New Trail to Honor African American History in Missouri
The Jones Alley Business District in Springfield was home to barber shops, restaurants and other businesses that served black customers when white-owned establishments would not.
Black churches baptized their congregants at Silver Springs Park, the only park open to African Americans in a segregated Springfield.
Before integration, Lincoln High School is where black students attended classes and the community came together for dances, plays and pageants.
Those are a few of the sites that will likely be memorialized in Springfield’s new African American Heritage Trail, a walking path that will wind between historic monuments on the city’s north side, the Springfield-News Leader reported.
Cheryl Clay, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, is part of the committee working on the trail project.
“Black history is very rarely taught in Springfield public schools, especially at the local level,” Clay said. “This is a way to educate — not only our youth but people who live here — about the history of our city.”
Clay said it’s important to understand the city’s heritage — the good parts and the bad.
“If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” she said.
The idea for a trail came out of a three-year research project called “The Journey Continues” by Missouri State University professors Lyle Foster and Tim Knapp. They’ve interviewed longtime residents about their memories and experiences as African Americans in Springfield.
Foster called the project “cathartic.”
“The whole experience has been very powerful,” Foster said. “Stories were not always happy stories.”
Foster gave some examples.
One woman recounted her memory of someone at nursing school asking to see her tail because she was told that black people had tails.
Another woman, the first African American to work in a grocery store in Springfield, said that for a while white customers would not go through her lane because they didn’t think she could count money.
“Times were not necessarily wonderful, but there was a social excitement, a community benevolence that was so special,” Foster said.
On Sundays, families would have picnics and go from one black church to another in an area called “Church Square” for different services, Foster said. That was something people always looked forward to doing on the weekends, according to one person he interviewed.
“The more we understand, the more I think we can work towards what we call equity and justice today,” Foster said. “...Contributions of African Americans were not always known to the larger community. They were known in the black community, but it wasn’t shared or celebrated by the community as a whole.”
A preliminary map shows five locations that will most likely be major markers on the trail. They include Silver Springs Park, the Sherman Avenue Corridor, Lincoln School, Jones Alley Business District and Historic Church Quadrangle.
Foster said a memorial honoring the three men who were lynched in 1906 on the downtown square by a mob will also be incorporated into the heritage trail.
A committee will decide what other sites will be honored on the trail, he said, with a goal of about 20 markers. Committee members will also weigh how to best recognize individual contributions and experiences.
Last year, a Greene County archivist unearthed the story of Milly Sawyers, a black woman who fought for and won her freedom — before some of Springfield’s founders beat her in the street in 1836. The News-Leader helped bring light to her story in March.
More details about the heritage trail, along with the first monument, will be unveiled in Silver Springs Park on Park Day — an annual celebration of Springfield’s black community during the first weekend of August.
This year’s Park Day will be particularly significant, as it is the 100th anniversary of Silver Springs Park.
The city of Springfield is also working with Missouri State University, Drury University and Ozark Greenways to help make the African American Heritage Trail a reality. Mayor Ken McClure announced the trail project during his State of the City address in June.
McClure told the News-Leader he imagines that sites along Springfield’s African American Heritage Trail would be identified by “very substantial historical markers,” similar to Boston’s Freedom Trail.
“One of the goals of the whole project is to promote healing and appreciation for the African American community’s past and present,” McClure said. “...We are making great strides forward in diversity and inclusion but we have a long ways to go.”
McClure said the city might fund some monuments.
“Ultimately it’s going to be a lot of private funding involved,” he said.
Lyle said “The Journey Continues” research project has a grant from the Missouri Humanities Council to help make videos and create an interactive component for the trail.
The heritage trail will follow an existing greenway path that runs near several of the important sites, according to city spokeswoman Cora Scott. There will also be signs directing people how to get to other significant markers off of the greenway trail.