Saturday, February 12, 2011

SECRET HISTORY: In Columbia, water, sewers -- and segregation

A city service divide that persists today, but now for all residents
COLUMBIA, 2/12/11  (Beat Byte) --  With the annual return of Black History Month, the Columbia Heart Beat (CHB) returns to its long-running periodic series on the good, bad, and downright ugly side of life in 20th century segregated Columbia.  
So much about Columbia's present is rooted in this little-discussed chapter of her past -- a secret history -- that it should be little surprise that central Columbia's longstanding infrastructure problems -- from bad sewers to neglected roads -- started in the impoverished neglect segregation wrought. 
As source material, CHB has quoted extensively from the splendid Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri, a 2002 University of Missouri master's geography thesis by Jason Jindrich. 

Segregated water
"Poverty and lack of access to city services re-enforced health hazards," Jindrich writes.  "Ash, rubbish, and sludge disposal among Black residents in 1919 was dumping in the backyard or street, a situation that created a fecal waste problem and increased the risk of diseases such as hog cholera."   

"Access to city water was limited by race.  Although over half of the Black residents surveyed used city water, 
only ten of those hydrants were inside a house.  The rest were outdoors and the water was hauled up to a block. 
"The majority of the Black community that did not use city water drew water from wells, none meeting a reasonable standard of sanitation.   Of 65 wells surveyed in the Negro community, one quarter were located where water could drain into them from the surface and none were covered adequately. Further, 39 wells were within ten feet of a house, while twenty-one were within twenty-five feet of a privy, and three within ten feet (Larson 1919).

Segregated streets

"Another service that was strikingly divided between the White and Black communities was road paving
"By 1919, the mire that plagued early Columbia persisted only in the "colored community."   Only one road was paved in Railroad Row, and none of the roads surveyed by Larson in the Sharp End area were paved. [The Sharp End was a segregated neighborhood around the Columbia Tribune building and the downtown post office].  The result was heavy erosion in areas with steep slope and a general bottomless muck that turned into deep dust during dry spells. 
"Among the White community, only shoe factory employees lived along dirt streets.   The lack of pavement and the reluctance to enclose the creeks or to prevent sewage and wastes from entering the watershed follows the logic of minimal investment:  there was a lack of economic incentive to improve conditions.
"Endemic poverty and a marginal population guaranteed that incomes on rental properties would not rise in proportion to investments to improve conditions, so property owners in the area worked to defeat plans that would simply raise their property taxes."
[Ed. Note:  Applying the same logic today, in the same general areas of downtown, land investors seek TIFs and other tax incentives, claiming the areas are so "blighted" that investment without such incentives simply won't provide an adequate investment return].    
Next time:  Blight, White fright, and a no-win situation


  1. How come nobody celebrates Native American History Month? Because people are too selfish and self centered to have one. The Native American Indians as we call them today were on this land far and long before the first White Settlers and yet after the White Settlers came upon the land and began to run the Native American Indians out by terror tactics,reservations(a politically correct term for prison camps) and took their land by force we still are not civil enough to give them the respect they are due. Shame on us as the so called "sophisticated society".

  2. Agree.

    You know other than my african ancestry I am also from native, Iris and other caucasion ancestry right there in Missouri. Yet during my lifetime I've been called negro, colored, black and now African American and I don't like it.