CALLAWAY COUNTY-- Last November, Callaway County turned 200 years old. With a history that dates back to the year of the Missouri Compromise, which established Missouri as a slave state in 1820, Callaway County possesses its own unique chapter of Black history.
For a county that, according to the United States Census Bureau, is 91.7% white, the conservation and documentation of Black history in Callaway has been neglected as a priority.
The project is put on by the Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society (KCHS) and Daniel Boone Regional Library and spearheaded by authors Carolyn Paul Branch and Bruce Hackman.
In an effort to trace and preserve the county's Black history, the pair of local authors joined forces to collect stories from the area. Until now, such stories were only passed down by word-of-mouth and seldom recorded.
Branch published “It Happened in Callaway” in 2019. It drew from KCHS archives to piece together a picture of what the past two centuries in Callaway County looked like. Log churches, mule trades and rodeo riding are some of the contents explored within its pages.
However, the project to document Callaway's history could not stop there. Hackman's "Callaway Tapestries" was published in fall of 2020. It continued the work Branch's book began, with more vintage photographs courtesy of KCHS, and interviews with locals deeply rooted in the area.
The anthologies shed light on some previously undocumented Black history in the county, with a specific section dedicated to Black-owned businesses of Fulton.
A born-and-raised Callaway County native and local history buff, Sherry McBride-Brown, was interviewed as an introduction to the section, which focused on "overcoming a culture of intolerance with vibrant businesses" in regard to Callaway's Black history and community.
An employee with Fulton Public Library and Daniel Boone Regional Libraries for over 40 years, McBride-Brown's job at the library fuels her love for history with access to documents, news archives and photographs, some of which are used in "Callaway Tapestries."
“I love history, you know, and I'm just so concerned that we're going to be losing a lot of our local African American history because the stories haven't been recorded,” McBride-Brown said.
She believes if the sharing of history continues via oral stories without written and visual documentation, those accounts will eventually be lost forever, if not already.
McBride-Brown’s family had their own hand in preserving history. Her father belongs to the NAACP Fulton Branch of Missouri.
“It’s fun to hear him talk about what happened with the (Black-owned) businesses. And then I got to thinking—(you have) to make notes because you never know who’s going to hear it again,” McBride-Brown said.
Without people invested in Fulton’s history like McBride-Brown, it would be far more difficult to pull together a historically accurate account of Callaway's past. "Callaway Tapestries” was created after more residents came forward with stories that weren’t mentioned or would not fit in "It Happened in Callaway."
Pre-dating the Civil War by 40 years, Callaway County's Black history includes slavery, war, segregation, integration and the development of what became the Westminster Avenue Community, or the early Black community of Callaway.
Named after the street which ran straight through what used to be a hub of Black businesses, churches and neighborhoods, Westminster Avenue Community was developed out of what once was a segregated county.
Described by McBride-Brown as a "thriving, bustling" part of Fulton, the community represents a vibrant portion of the area's early Black history.
Sean Rost, an oral historian for the State Historical Society of Missouri and in coordination with the Missouri Humanities Council, studies Missouri’s history. In the 1860s, the county grew hemp and tobacco on plantations, according to Rost. This large need for field labor meant enslaved people were in high demand and relied upon in Callaway County.
“I think some estimates place it 20 to 25% of the total county population was enslaved by the time of the Civil War,” Rost said.
A border state during the Civil War, Missourians were divided on the issues of enslavement. In an April 2018 article, author Joseph “Whit” McCoskrie was interviewed by the Fulton Sun and noted Callaway County’s interesting connections to the Civil War.
The county was divided when the war broke out, with volunteers joining both the Confederate and the Union army. The scars of a county with origins in slavery and segregation run deep and can account for resistance when trying to broach the topic of Black history in Callaway.
“Folks sometimes, you know, they’re hesitant about sharing some of their history because it’s painful still,” McBride-Brown said. “And then sometimes, because some of the families or their descendants are still around in the area, people don’t want to cause them any challenges or anything like that.”
Through the historic Black-owned business section of “Callaway Tapestries,” McBride-Brown seeks to recognize and celebrate Black contributions and roots in Callaway County.
Although very few of the businesses and buildings mentioned in the book still function today, their memorialization offers a tribute to Black-owned businesses today and the perseverance of Callaway’s Black community as a whole.
Callaway County’s “tapestries” are still in the making today. Operating Black-owned businesses in the county, like Ms. Kim’s Fish & Chip Shack, not only commemorate history but create it. Learn about how Ms. Kim’s brings generations of history to the table at KOMU.com.