People gathered Wednesday afternoon in the crowded rooms of the Blind Boone Home on Fourth Street to celebrate the near-completion of Columbia’s new African-American Heritage Trail.
The event was one of two unveilings this month that mark the completion of the trail, which has been more than five years in the making.
The African-American Heritage Trail is a 2-mile walking trail in central Columbia that takes visitors to 33 historical markers, each representing a different person or place important to Columbia’s black community.
This event showcased six new markers for the trail. A similar event next Wednesday will unveil the final markers.
Barbra Horrell, a member of the Sharp End Heritage Committee, the group tasked with creating the trail, is very excited for its opening.
“I’m elated. I’m over the hill,” Horrell said. “All these years, I knew what was in the black community, but no one else knew. Now everyone else will see what we see. We had doctors, lawyers, everything. We came from slavery, but we have become so much more.”
James Whitt, chairman of the Sharp End Heritage Committee, led the unveiling and introduced the sponsors of each marker, who told the stories behind each one.
The markers recognized these important people and places:
- The McKinney Building: Known as “the hottest spot in town for black musicians” in the 1920s and ’30s, this building was home to several businesses, including the concert venue McKinney Hall. McKinney Hall saw shows from legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. And shows only cost 25 cents.
- Henry Kirkland: Born a slave and freed at age 5, Kirkland became a prize-winning, internationally acclaimed horticulturist. He began learning horticulture at 14 years old from European gardeners. He went on to become a garden and greenhouse supervisor at MU, where he taught gardening. Many believe him to be the first black person to teach at MU. However, he was not an official professor, making him the first unofficial black person to teach at MU. At the event, actor Rodney Sheley did a reenactment of Kirkland and told his story.
- Cummings Academy: This school opened at Third Street and Ash Street soon after the Civil War ended. It was the first school for black children in Columbia. Opening with 63 students, the school was seen as a catalyst for increased opportunities.
- Nora Stewart School: This school opened in 1933 and was originally called the Negro Nursery School. J.B. Coleman, who owned the house where the school was located, realized working parents needed a place for their children during the day. Over the years, the school moved between various sites, including St. Paul AME Church. Amanda Estes was the sole teacher and inherited the property at 505 E. Ash St. from her foster mother, Nora Stewart. Estes moved the school there in 1954. This marker will also recognize the nearby Monta’s Chicken and Rib Shack, which was founded by Monta K. Ralph, also known as “the barbecue king.”
- Coleman Coal and Salvage, Tiger Theater, Tiger Lounge and Noble’s Merchandise Exchange: These businesses were owned by Alvan B. Coleman and Lewis M. Noble. They made up part of the Sharp End neighborhood, a black business district in Columbia that thrived until urban renewal projects displaced the business owners.
- Doby Flats and Wiggins Medical Clinic: Born on a South Carolina plantation in 1854, Stephen Doby came to Columbia around 1915. He built and owned Doby Flats residential buildings and other nearby houses. His daughter Ruth married Roland Wiggins in 1951. After earning two master’s degrees, Wiggins became the Missouri State Superintendent of Negro Schools in 1937. He later received a medical degree from Meharry Medical School and was a Fulbright Scholar in France. Around 1954, he opened up a medical practice known as Wiggins Medical Clinic in his home, which provided medical care for black people.
Many who attended the ceremony were very excited for the trail and impressed by the history.
“These stories need to be told,” said one spectator, Don Day.
“It’s a great reminder to a thriving black business district,” Mayor Brian Treece said. “I think it’s one of those tangible reminders that people can see what famous marker or shop or great Columbian was here.”
Overall, Whitt was happy with how the unveiling went.
“It feels good to have our first celebration to thank all our sponsors and everyone who made this happen,” Whitt said. “We really appreciate everything that went into this.”
When the weather gets warmer in spring, they’ll begin doing tours, Whitt said. Additionally, every Columbia Public Schools student will get a chance to visit.
First Ward City Councilman Clyde Ruffin, who serves as the president of the Blind Boone Foundation, also spoke at the event.
“For the first time,” he said to the crowd, “many of those whose names have not been spoken will have their names spoken.”
Supervising editor is Hannah Hoffmeister.