Black History Lessons

Race & Meaning.

Shortly after the Ferguson grand jury ruling came down in late 2014, local black community factotum Bill Thompson gave a talk at Ragtag Cinema on what it means to be black in Missouri.

Thompson explained that besides being a border state in both proximity and attitude — before the Civil War would permanently muddy the racial waters here — Missouri offered some special status to free blacks that included the right to own property. This right was a relative rarity — one that would give Missouri’s black communities a purpose and advantage, if not a permanence — that few other states in the 19th century could offer.

As Reconstruction dispersed and disenfranchised much of Missouri’s black population, Boone County blacks remained engaged with and became integral to the Columbia community at large.

J.W. “Blind” Boone and his partner, John Lang, for example, came to have extensive property holdings in Boone County in the late 19th century. Lang funded the building of the Second Baptist Church on Broadway, which serves as a center for the black community to this day, as did the adjacent Blind Boone House in its day.

Over time, Columbia’s near-northwest side became the permanent home to a thriving black community with its own commercial district (Sharp End), schools and park. But in the mid-20th century, urban renewal dispersed many blacks who had been living and working close to town; they moved to various outskirts, where there was little infrastructure — not even bus routes. So over the years, even with some advantages, the local black community has been eroded and disrupted by public policy with a lack of social consciousness.

In 1926, prominent black scholar Carter G. Woodson helped establish “Negro History Week” in an effort to introduce black culture into the American historical narrative. If there can be such a thing as a celebration of struggle, this was it. In 1976, the week became a month (February), but here it is, decades later, and the designation’s original mission is still far from complete.

Which brings us to February 2015. Getting involved starts simply, by becoming aware. Here are a few opportunities for just that.

 

  • On Feb. 11 at the Columbia Country Club, The Westerners history group will host a 6 p.m. reception and reading by black history scholar Gary Kremer to mark publication of his new book, Race & Meaning: The African American Experience in Missouri. Kremer’s collection of essays describes the historical purpose of black communities in Missouri — some still in existence, but many gone by now.
  • From Feb. 19 to 21 and Feb. 26 to March 1, MU Department of Theatre will present “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez at the Rhynsburger Theatre on the University of Missouri campus. The play, which won the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the New York Outer Critics Circle, explores the bitter irony of a wounded, Jewish Confederate slave owner who returns home during Passover and confronts the new attitudes and ironies of life in the Reconstruction-era American South. Read more on Page 38.
  • On Feb. 24, as part of the Missouri River Cultural Conservancy’s Winter Sessions Concert Series at Cafe Berlin, educator and musician-bandleader Glen “Bummer” Ward will perform and be recorded for posterity. Ward is by no means an old man, but he goes waaay back in Columbia’s music scene. In the 1960s, Ward played in the legendary Ghetto Band alongside local legend Big Babe Martin before establishing another, longer lived, mid-Missouri institution: the Kansas City Street Band. “Bummer” spends much of his time lately teaching free drum and percussion classes for the city of Columbia and organizing the Citywide Drumline.
  • Finally, the world renowned Daum Museum of Contemporary Art in Sedalia will feature two February exhibitions germane to the struggle for equality in mid-Missouri. The exhibition debuts recent, significant additions to the Daum’s permanent collection: Kara Walker’s series of 15 lithographs and screen prints entitled Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2005). Walker uses a variety of strategies to break in, cover over, or otherwise intervene within the narrative of the woodcuts. Running concurrently will be David Levinthal’s series of eight photogravures titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin,featuring small, 19th-century, cast-lead figurines that depict characters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel.

Check the city of Columbia website and the MU Gaines Cultural Center Calendar for more events and updates.

Let’s work toward solving the struggle in 2015.

 

Kevin (aka Kelvin) Walsh considers himself a student of music’s effect on people. Since moving to Columbia in 1975, his professional ventures have included music retailer, radio show host and a brief stint as Truman the Tiger. He currently hosts “The (So-Called) Good Life” from 3 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday on KOPN-FM 89.5 and streaming live at www.kopn.org.

artsarts and culturenational black history month
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