Sehon Williams spent his childhood on the near north side of Columbia, running back and forth between unlocked homes where parents helped raise each other’s kids.
The kids played games on the neighborhood streets, walked to school every day and hung out at the local black churches.
“There was a camaraderie that has been lost,” said Williams, 97, a World War II veteran and former postal clerk in Columbia.
He shared stories about his upbringing in segregated Columbia with local historian Bill Thompson on Tuesday night as a part of a lecture series on the African American experience in Missouri. The series began as a response to the campus protests of 2015.
It is cosponsored by the State Historical Society of Missouri and MU’s Division of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Columbia had a segregated business district called Sharp End that supported the black community. There was one high school for whites and another for blacks.
Yet, even though Columbia was strictly divided by race, Williams described his childhood as happy and loving, with close friends and strong family ties.
It was not unpleasant to live in Columbia, he indicated, but blacks were never far from the edges of the white community, and even downtown blocks were separated by race.
“Black people didn’t cross Broadway unless they were going to work,” Williams said. “You could be anything but black and be successful.”
Williams has spent all of his life in Columbia, except for a stint in a segregated Army unit during the Second World War. The Columbia he knew as a child was centered around the Sharp End business district, Douglass School and St. Paul AME Church.
However, he said it hasn’t been lost on him that Columbia also had a reputation for obvious bias. If four black people were standing on the street corner, he said, it was considered unlawful assembly by the police. Denied access to county hospitals, the black community had no choice but home births.
There was definitely a disreputable side to Columbia — Sharp End was named after knives, razors and other weapons, for example. After telling someone where he lived, Williams remembered that they replied, “Oh, my God. That’s where you get your throat cut.”
Other residents of the area at the time have offered a different version of the name, saying because it was a business and entertainment district one had to "dress sharp" to go there.
Before World War II, he graduated from Douglass High School and enrolled in Lincoln University to study industrial arts. When the United States entered the war, he was drafted into the Army and served in a segregated African American unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the only black infantry division to see combat in Europe.
During his stint in the military, he sent money back to his wife, Dora, who bought a home on Switzler Street while waiting for his return.
When Williams completed his two-week journey back to still-segregated Columbia, he said it welcomed him with the same stifling discrimination. He became resilient to this reality and started a 31-year career as a clerk at the U.S. Post Office.
Throughout this period, Sharp End remained the commercial district for the black community. It was home to restaurants, taverns, barbershops and shoe stores. In its heyday, it was a place for people to grab a drink and shoot some pool.
During the 1960s, however, the area fell victim to urban renewal, and nearly all of the businesses in Sharp End were demolished to make way for public housing. The empty promise of revitalization wiped out the district and broke the black economy, historian Bill Thompson said.
He said it kicked people out of their homes, rendered them unable to buy new ones and eventually forced them to live in the projects. Most of all, it totally erased a culture that had been vital to the Columbia community.
“The worst part is that the footprint of public housing didn’t even use 20% of its designated area,” Thompson said.
There seemed to be an urgency among the audience Tuesday night to spread awareness about how this history affects the present and future. Parents said they have made it a point to educate young people about the history of race in Columbia.
Chante Wright, human resources director for Reality House, and her husband taught their son about history the way her parents had taught her, through exploring the city and exchanging stories. In addition, books, television and film helped her family expand its perspective on issues like discrimination, racism and segregation.
“We have to take it upon ourselves to show these kids the tangible history that this city surrounds them with,” Wright said. “If we do that and encourage educational materials, they will take an interest in making this a great city and a great nation in the future.”