Thursday, February 17, 2011

SECRET HISTORY: Recreation vs. infrastructure in segregated Columbia

Our Black History Month series continues
COLUMBIA, 2/16/11  (Beat Byte) --  The last local election saw much discussion about why Columbia needed a tax for parks and recreation when so much infrastructure is in dire straits -- from fire department cuts to sagging roads, sewers, and sidewalks. 
The debate is not new.  Rather than improve basic services, which always lagged in the Black community, city leaders instead pushed for expanded recreational opportunities in segregated, Jim Crow Columbia. 
The thinking originated with some misguided sociological studies that suggested recreation could improve "moral character."  Issues of moral character defined stereotypes:  Entire Black neighborhoods were condemned and perished, over the excuse that their residents were living immoral lives. 
Writing in Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri geography graduate student Jason Jindrich explores the simple yet complicated divide of an unpaved street -- and reprints a 1915 Missourian editorial that has an unusual suggestion about how to improve Black neighborhoods. 
"Because the city did not pave Black community streets, segregation was physically enforced by topography.   Streets were engineered to avoid creek bottoms, and Black residents were eventually ringed by White neighborhoods whose inhabitants were able to follow well graded and paved roads that avoided entering Sharp End [a segregated, Black-owned business district] on their way downtown.
Traffic that needed to cross the creek followed the paved route of Broadway -- the one area of Flat Branch that remained White space -- or crossed Stewart Road Bridge, a direct connection between affluent housing south of Broadway and the University.
Further separation came when a spur of the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (MKT) Railroad entered at the southern edge of the Black community along the low-grade of Flat Branch in the early 1890's. 
The rail connection attracted small industries and warehouses, and in the opinion of Martin (1934), the Black settlements acted as an effective buffer between better neighborhoods and the city's necessary but dirty industries."
Prospering at the turn of the 20th century, Columbia's black residents would be disorganized and destitute only twenty years later.  Wrongheaded, paternalistic attitudes about what needed to be done to reverse their impoverishment and close the growing divide are at least partly to blame, as this December 1915 University Missourian (later the Columbia Missourian) editorial suggests.

Jindrich says the op-ed resulted from  "a let-them-eat-cake attitude toward the black community in the Missourian editorial policy.  
University Missourian editorial, December 1915

"Now Columbia, all sob stories to the contrary, does not treat her Black children shamefully. Of course, conditions exist in their quarters which should be remedied.  An open sewer draining through part of the district is unsanitary and uncivilized, and for the good of the Blacks and the Whites, should not exist.  
The Negro school is crowded. 
Some of the streets in the low section should be paved or drained, and in other places granite walks would lend much to the joy of life.  Some few shacks should be torn down, and, of course, if it were possible to supply everywhere sewage connections and modernly equipped houses, it would be highly desirable. 
But since such a thing is manifestly impossible, the hue and cry that is being continuously raised about Negro housing conditions is both unfair and foolish. 
Perhaps the greatest need, on the whole of the Negroes of Columbia, is the one touched upon seldomest -- the need of a harmless place of amusement.   No theaters, no picture shows, no soda fountains -- where would you go if such conditions existed for you?"
(Of course, such amusements didn't allow black patrons at the time). 
"Claiming that what the Black community desperately needed was a soda fountain to keep them from shooting dice -- and not indoor plumbing -- seems bizarre, and indicates how blame for conditions in the 'Negro section' was laid upon the moral failings of its occupants," Jindrich concludes.

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