The African American Heritage Trail commemorates black Columbia
COLUMBIA - Most of what community leaders considered to be “Black Columbia” was demolished by the city’s urban renewal plan in 1960, PhD candidate Mary Beth Brown said.
Many in the black community want to bring the history of that demolished area back to life with the African-American Heritage Trail.
Columbia City Council member pastor Clyde Ruffin said the trail has been talked about for years, but had not gained enough support until places like Sharp End, his Second Missionary Baptist Church, and the J.W. “Blind” Boone Home had received markers.
With the exception of several churches, a few houses and Douglass High School and Pool, most of the designated places on the projected trail map are gone.
“Because those buildings are no longer there, there is nothing to point to except the markers and there are very few preserved photographs of the area to refer to. That’s what makes the churches and houses significant; they are still here,” Ruffin said.
Longtime Columbia resident Barbra Horrell said urban renewal is still a tough subject for many because it tore up the black community, not only in Columbia, but all over the United States.
“Our homes were torn down and families were trying to move elsewhere, but we were still being discriminated against. So a good number of us put the money together to buy this plot of land we call Miles Manor and built our homes here,” Horrell said.
Though Miles Manor is not on the trail, Horrell said it’s an important part of black history in Columbia because the houses still stand, and several of the families that moved there have lived there ever since.
“In the 1960s, my husband and I gave a realtor a down payment of $1,000, and back in the ‘60s $1,000 was a lot of money. We gave up a lot of stuff to have $1,000, especially with a kid and all. The realtor came to us one night and he said, ‘I can’t find you a place. Nobody will take your money.’ And that’s how we ended up in Miles Manor,” Horrell said.
Several members of the black community said a few prominent houses, existing and demolished, were not only important because of their size and structure, but for the mark the people who lived made on the community.
Ruffin said it was really important to him to help bring the life back into the J.W. “Blind” Boone Home, located at 10 N. 4th Street.
“It’s significant because the house was built sometime between 1888 in 1892, so we say circa 1890, and it was a tremendous accomplishment for African-American people living in Columbia at that time. I'm sure, at the time, it must've appeared to be a mansion even though it's a small house by Victorian standards,” Ruffin said.
John W. “Blind” Boone was born in 1864 and died in 1927, according to the history synopsis on the Boone Home website. Ruffin said, throughout Boone’s life he was passionate about music.
“Blind” Boone is credited with opening the way for the musical form of Ragtime and also wrote classical music, according to Ruffin.
“Today his music is played internationally by musicians because it is so challenging that it is very rare to find a musician who can actually play his music,” Ruffin said.
Horrell said she remembers learning about “Blind” Boone at the dinner table when she was a child, along with another well known figure in the black community, Annie Fisher.
Verna Laboy first learned about Annie Fisher in 1996, shortly after moving to the Columbia area. She was told she had a stature like Fisher's and was asked to play the part in a reenactment for the Boone County Hall of Fame.
Every year since then, Laboy plays the character of Annie Fisher in schools and assemblies, usually around Black History Month.
Fisher’s headstone in Memorial Park Cemetery says she was born Dec. 3, 1867 and died Jun. 11, 1938.
During her lifetime, Laboy said, Fisher was an uneducated woman who capitalized on her renowned cooking skills. She bought property with earnings and became a landlord of many rental houses and built two mansions, which she used for business.
One mansion was located on Park Avenue and the other on Old 63 South, Brown said.
The mansion on Old 63 South was called Wayside Inn, she said, and Fisher ran a restaurant out if it. Brown and Laboy said the Wayside Inn was demolished in 2011 because the community could not raise enough money to buy it. A storage facility, called Old Highway 63 Storage, now sits on that plot of land.
“I tell children, when I'm telling Annie’s story, that black people were allowed to work there, they could work in Annie's restaurant, but they couldn't seat themselves as customers in her restaurant. What's incredible to me and awesome to me, is that children find that hard to believe. They cannot believe that someone didn't have the freedom to go where they wanted, to patronize whatever business or restaurant they wanted; for me that is progress,” Laboy said.
The site of Fisher’s house on Park Avenue is one of the projected marker locations for the trail.
Many members in the community knew Fisher for her “beaten biscuits.”
Horrell said when she was a child, one of her teachers from Douglass School would have everyone over around Christmas time to eat “beaten biscuits” made from Fisher's recipe.
That school, at 310 N. Providence Road, now Douglass High School, is currently being renovated.
Along with the school, the area that was known as Douglass Pool, now Douglass Park and Family Aquatic Center, a place Horrell said the black community went to have fun.
“It is now one of the best pools in town,” Horrell said.
The city called the urban renewal project, The Douglass School Urban Renewal Area plan, which specifically mentioned another entertainment area in the black community, Sharp End.
Brown said Sharp End “proper” mainly consisted of the land on both sides of Walnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. That land is currently occupied by the post office and a large parking garage.
The trail marker there currently reads, “Sharp End business district was a city within a city for Columbia’s black community.
Brown said Sharp End was home to barber shops, restaurants, a dance hall and several bars.
“Sharp End was not necessarily a family place. It was more for the adults in the community to socialize,” Brown said.
“You had to be of a certain age, you had to have your parent’s permission if you were under age and you had to be dressed properly to come down to Sharp End,” said Jim Whitt, President of Columbia Board of Education and member of Sharp End Heritage Committee.
Whitt said the committee felt it was very important to, “capture what actually went on, so that our community understands who we are, how we got to where we are and the contributions that everybody made within our community.”
Second Missionary Baptist Church and the “Blind” Boone Home are very close to Sharp End.
There is a joint trail marker for those locations in front of the “Blind” Boone Home because they have an interwoven history through the Lange family.
Ruffin said Second Missionary Baptist Church was founded in 1866 only a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Once many of the slaves in the area were emancipated they wanted to create their own church and worship in their own way and so they formed what was called the African Union Church,” Ruffin said. The church split and some members became methodist and some baptist. Those who became baptist formed Second Missionary Baptist Church.
The “sanctuary” as it is on Broadway, was built in 1894, according to the marker.
“That’s a tremendous accomplishment for the African-American community considering this is the first generation following slavery, to be able to build a historic structure quite like this,” Ruffin said.
Horrell is also a long time member at Second Missionary Baptist and said the churches in the area, including St. Paul AME and St. Luke United Methodist Church, are what kept the black community together over the years.
“They are pretty much the thing that keeps most of the original Columbians together,” Horrell said.
Another marker was dedicated on Sept. 30 to remember the lynching of James T. Scott.
The Columbia City Council accepted the marker earlier this year.
A mob of white people hanged Scott, a janitor at the University of Missouri Medical School, after a 14-year-old girl accused him of assault and rape. The mob used a rope to drag him from his holding cell and hang him from the Stewart Road Bridge before he could stand trial.
Ruffin said Scott was a member of Second Missionary Baptist Church and a prominent leader in the black community. He was also married in the church and his wife was a teacher at Douglass School.
“What we do know is that there is sufficient evidence to prove that he was innocent of the crime,” Ruffin said.
Whitt said The African-American Heritage trail is important because it allows for community members to understand the untold history in Columbia.
“The only way to keep from repeating something is to really understand your history,” Whitt said.
The next markers for the trail are 3rd Street Market, Blue and White Cafe and the Harvey House.
“For a place like Columbia to acknowledge its African-American history in a very visible way, I think is a rare accomplishment that will set us in a very unique position nationally,” Ruffin said.
Whitt said he hopes people will be able to start doing tours of the trail by next year.