Friday, February 18, 2011

BOTTOMLANDS: The Geography of Inequality in Columbia, Missouri

Part 1 of a periodic Columbia Black History series from "Our Black Children," an MU Thesis by Jason Jindrich  
"Just as persons of color have long been denied a historic or cultural heritage in western culture, they have also been denied a geography," writes one-time MU grad student Jason Jindrich in Our Black Children: The Evolution Of Black Space In Columbia, Missouri, his eye-opening 2002 thesis on space and race in our town. 
In the unequal landscape Columbia's once-segregated neighborhoods present even today, Jindrich used rigorous quantitative methods, including GPS, "to discern how White paternalistic conceptions of Black Space evolved during the early twentieth century, and how those perceptions seem to have created and perpetuated inequalities in housing, economic status, and access to basic city services." 
Using the dialect of the time, Jindrich notes that by law, "a Negro belonged in Sharp End, Cemetery Hill, or Rail Road Row, nowhere else," while someone who was “colored" -- a term applied to a variety of ethnic groups including Asian -- "could attend the university." 
Like other small southern and border state towns, segregation flourished in turn-of-the-century Columbia, but with a twist: MU students "documented many of the stages in the formation of the segregated community," Jindrich notes. "The sheer volume of information about racial division of space in Columbia made my task relatively easy."   
Beginning his historo-geographical journey "on a bike riding west down Park Avenue," Jindrich based much of his work on a series of MU sociology department theses dating between 1900 and 1934. 
These early academic tomes helped answer questions old city directories could not, such as why community planning was so illogically applied in the segregated community, with odd and even addresses on the same side of the street; zany zoning; zig-zagging lot lines; and streets in a state of perpetual disrepair. 
Racial Frontier
What Jindrich terms the "racial frontier" always began at street level, where, for instance, Fifth Street became Washington"at the point where Black residence space abutted a White neighborhood;" and Walnut Street "ended abruptly at its western approach to the affluent White space of the West Broadway neighborhood."    
Any street that entered the segregated neighborhood was called “west” from the point it crossed over.  "In the directories published between 1902 and 1910, West Broadway began at the intersection with First Street while West Ash began at the intersection with Eighth Street," Jindrich writes. 

Cities in border states acted as first steps out of farm labor for many ex-slaves creating strict, racially defined neighborhood boundaries.  In studies of postbellum Lexington, Kentucky, geographer John Kellogg identified four pre-Civil War types of Black neighborhoods that later became templates for urban Black communities.
The first two residence patterns -- remnants of the age of domestic slaves -- kept part of the Black community diffused throughout affluent White neighborhoods, strung through alleys behind White housing or clustered out of view in nearby back streets.   Columbia exhibited neither pattern.   

Relatively affluent skilled freemen settled in enclaves to market services to the city, creating a third residence pattern that was found in Columbia: an independent community of homes, stores and churches outside the White community.  Columbia's pre-emancipation freemen community included some prominent members, such as John Lang, a major landowner who operated the city’s first butcher shop.
"Shantytowns" characterized the fourth residence type, a product, Kellogg argues, of White greed and ironically, the greed of the freemen, too.  Freed slave shantytowns shared common characteristics: bottomland (flood plain) locations; proximity to railroad tracks, city dumps, or cemeteries; steeply sloping geography; and other undesirable qualities. 
Biracial Building Blocks 
In Columbia, building Black space was actually a biracial effort, Jindrich writes.   
"In 1865, the interior of what was to become Sharp End was already in the hands of two men of color: Gilbert Akers -- who owned most of the block bounded by Third, Fourth, Walnut, and Broadway -- and John Lang, who owned a majority of the next block east."

Relatively prosperous Black freemen, Lang, Akers, and a few others bought land at the city's edge before the Civil War and built shantytowns in partnership with White landowners, creating a geography that by the turn of the century was decidedly biracial, but increasingly separate.

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