Lunch and Learn: History of Springfield’s black community

Austin Kelly, The Black Bear –  Missouri State University’s Multicultural Resource Center Annex recently hosted a small lunch with guest speaker Wes Pratt to go over the history of Springfield’s black community. Pratt currently serves as MSU’s chief diversity officer. The lunch was organized by Nia Morgan, a graduate assistant for Multicultural Programs.

“I was very pleased with the event turnout and I’m very proud of our first event.” Nia said.

Fifty-five students attended the Lunch and Learn.

“Most people didn’t want to talk about black history,” Pratt said.

He started the session talking about how most people don’t want to or care to talk about the black community in Springfield, even the black community itself.

“You gotta know your tribe, know where you came from,” Pratt said.

After studying at Drury University and working with the first black city council member in San Diego, California, Leon Williams, Pratt returned to Springfield wanting to learn his heritage. He was on a journey to discovery his ancestry.

The first blacks came to Springfield with their Texas slave owners around the years of the Civil War. In 1863, the Emancipation Act and Executive Order to end slavery was charged, and June 19th was the end of slavery. But the slaves of Springfield, Missouri did not know they were free until the first weeks of August due to the lack of efficient communication, Pratt said.

After being freed, more blacks came back to Springfield, raising the population to 10 percent black. Most were even the largest land owners at the time. The black community was growing during the years after the Civil War and they were becoming a bigger part of society, Pratt said.

According to Pratt, there were two black dentists in town, a black mortician and a landowner that helped supply the materials to build the city of Rolla. Unfortunately, the growth was put on hold in 1906.

“The most powerful event that happened was the lynching that occurred in 1906,” Pratt said.

On April 14, Horace Duncan and Fred Coker were arrested for raping Maple Cooper, but were released because they were found innocent. They were arrested again later that night on a robbery charge placed by Maple’s husband, Charles Cooper. The two men were drug out of the jail by a mob and taken to the public square where they were hung in trees and burned beneath a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Then the mob went back to the jail and grabbed Will Allen. He was given a mock trial, then hung and burned the same as the others.

“It was estimated that 6,000 men, women and children were there,” Pratt said. “And they looked on and they cheered and they cheered.”

The black population decreased drastically, from 10 percent to two percent in 48 hours. Only one man was arrested for the lynching but released later because of a jury that couldn’t agree. Soon after, an earthquake in San Francisco caused the focus of the people to shift from the lynching to California.

Racism was still consistent in most places. Pratt said he was chased off of Drury’s campus before and was called names as he walked home. Segregation kept black and white athletes from talking to each other. Schools did not have any diversity studies, he said.

In the 60s and 70s, civil rights movements came along and there were marches in Springfield. The city square was shut down for a time. In response, the high schools integrated a better curriculum for the black community. But again, the events were undermined when the students at Kent State were killed by troops, drawing focus away.

The events of today’s society don’t surprise Pratt. The only thing different now is that with phones, people can see the bad happening. Making sure that we as people couldn’t ignore it.

“Historically, there have been problems,” Pratt said. “We haven’t dealt with the explicit bias or unconscious bias. We haven’t dealt with the issues of race, or the issue of LGBTQ acceptance or gender identity. Since we don’t deal with that, we continue to have these challenges that manifest themselves in things we see today.”

Pratt ended the talk with a challenge for the young people. He said change is going to come because young people have started to educate themselves about different cultures and started addressing public policy issues that affect the communities and the nation.

He said that the young people fighting for change need to get into power to start making and changing these laws and regulations. He challenged the young people to start this change and to work towards a better future.

“You’ve got work to do, I believe in you,” Pratt said.

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