Wynna Faye Elbert grew up in the two Columbias, one white, hers black.
Wynna Faye’s Columbia was one of black-owned restaurants and grocery stores and beauty shops. Her schools were black schools.
In a 2012 Missourian story, Elbert described her childhood with a fondness that comes from shared experience. She lived at Fifth Street and Park Avenue, back when Providence was known as Third Street, and shared a single, outside faucet with seven or eight other families. Mothers in the neighborhood were mothers to all children.
But the fabric of the black community was woven in part by strands of fear and hate from white Columbia. Discrimination was encoded in law and practice so calcified that it was 13 years after the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling before Columbia had finally desegregated all of its schools.
Wynna Faye Elbert came of age during those turbulent times and spent a lifetime giving voice to those who were otherwise voiceless.
She died Sunday.
It is ironic that her life story was buried in the public conversation this week by the avalanche that was the news of Michael Sam’s coming out.
A little after 7 p.m. Sunday, I was swerving to avoid an ESPN camera crew parked in the driveway of the Columbia Missourian. In the newsroom, editors and reporters were scrambling to publish the news that the MU senior would likely be the NFL’s first publicly gay active player.
Across the desk from me, a reporter and an assistant city editor were quietly pouring over another story. I asked what they were up to.
Wynna Faye Elbert died, reporter Veronica DeStefano said.
Oh, I said, somewhat distracted. Then: OH.
Big story, I told her. Important story. Wynna Faye is a huge figure in the life of Columbia.
DeStefano’s article touched on some of the reasons: co-founder of J.W. Blind Boone Heritage Foundation, Fourth Squad and the Frederick Douglass Coalition, organizer for the Douglass High School alumni group, Silver and Gold, 30-year employee of Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, 20-year-plus host of the KOPN program “Straight Talk.”
A following article by Andrea Jackson gave another reason: sit-in organizer. The Minute Inn refused service to blacks, so a protest was organized with picketers outside and protesters trying to be served inside. Police came, protesters were thrown out, and another cry against institutional racism was recorded.
As a white man, I owe Wynna Faye and other agents of social change my thanks. I’d like to think I never would have been on the other side of the protesters. I’m glad, as a high school student in the '70s, I never had a chance to find out.
I knew Sunday night what would happen, and was complicit in its occurrence: The death of Wynna Faye Elbert would be dwarfed by the coming out of Michael Sam.
And so it went.
Monday morning, the ColumbiaMissourian.com home page shouted, “Sam comes out as openly gay” in big type with a large photo and five article links below. The Elbert article was there, too, but you had to scroll down to find it. The Missourian doesn’t publish a print edition on Mondays.
Tuesday morning, the print edition carried the Elbert article on 8A. I thought it still should have made it to 1A, but I understand the rationale on a story that was by then two days old.
You could say, “So was the Sam story,” and you’d be right. I don’t regret going full tilt on an event and an issue that is so local with huge national implications. Michael Sam is the story of this moment in time. Wynna Faye Elbert is the story of a lifetime.