Friday, February 18, 2011

BOTTOMLANDS: The Geography of Inequality in Columbia, Missouri

Part 2 of a periodic series from "Our Black Children," an MU Thesisby Jason Jindrich   

The use of force.  It's defined black America for as long there have been black Americans.  Slavery was forced.  Segregation was forced.  Desegregation was forced. 

By taking us back to the way racial force shaped Columbia, MU grad student Jason Jindrich provides a powerful guide the future, complete with GPS technology and a narrative that gives voice to the people of a lost geography, what Jindrich calls Columbia's "Black Space." 

This narrative is drawn entirely from Jindrich's graduate thesis on the subject, both in paraphrase, quotations, and parenthetical citations.*  Be warned: it minces no words and if you are offended,
that's probably a good thing.
Separate but Equal?   

"With an intelligent voice for reform," Rufus Logan's newspaper The Professional World was the most important written record of Columbia's Negro community circa 1903-09.  Subscribers included prosperous Black businesspersons and professionals; and many influential white readers such as the MU president and the dean of the agricultural college. 

The Professional World included an optimistic society page that covered such events as a local Black doctor’s appointment to the Republican National Convention; the success of a Black-owned moving and transfer company; Blind Boone performances; and visits from Booker T. Washington, who expressed hope for equality through separation.

A long-time Washington admirer, Logan tried live the famed educator's ideals, founding a Black-owned grocery that repatriated its profits to the community.  He also ran ads promoting the only all-Negro subdivision in Columbia’s history, between North Garth and Third Street. 

White Man's Burden 

When The Professional World folded, academe became the de facto voice of the Black community, and a strongly paternalistic one at that.  Where Logan saw the promise of equality through self-sufficiency, pride, and homegrown prosperity, mostly white university academics viewed the "colored races" as "unavoidable burdens upon the community." 

Confirmed Social Darwinist and MU sociology department chairman Charles Ellwood supervised several paternalistic studies, including a socio-economic census of the Columbia Negro
community by the Reverend William Wilson Elwang.  Widely touted as an example of MU scholarship, a University of Missouri Press edition sold at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair for
50 cents a copy.

Though Elwang openly disliked his subjects, his work has been the starting point of most historic research into Black Columbia for over a century.  Elwang’s perspective on the Negro underclass was informed by his membership in what today would be tantamount to a non-profit aid organization, the Columbia Charitable Aid Society.  Informing the Aid Society of conditions in the quarter of Columbia "that consumed a disproportionate degree of effort" motivated Elwang's sobering survey. 

Noting Black poverty without reference to its primary historical cause -- recuperation from two centuries of slavery -- Elwang argued the "impossibility of racial coexistence."   Reciting ideas about the Black community now considered offensive stereotypes -- from laziness to amorality -- Elwang steadfastly opposed integration.

Supreme Irony  

In an irony of literary proportion, the very community that would later give the loudest voice to integration -- academe -- argued most vehemently for separation a century ago. 

It also started one branch of the "Town and Gown" separation that even today informs Columbia's  political environment.

"Town" included the Black community; "Gown" included the White university. 

"Elwang explicitly details the elite university perspective on the Negro spaces of Columbia, and the relationship of Black space to White space that informed the institutions of White Columbia, the churches, and university," Jindrich writes.  "These scholarly attitudes of racial separation...were instrumental in justifying the spatial separation of races." 

They were also instrumental in justifying the squalid conditions of the Negro section of the city, succinctly summed up in a phrase even cited in the academic coda of the times: “Anything is good enough for a nigger” (Larson 1919, 112). 

Integration Foil 

As in almost every other immigrant ethnic group, African-Americans (in this early case, freed slaves) sought a home apart -- like a Chinatown or a Little Italy -- as a first step toward social and economic integration.  But where Chinese, Italian, Irish, Jewish and other immigrant groups were never forced to remain separate, Black Americans were. 

From 1900-10, the largest housing boom in Columbia's history up to that time encapsulated the Black community in a shantytown (Kellogg 1977), forcing them out of desirable properties along Hickman Avenue (Buren 1929) and into the Flat Branch bottoms.  

*Our Black Children: The Evolution Of Black Space In Columbia, Missouri, Jason Jindrich, 2002

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