Throughout February, the basement of the Old Armory Sports Center will display a part of Columbia’s past not easily found by opening a history book.
Wynna Faye Elbert, a founding member of the Blind Boone Heritage Foundation, and Bill Thompson, a specialist with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, have assembled the exhibit during Black History Month for more than 10 years. Elbert created it while working on her master’s degree in community development at MU. Instead of writing a thesis, she received approval to engage in a creative endeavor.
“I wanted to do something for the community,” Elbert said. “Something long-lasting.”
The exhibit contains photos, documents and newspaper articles from 1865 to the present. It chronicles important people and events in Columbia’s history, especially affecting African Americans. Much of the information went unrecorded for years.
“When I was going to school at Stephens, there wasn’t any information on the black community recorded anywhere,” Elbert said.
Elbert and Thompson gathered information and materials for the exhibit by inviting people to meetings where they could share memorabilia such as photos and quilts. MU researchers would collect and document the items then return them. Elbert and Thompson also recorded interviews with older residents to preserve their memories.
“When you don’t have a written history, you have to listen,” Thompson said. “I feel blessed that I’ve been able to get the whole perspective.”
The exhibit also features newspaper clippings with headlines that jump from cardboard stands and hanging poster boards: “Negro Killed When Thrown from Wagon,” one reads. “MU Classes See How Other Half Lives,” another says.
Faded signatures endorse old documents such as a Slave Inhabitance Census from the 1850s, which lists every slave who was in Boone County at the time along with his or her age, owner and whether the slave was a runaway. Elsewhere in the exhibit, a Civil War document declares slavery illegal in Missouri.
Photographs of prominent African Americans in Columbia decorate tables and walls. They depict people such as Columbia native Gary Ellis, a pro-football player for the Green Bay Packers, and George Brooks, a former football coach at Douglass High School. More recent photographs show first ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton and local NAACP President Mary Ratliff.
“It really does give a history of Columbia and pictorial history of what has happened here,” Ratliff said of the exhibit. “It is very impressive.”
Stories of Columbia’s past are abundant. One article profiles Henry Kirklin, a black botanist who won a blue ribbon at a World’s Fair for his work. An MU professor asked Kirklin to speak to students about his work, but Kirklin wasn’t allowed in the classroom. Students had to sit on outdoor steps to hear him speak.
Another part of the exhibit commemorates ragtime musician J.W. “Blind” Boone. One article describes a Marshfield concert in which Boone tried to re-create through his music the sound of a tornado that struck the town.
“It was reported that when Boone played … the townspeople relived the tragedy, some bursting into tears and dashing outside to examine the skies because Boone played with such vividness that relatives of victims became panic stricken,” the article reads. Boone never replayed the song, saying it was part of him and would die with him.
Ratliff thinks teaching black history gives people a more complete picture of American history.
“You can’t have a history with part of the pieces missing,” she said. “It’s like a puzzle; you have to include all of the pieces, including black history in the United States.”
Thompson said creating an awareness of history is essential.
“Once you have a knowledge of what a community is really about, you can focus on improving that community. If you show children how life used to be, you’re going to stop those problems from coming back in the future.”