’s exploration. “There’s not really a general awareness of some of what I would call the daily, rich moments of life.”
He points to the many African-American business owners in the Jones Alley Business District near Chestnut Expressway and Benton Avenue, and the everyday stories of life during segregation and desegregation.
“It was important to tell these stories so that they won’t be extinct in the future,” he says.
This work lines up with his roles as sociology professor at MSU and a leader of diversity training through Vision Group Partners LLC. At his Commercial Street Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar, as well as at MSU, he’s held many community conversations on race relations.
His passion, in part, comes from a defining moment in July 1999, when his friend Ricky Byrdsong was murdered by a white supremacist in Chicago. “Unless we learn how to communicate, hate will actually destroy everything that we’ve worked for,” he says.
Foster moved to Springfield to open Big Momma’s in 2007 after a chance visit to attend his daughter’s basketball game caused him to stumble upon C-Street.
“The first-floor retail vacancy was huge,” he says. “I definitely could see what the district could be.”
Now, restaurants, bars, retailers and offices fill the street. Foster says the C-Street he envisioned mirrors what it looks like today.
“You can see folks from millionaires to ‘penny-aires’ inside Big Momma’s, and we all get along,” he says. “I often say I feel Commercial Street is where Jesus would hang out because it’s one of the most diverse places in the city.”
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