Genealogist shares stories of Columbia's black pioneers

2 years 9 months 2 weeks ago Thursday, February 26 2015 Feb 26, 2015 Thursday, February 26, 2015 5:54:00 PM UTC February 26, 2015 in News
By: Tatiana Darie, KOMU 8 Reporter
loading

COLUMBIA - When it comes to celebrating Black History Month in Columbia, Traci Wilson-Kleekamp insists on telling stories many still feel uncomfortable about.

This year, former director of diversity and outreach in MU's School of Medicine and a family history researcher, wanted to share a story about the University of Missouri's history, which may be unknown to many.

She spent around a year tracing the lives and families of two men, Harrison Diggs and Horace Williams, who had close ties to MU and helped build the institution. Diggs served as a former slave of MU's third President William Wesley Hudson, and Williams worked as a janitor at the university for nearly half a century.

"They served the university first as slaves and then as employees, as service employees, as janitors," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "It's just very interesting that people of color can be so close to people so prominent, but be so invisible as we tell history."

Wilson-Kleekamp got intrigued by the stories of the two men after finding a small article in the University Missourian dated April 20, 1911. It described a presentation about the early days at MU. Among prominent names such as James S. Rollins and William Wesley Hudson, Wilson-Kleekamp spotted the names and pictures of the two former slaves, Diggs and Williams.

"And I thought, 'Wow, that's shocking,'" Wilson-Kleekamp said.

That set her on a chase to find more pieces of information about the families of the two men. Wilson-Kleekamp had to retrieve and research numerous records in many locations to find traces about them.

"Following Harrison, following him into the Civil War, looking at the records and seeing that he could write," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "Seeing that he contributed to the creation of the Second Baptist Church, that they worked to build a community, advocating for education for building a school, for building a church. This was their lives' work, and it goes unnoticed."

Property of Traci Wilson-Kleekamp

The historian found that Harrison Diggs married Sarah Elizabeth Lawrence and had 10 children. The Diggs family, she went on, was quite mobile and was not confined to the Columbia area. They spread out to Hannibal, Kansas City in Missouri and, outside of the state, in Iowa, Omaha and Chicago.

(Property of Traci Wilson-Kleekamp/Early Pioneers of Columbia's Black Community)

"Their children could not go to school here, so almost all their children left and went to other places," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "People were either pulled away or pushed away. They went to places where they could find work and a better life."

Through a bulk of newspaper articles, land deeds and marriage records, Wilson-Kleekamp found that Diggs' son Arthur left for Illinois, worked at the Chicago Art Institute and was part of the Black Chicago Renaissance, a cultural movement defined by the achievements of many black artists, writers and musicians, who gained national and international fame. Diggs' nephew became a pharmacist.

"His daughters were teachers and since the schools were segregated then, they couldn't teach here, but they did teach in many small towns throughout the state like Hannibal, Kansas City and Des Moines, Omaha," Wilson-Kleekamp said.

Diggs' story is just one of the many compelling stories of people who were the early pioneers and contributed to the MU campus.

Horace Williams is another notable figure, who was named the longest and the oldest serving employee at MU, at the time of his death.

He was born in slavery in Madison county, in Kentucky in 1850. He got to Columbia after his owner, professor William Shields, started teaching Latin at MU. Williams has served different roles while working for the university for 60 years. His first position was assistant to a professor of the Agricultural College, then he helped build the Agricultural College building. He served six presedints and worked as a special messenger and body servant for the seventh MU president, Samuel Laws, among others.

"We never talk about him, not a picture of him ever appears in a newspaper," Wilson-Kleekamp said.

(Property of Traci Wilson-Kleekamp/Early Pioneers of Columbia's Black Community)(Property of Traci Wilson-Kleekamp/Early Pioneers of Columbia's Black Community)

(Property of Traci Wilson-Kleekamp/Early Pioneers of Columbia's Black Community)

An article in the MU Alumni Magazine in the University Archives writes "few men were as well acquinted with former students as Horace; and all the old students in visiting Columbia, enjoyed meeting him." The same piece said former MU presidents and Dean Walter Williams attended and spoke warm words of Horace at his funeral, "which was said to have been the largest funeral ever held in Columbia for a negro."

Although she did not look into his history very closely, to her surprise, Wilson-Kleekamp found that Williams' daughter remarried someone with ties to one of her family lines.

"It was very interesting to see how Horace and Harrison and Harrison's brothers and John Lange Sr. (father of John Lange Jr., who a manager for Blind Boone), how they worked together and built a community for themselves for the community after the Civil War," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "They worked very, very hard."

Diggs and other early pioneers also contributed to the establishment of Douglass High School, which was initially called the Cummings Academy. They were also trustees for the church and helped build the Second Baptist Church, which still stands today on 4th St. and Broadway.

Wilson-Kleekamp said she was surprise to find out that the father of Harrison Diggs' wife, Sarah Lawrence, gave her sister and her a patch of land, which the women, in turn, gave to the Second Baptist Church.

"They got land, not because the guys gave it, but they got land from the ladies," Wilson-Kleekamp said.

As she walks across campus now, Wilson-Kleekamp pick up on different statues and points out there is no monument that commemorates the institution's black people.

"We have a little, tiny, dinky Martin Luther King statue, which is embarrassing," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "I want something like the columns here for Horace and lots of other people of color who have given their lifetime working here."

On-campus structures that pay tribute to the history, heritage and culture of the African-Americans in Mid-Missouri include the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, Strickland Hall and Arvarh E. Strickland Room at Memorial Union - named after the first African- American faculty member Dr. Arvarh E. Strickland.

MU spokesperson Christian Basi said there are no immediate plans to install statues or memorials on campus in honor of the university's African-American community. Responding to a request for archive records of the two former employees, the University Archives did not find any references to Harrison Diggs in its holdings but registered mentions of Horace Williams in old yearbooks and alumni magazines.

Wilson-Kleekamp wants the men to be remembered in a greater fashion, and celebrated for their efforts to build a community, where none existed.

"It's important when we look at history, to look at the whole picture and not take out the parts that we don't like because we feel uncomfortable with slavery," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "By not acknowledging it, we fail to understand how people were oppressed and how that changed their lives."

Wilson-Kleekamp now works in MU's Athletics Department, and she is still working on tracking Diggs and his family and recently heard from one of his descendents.

To follow her adventure, you can check her genealogy blog here.

More News

Grid
List
COLUMBIA - Nearly four years ago to the day, local business owner Linda Bonebrake was diagnosed with severe sepsis at... More >>
15 hours ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 6:47:00 PM UTC December 10, 2017 in Continuous News
JEFFERSON CITY - Bird lovers got an up close look at birds typically seen in their backyards Sunday. It... More >>
16 hours ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 5:36:00 PM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA - Museums around Columbia hosted docent led tours Sunday, spreading awareness about their exhibits and art collections. Docents are... More >>
17 hours ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 3:59:00 PM UTC December 10, 2017 in Continuous News
COLUMBIA - 2017 will mark the 140th Christmas the historic Maplewood House has seen from its home in south Columbia.... More >>
17 hours ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 3:54:00 PM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA - MU Police Department, MU Greek Life, local businesses and residents made Operation Steal Back Christmas a huge success.... More >>
18 hours ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 3:31:00 PM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — After more than 20 years of providing resources and activities for home schooling, a southwest Missouri... More >>
22 hours ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 11:38:00 AM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Jordan Geist, a role player known most for his scrappy style, scored 28 points Saturday night... More >>
1 day ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 9:39:00 AM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA- Alyssa Schell joined the University of Missouri Police Department as a dispatcher in February, excited to be living out... More >>
1 day ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 9:28:00 AM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
CENTRALIA - A husband, wife and visiting grandchildren escaped a Saturday night house fire in Centralia, fire officials said. ... More >>
1 day ago Sunday, December 10 2017 Dec 10, 2017 Sunday, December 10, 2017 1:36:00 AM UTC December 10, 2017 in News
KANSAS CITY (AP) — Police in Kansas City, Missouri, say an 8-year-old boy has died after being hit by a... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 11:35:21 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA - Students, staff and community members volunteered at University Village this morning to create a community garden, with the... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 9:41:00 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA - Columbia provides plenty of Christmas experiences for families to enjoy, but Columbia Access Television (CAT) offered a unique... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 3:38:00 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
JEFFERSON CITY - When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, the Patrick family watched news reports about the damage from their home... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 3:25:00 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA - With two years added to his contract, Mizzou football head coach Barry Odom will remain with the Tigers... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 3:15:00 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
SPRINGFIELD (AP) — The first-degree murder trial of a 28-year-old Wisconsin man charged in the stabbing death of his Missouri... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 3:06:46 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA- As winter approaches, cold temperatures are making their way back to Columbia, with lows this week consistently below freezing.... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 2:37:00 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
COLUMBIA – Treats Unleashed hosted “Milk and Cookies” Saturday to benefit Everything Greyt, a greyhound rescue organization. Dogs and... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 2:28:00 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Police officers in St. Louis have come under gunfire for the second time in three days.... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, December 09 2017 Dec 9, 2017 Saturday, December 09, 2017 2:04:54 PM UTC December 09, 2017 in News
Columbia, MO
Broken Clouds 33°
4am 33°
5am 32°
6am 31°
7am 33°

Select a station to view its upcoming schedule:

Coming Up Next

3:30a
Early Today
4:00a
Early Today
4:30a
KOMU 8 News Today
3:30a
Paid Program
4:00a
Paid Program
4:30a
Paid Program

Tonight's Schedule

7:00p
The Voice
9:01p
Better Late Than Never
7:00p
Penn & Teller: Fool Us
8:00p
Valor
9:00p
KOMU 8 News @ Nine on The CW
9:30p
Seinfeld