In the 1950s, public housing developments were taking over black neighborhoods in Columbia. Earl and Clara Miles helped lead the way to new opportunities in housing for black families.
“It started out as a dream, a vision,” Earl Miles said.
The creation of Miles Manor, a middle-class subdivision just south of Stadium Boulevard and east of Forum Boulevard, was a long process filled with obstacles.
At the time, almost all black families lived in a small community near Douglass High School, Earl Miles said. The area was filled with 100-year-old unpainted houses owned by landlords.
Contractors were afraid of repercussions from city officials if they sold land to blacks, Earl Miles said. But he said his wife, Clara, would not give up on the dream of owning their own home in their own neighborhood — and it changed Columbia.
The couple did not have much money, and Miles said they had to make sacrifices to afford their own house, including being uninsured.
Once they found someone willing to sell them land, other black families bought their own lots to build houses. The subdivision was named Miles Manor after Clara Miles because it was her dream to have better housing for blacks.
Earl Miles said the development was the first black subdivision in Missouri.
“It opened the whole city for blacks,” he said.
On Thursday at the Columbia Values Diversity Celebration, Mayor Darwin Hindman presented a special award recognizing Earl and Clara Miles, who died in November. The award recognized their efforts in helping desegregate Columbia.
“Miles Manor was a big step forward,” Hindman said after the celebration. “Columbia was a very segregated community in housing up until the 1950s.”
Some of the original houses in Miles Manor still stand. It is now a mixed community of about 25 homes, but remains predominately African-American. Miles, who still lives in his original house, said he was surprised by the recognition and thought it was wonderful.
“(Clara) has done so many things other than the Miles Manor,” Earl Miles said. “She was just generally kind of a leader.”
He cited Clara Miles’ involvement in founding the Baptist Food Panty, and she also worked in a soup kitchen for the homeless.
“She was so ahead of her time,” Earl Miles said. “At age 57, she went back to school because she said she was tired of going through the back door and wanted doors to open for her, which they did.”
Earl Miles has lived in Columbia since 1939. He said he has seen changes in the racial climate but still thinks there could be improvements.
“Communication could be better between neighbors, white and black, and also with city officials,” he said. “We need more togetherness.”
More than 1,000 people attended the 12th annual Columbia Values Diversity Celebration on Thursday at the Holiday Inn Select Expo Center to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Along with the award presentation, the celebration included breakfast and performances by the Highsteppers and the Fun City InterACT Teen-to-Teen Theater group.
Arvarh Strickland received the Individual Diversity Award. Strickland became the first black professor at MU in 1969 and worked there until 1996.
The Group Diversity Award was presented to Mid-Missouri Peaceworks for its activities in the community.
The diversity celebration recognizes people in the community who exemplify King’s teachings. Liz Schmidt of the League of Women Voters said she has been to all 12 celebrations. She received the first individual diversity award in 1998.
“It’s a grand event,” Schmidt said. “We’ve gotten a lot better at seating people.”
Jeff Williams, an English professor at MU, said the celebration is vital for the community.
“The value of this event is that it expresses the ideas that we strive to maintain,” Williams said. “It represents the values of the way we think.”
The diversity event is representative of the strides the community has made in regard to race relations, but some think there’s still work to be done.
“We need to break down the racial barrier,” Miles said. “God did not intend for there to be racial barriers. God did not do this; we did.”