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Trail to the Past: African-American heritage markers recall significant moments in city’s history

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Springfield’s north side was once home to bustling African-American communities and business districts. But today, the Queen City’s African-American population is just a quarter of what it was before the turn of the century, now 4.5 percent compared with over 22 percent in 1880, according to Census data.

Much of the history and impact of these businesses has been forgotten, according to leaders from Missouri State University, Springfield NAACP and the city. Now they’re working to change that.

The first marker for the Springfield-Greene County African-American Heritage Trail was installed in December in Silver Springs Park in commemoration of the park’s 100th anniversary. Plans for up to 20 signs marking historically significant sites in the city’s African-American heritage are in the works.

Business owner and MSU professor Lyle Foster said the goal of the trail is to capture the “daily, rich moments of life” of the city’s African-American community.

“These stories have always existed, but they weren’t given the prominence and I think that’s the change that people are seeing now,” Foster said.

Funding for the markers, which cost $4,000 apiece, is being secured by public and private donations. Foster said nine markers already have been funded.

“The trail will follow an existing greenway that runs near several of the important sites, such as the Sherman Avenue Corridor, the former Lincoln High School, Jones Alley Business District and the Historic Church quadrangle,” said Cora Scott, city spokeswoman and member of the heritage trail committee.

Businesses thrive
In the eyes of Foster, an untold picture of the community is starting to form.

For his university project The Journey Continues, with fellow professor Tim Knapp, Foster has conducted over a dozen interviews with members of Springfield’s African-American community.

The goal is for snippets of the interviews to be connected to the trail markers through codes that passersby can search on their phones. Foster said it’s important to hear the history first-hand.

“We want it to make sure we get those stories and preserve those stories for generations to come,” he said.

Foster said African-Americans owned many businesses, including dentist and doctor offices, funeral homes, restaurants, confectionary shops and grocery stores.

“These places were successful, even though it wasn’t a very large population, because that was the place people could go and have full access to service,” Foster said, citing racial segregation.

Hardrick Brothers Grocery, the largest grocery in the city at the time, was owned by African-Americans, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior report.

The store opened at 223 St. Louis St. in 1889 and two decades later moved to 222 E. McDaniel St., according to John Sellars, executive director of History Museum on the Square.

Its main competitor, Springfield Grocer Co., was founded in 1865 and remains the oldest surviving Springfield business, according to the Interior report.

Foster said many African-American business owners then would be considered middle class today, and he noted the city once had over 20 social clubs and organizations within the black community. There was a strong emphasis on education, as well.

“They were agricultural workers that had been in tobacco and cotton plantations,” Foster said. “People in the Ozarks actually often worked on small farms with a small family that needed them to do multiple tasks … so they already knew how to be a blacksmith or do carpentry or a number of things that would go well into a business.”

Understanding the history
Foster said many of the businesses in these communities, while successful, no longer exist.

“What happened to them?” Foster said he asks in his research. “In some cases it’s the parents at the business. But when the kids got out of high school, if they went to some type of vocational [school] or college, they decided to move to St. Louis or Kansas City or Chicago.

“As segregation waned, people could also now go to Battlefield Mall. They could go at full participation to other places, so they didn’t have the same business that they had prior to that time.”

In addition, the 1906 Easter weekend lynching of three black men led to a decline in the population. The Census reports between 1900 and 1910 show a population decline from 9.7 percent to 5.7 percent.

For Toni Robinson, the newly elected president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, this was one of the first stories she heard about Springfield’s African-American history when she moved to the area to attend Evangel University.

“It’s not seen; it’s not visible,” she said of the impact of the city’s African-American population. “I hope that this brings people in to know the history of this area. It’s important because we had such a big stake.”

Robinson was sworn into the elected president position in December, succeeding Cheryl Clay. At 25 years old, Robinson said she’s one of the youngest to hold the role in similar chapters across the country.

She said it’s critical for young professionals and students, especially those who are minorities, to know the city values diversity and its history.

“There have definitely been strides in the last six and a half years,” she said. “Knowing the history, for me, is very important. It’s my motivation to continue this work.”

In doing research for The Journey Continues project, Foster said he’s often wondered what the city would look like if not for the brutal murders in 1906.

“What would economic life be like in the city today if 20 percent of the community was African-American?” he said. “Because up until the lynching, Springfield was considered to be fairly progressive.”

Trail backers
The city of Springfield has committed to paying for two of the markers. Scott said City Council members are expected to use “pothole funds” – money the four zone members can use for improvement projects – to back two or three more.

Foster said the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative is funding a marker on Park Central Square to acknowledge the lynching as part of a national effort to memorialize sites of violence against African-Americans.

In December, Community Foundation of the Ozarks announced an $11,667 grant to the heritage trail to support three markers: at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, the Sherman Avenue Corridor and the site of the former Graham’s Rib Station and guest cabins near the corner of Chestnut Expressway and Washington Avenue.

The funding was part of a larger grant cycle of $60,000, marking the CFO’s first diversity and inclusion grants. CFO also established a fund to manage donations by businesses and individuals for specific markers on the trail.

“Sometimes people are aware of maybe momentous or significant events, such as in the case of Springfield, around what happened on the square with the Springfield lynching or they have some awareness of Brown v. Board,” Foster said. “There’s not really a general awareness of some of what I would call the daily rich moments of life in Springfield’s history.”

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