Published December 21st, 2020 at 3:38 PM
In 1956, Pearl Spencer was one of the first Black students to enroll in Parkville’s newly integrated high school.
Spencer and her siblings still vividly remember their experiences growing up Black in Parkville – the good, the bad and the ugly.
A reader asked curiousKC to look into who lives in what was once the African American section of Parkville where they recently bought a home. This reader wanted to know “about varied influences – especially slavery and the emerging university – on life for Black folk then.”
Here’s what we found on the evolution of Black life in the area.
An entrepreneur by the name of George S. Park first stepped foot on the soil that would become Parkville in 1838. He built a home there, and by 1850 the steamboat landing along the Missouri River was home to a burgeoning community.
While Missouri wasn’t in the Deep South, there were still a significant amount of slave holdings. The main crops produced in the area, hemp and tobacco, were very labor-intensive. Farmers relied on the labor of the enslaved in order to produce enough crops to turn a profit.
Timothy Westcott, a history professor at Park University, said “89.45% of the slave owners in Platte [County] owned 1-9 enslaved persons.”
Leading up to the Civil War, the question of slavery led to bloodshed along the Kansas-Missouri border. Park himself was anti-slavery, and publicly denounced Missourians who crossed the border to illegally vote pro-slavery in Kansas. After printing a spirited article about this in his newspaper “The Industrial Luminary,” angry Missourians broke into Park’s office and threw his printing press into the river. They likely would have thrown him into the river with it had he not been out of town that day.
“He broke what we would probably call every rule of the game,” Westcott said.
For example, Park was given an enslaved person in some sort of exchange, and he went to great lengths to educate her. To educate an African American in any capacity was strictly forbidden, and to be caught doing so was punishable by jail time or a $5,000 fine, or $15,000- $20,000 in today’s money.
Black life in bondage wasn’t very well documented in this particular region. However, there is a letter from a white Parkville pastor, George Woodward, to the American Missionary Society in 1853. In the letter, Woodward answers their questions about the status of slavery in the Parkville area.
Woodward stated: “The reason why slavery is so mild here I think arises from the fact that most of our people are poor and do their own work; hence, slaves are not regarded as a low and menial class.”
Of course, the definition of the word “mild” here is up to interpretation (white commentary on the status of enslaved people at the time might be taken with a grain of salt).
Woodward also noted that at the time, Black people were mixed into the white population. After emancipation, the Black population of Parkville began to gather and populate West Street. This is when more detailed records of Black life and culture in Parkville start to come into focus.
Post-emancipation, Parkville’s economy “hit the skids,” according to Westcott. Because of how labor-intensive hemp and tobacco were to produce, farmers were unable to pay wages for the amount of labor it took to grow enough crops to make a profit. Both Black and white residents were suffering financially. This is when Missouri saw an emigration of newly freed African Americans to Kansas in the Exoduster Movement.
For those who remained, Park University entered as a saving grace for the town’s economy in 1875.
Park University was founded on the principles of faith and labor, meaning that the students worked to build and maintain the school. The university also sought out to employ many Black men in town who had the agricultural knowledge to maintain the school grounds and its livestock.
Unlike the Deep South, there weren’t organizations in Missouri like the Freedmen’s Bureau to help the formerly enslaved transition to newfound freedom. The Black population was left without resources, education or job opportunities. But they did have a wealth of farming knowledge. Their employment by the university helped them purchase farmland and homes, some of which are still occupied by their descendants today.
“These gentlemen really formed the foundational component of the day to day non-academic life of our college,” Westcott said. “And every one of them was forever beloved by the student bodies.”
While there was a fondness in the working relationship, the Black men employed at Park University did not have the opportunity to attend the school to receive a higher education. In the late 1800s, the founders of the school had a dream of building a separate college for Black students that was never realized. In reality, no Black person would enter the gates of Park University as a student until 1950.
Be that as it may, there is a strong history of collaboration between the school and the Black community.
In 1885, students from Park University helped build the Banneker School — the first school for Black children in the area. Most of the students were children of the formerly enslaved, marking a huge leap in the advancement of the community. When the Black population outgrew the one-room schoolhouse, the community again rallied to help kiln the bricks for Banneker School 2.
For a long time, 8th grade at the Banneker School was the highest level of education a Black person could achieve if they stayed in Parkville. Some students were able to travel to Lincoln High School in Kansas City, and those who couldn’t had to begin finding employment.
The integration of Park Hill High School in 1956 was another leap of progress for the Black community. But there was another essential institution that remained segregated and has hardly crossed color lines to this day.
Cora Thompson, Parkville native and sister to Pearl Spencer, remembers attending Easter services at St. Matthew in Riverside or Park Hill Baptist. Though there was no sign out front signifying “Whites Only,” it was written on everyone’s face.
“Blacks were never included to participate,” she said. “But we were there.”
The earliest record of Black people in Parkville gathering to worship comes from an article in 1835. These early gatherings were the beginning of what would become known as the Colored Methodist Episcopal, or CME, church. The other Black church was Mt. Washington Baptist.
Thompson recalls her mother coordinating Park University music students helping the CME Church start a band. University students were also involved in building the Washington Chapel, which is still standing today.
Other than that, there were few instances of crossing the color line.
Black Parkville residents gathered at Washington Chapel | Courtesy of Park University
“I don’t think White people can handle being preached to by people of color,” Thompson said, reflecting on how Parkville’s churches are still mostly segregated.
In some ways, Parkville’s churches are an example of the way that the two races operated over time. In the beginning, the Black population was scattered throughout the white population. The working-class nature of the town made race and class closer in rank as social determinants.
For example, Parkville Presbyterian Church admitted four African American members between 1854 and 1855. This was a rare occurrence, but a demonstration of what Westcott calls Parkville’s “small ‘p’ progressivism.”
But over time, as the Black residents gathered and sought forms of equality, the tone began to shift. The class solidarity that once bound the races together began to dissolve. Post World War II, racist attitudes became more firmly embedded.
“There was no real respect,” Thompson said, reflecting on the way most whites treated Black people in town when she was growing up in the 1950s and 60s.
“Where the last white family lived on West Street was where the paved road stopped,” Spencer said. After that, it was dirt and gravel.
Spencer remembers their father, Frank Douglass, helping to organize Black voters in the 1950s. Black families were paying taxes, but Parkville’s government refused to extend infrastructure such as sewers to the Black portion of town. Douglass didn’t seek to become a leader of the Black community, but as a coach, deacon and teacher, he was looked to as a respected figure.
One day, three white Parkville residents showed up at the Douglass family’s house. Thompson doesn’t remember if they barged into the living room or just banged on the door, but she knows exactly what they sneered at her father:
“Don’t tell the niggers how to vote.”
Many Missourians prefer to distance themselves from the horrors of the Deep South. Yet, to do so would erase the experiences of Black Missourians who still feel the ripple effects of slavery in their everyday lives.
Thompson used to be afraid to walk downtown in the middle of the day because she was afraid a white man would try to assault her.
Spencer once walked out of a Park Hill High School play because a student was performing in blackface.
In the 1980s, brother Charles Douglass was routinely harassed by Parkville police who would call him racial slurs.
A quick drive through downtown Parkville today would reveal a few square blocks of small-town charm – vintage stores with flowers out front and a welcoming coffee shop on the corner. But what is less obvious is the work that its Black citizens did to maintain the economy of the town and secure a life of opportunity for themselves.
Thompson is determined that her children and grandchildren know how her generation fought to establish a life in Parkville. She never wants them to think that the generations before them did nothing to right the wrongs committed against them.
“We cannot let that happen,” she said, “Let them go their whole life not knowing that they hung people in Missouri.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Westcott's name. It is Westcott, not Wescott. In addition, the Banneker School was not formed in 1886, it was in 1885. The article has since been updated.