Volume VI, No. 3, Spring 1979




'WE'VE STILL GOT SOME STRUGGLING TO GO'

Researched by Angela Hancock and Michelle Stamps, Photographs by Joe Jeffery


"There was Kaffenberger's Bakery when I was a little girl, and they sold a loaf of bread for a nickel and that was really something," Gene McDowell remembers. "Oh, that was delicious! Mr. Walser used to drive a big wagon and he would come over to the Old Town Store at eleven-thirty or so. We'd all make it a point to get to the store and sometimes the bread would be warm. My grandmother would give my sister and me a nickel, and we'd get a loaf of bread and break it in two. She'd eat half and I'd eat half. Those were the days."

Mrs. McDowell, a lifelong resident of Lebanon spoke nostalgically of life in Old Town. But she is happy for the changes that have led to better opportunities for blacks. These changes and opportunities helped to make it possible for Michelle and me to work together to tell some of the Old Town story.

"My grandmother was a slave on a plantation near Pea Ridge, Arkansas. My mother died when I was three and my sister was six so my grandmother reared us. She wasn't a very young woman herself when she was burdened with us, but she took us gladly. She believed that what you have to do you have to do. My grandmother used to tell us about when she was a slave. I wish now I had listened more closely to things that she told about. She used to tell us about when they were freed, everyone was walking because they didn't have any money.

Though Gene McDowell speaks nostalgically about life in Old Town, she is happy about the greater opportunities of today.

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"When my grandmother's family was 'so-called' freed, a group of them traveled to Missouri and settled in Neosho and Joplin. In later years my mother moved to Lebanon. They had no other means of transportation so they had to walk. The average slave had very few personal possessions so they just tied up their things and went wherever they could."

Mrs. McDowell explained that many of the blacks came from the Southern states bordering on or near Missouri. Some came with the slave owners, and some came after the war. "I don't know if there was any special reason for settling in Missouri, in Lebanon in particular. I think everybody was wanting to get somewhere. They were free and they just wanted to get away from whatever, maybe to get as far north as they could."

The population here was much greater than most Ozark communities. At one time, there were over 125 black families in Lebanon, now there are no more than 100 individuals.

The people moved away because of increasing lack of opportunity. At one time, Lebanon was a center of activity for a large area of blacks; there was a grade school for the children, churches and jobs. But as time passed, the advancement opportunities dwindled, and the community lost many of its members. "There wasn't much to look forward to. People moved away to further their education, for eight grades was all we used to have years ago."

But in the early years of this century, the community was thriving. Mrs. McDowell described activities and people she remembered while she was growing up. There were the brothers who traveled around the area, fiddling for square dances, and John Birthright who was "just as smooth and as light on his feet as could be.

"It seems kids do funny things or it seems funny now, but in threshing time Uncle Hal Chambers drove the threshing machine. He worked for Will Mustard over here, where Mark Twain School is now, and they would go from place to place with this thresher, and it was to our delight to follow along behind it. We'd walk along behind it for blocks and blocks and then have to turn around and walk back! But we'd go following it as far as we could go. And it had a little shrill whistle on it and a steam thing on it.

"Drapers had an apple orchard, and it was the delight of all us kids to see Mr. Birthright come by with a wagon full of apples and take them down to the station at the Frisco place, and there they'd barrel them and ship them out, and he'd go up the road driving the team and this big long wagon of apples, and he'd throw us kids some apples off. We always liked to see him come. You know, just the small things when you're kids you just don't realize. It doesn't take too much to make a kid happy. Those were the days.

"Of course, now they weren't all play, but they weren't all work either, because all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We did have some very good times. But now that things are beginning to look up, I miss some of the old days. Now when they had the old school, it was kind of a meeting place for folk. They had meetings and they had programs and different things at the school. The parents would go, and it was just a good place to go--sort of the fellowship type of thing. But now it's different, and it is for the best. I'm happy to see it come. It's meant so much to our kids to all go to the same school. It's something they deserve."

When asked if she felt that the changes that have come about were good, Mrs. McDowell's expression became thoughtful, but she answered quickly, "Oh, yes. It's much better. There was a time that you didn't buy property--only in certain places. But now, as far as I know, if you have the money to buy it, you can buy anywhere you want. I don't know for sure, I haven't tried it, but that's what I understand. And, of course, the kids have better jobs and all and that's how it should have been."

George Case, another leader of the black community, told about the three original black churches, the African Methodist, the Methodist and the Baptist. The churches of the community drew the people together, giving them a place to worship, as well as a center for recreational activities.

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The African Methodist Church (Mt. Lebanon) was built November 9, 1887 on the corner where it now stands. The first church burned, and during the long struggle to rebuild it, a Baptist deacon gave his home for the Methodist services.

George Case spoke proudly of Mt. Lebanon Church. "In the last year we had the Bishop Goodrich and his wife with us and we burned the mortgage. We're also the smallest church in the Conference and have managed to pay all of our benevolences in full.

"I might go back a little on the history of the church. I've been told by the senior citizens that in the beginning, like all churches, when our communion was held, we only had one cup that they drank from, and it was passed around from one individual to another. The bread likewise was passed from one person to another, until one of our very devout members took the Communion cup and two pie tins to the tinsmith and had our first communion set made. Of course, now we have commercial Communion sets. Also, in the old church I'm told the heat was an old wood stove and for light they had lanterns or lamps on the walls. They had reflectors that reflected light around the church."

Wood Street Church is the second of the three original churches. It, like Mt. Lebanon, is still active today. Built in 1879, it still stands on the same site. Mr. Case said that it was the first Baptist church formed on the west side of the Mississippi.

The First Methodist Church was organized in Lebanon but did not remain long. As people died or moved away only two churches were needed and kept up.

Both churches were centers of attraction for many years. Most of the community's social activities were established within the church.

On the 4th of August there was always a huge celebration with music and dancing and a big barbecue. The men would dig big pits in the ground and barbecue half a beef. Mrs. McDowell explained the significance of August 4, "That's when the Negroes were freed or that's when the news got around to them. It was signed sooner than that I believe. And that was quite a day. We all celebrated it with a big picnic." Other activities included teas, socials and exchanges with other churches.

George Case explained one activity which is still popular. "We have one program we're proud of called the George Program. It was started primarily when the young folk of the church started going to different churches. On the third Sunday afternoon or evening of the month, we would go to another church or they'd come to ours, and whoever had the guests provided the service. The reason it was called the George Program was because the most of the program is singing and the like. Well, George couldn't sing, so they told him he had to do the foot work and organize! Now it is only a choir and we go around to the different churches. We have been to Buffalo, we've been to Springfield, Sleeper, Fairview and this week we are scheduled to appear in Jeff City."

During Mrs. McDowell's childhood, very few of the surrounding areas had schools for the black children, and blacks were not allowed in white schools. But the grade school in Lebanon helped bring in more people. "I was thinking of the Pitts family. They had no school where they lived, So they moved down to Lebanon so their children could go to school. There were many places that had no school. Waynesville was quite a little town and they had no school.

George Case tells about the churches' role.

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Wood Street Baptist Church has served the community on this spot since 1879.

Interior view of Mt. Lebanon Methodist Church, smallest church in the Conference.

"At that time we had between forty-five and fifty students in school. That was quite a little group. The average kid only passed the eighth grade unless he had a way of going somewhere else to get a high school education. Most went to work wherever they could get work."

Because education past grade school did not exist in Lebanon, when she was a child, "Some of the parents were fortunate enough that they could send their children away. Some went to Springfield and then too, in earlier years, even before my time, several families moved there so they could give their children a better education. We had a family by the name of Thomas, and they had two girls. They moved to Springfield to educate their girls. They are both retired teachers now. That was the advantage that they had. We had one or two families that went to Kansas and educated their children there. Of course, in those days you lived according to what you could make, and that was the way it was. Of course, if you don't know any better you do with what you have."

George Case also spoke about his school days, in the early 1950's. "In the 30's we had two high schools in town, and I was one of the last to graduate from the all black high school. Even then when we were segregated as far as school was concerned, we had a good working relationship. We were always over at the other school and we had some nice times. But now that they are integrated, they are doing a great job. There aren't as many blacks on the teaching staff as I would like to see, but sometimes I think it is mainly the fault of the blacks. They have a chance if they want to."

"The school used to be completely segregated." Mrs. McDowell said. "You people haven't been into any of that, and it's hard now for you to realize all of that. My son Lebert and Leo Pennington and Donna Lee Winfrey were the first to go to school at the public high school [1955]. I think now you kids don't have many problems in things like that because you play and go around with kids and you don't pay any attention to that."

Both Gene McDowell and George Case spoke proudly of their people. William Tecumseh (W. T.) Vernon was a name I heard often. George described him. "He was a very well educated man who did a lot of speaking. He made about three trips to Africa and preached. He was very instrumental in the well being and development of Lincoln University in Jefferson City. History shows that when he went to Lincoln University they had only five or six on the faculty, and when he left, it was a well established school. He was born about five miles north of Lebanon. He went to Kansas and there he established a school [Western university], one of the top black universities in the country. Also, when President Theodore Roosevelt was elected, he needed a treasurer, so he came to Lebanon and Bishop Vernon became the registrar of the U. S. Treasury for some three and one-half years, beginning in 1906."

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Mrs. McDowell said, "Now this W. T. Vernon, was, to me, one of our pride and joys. He was the son of a slave. His father was owned by the Vernon family. He went to Lincoln university, or Lincoln Institute at that time, got his education and came back and taught. After he taught here for a number of years he went on to greater things. He went to Kansas and he became Bishop of the American conference."

George Case described Jacob Kenoly, another outstanding name. "He was born just to the west of Lebanon, out in the Bennett Spring area. At the time there were no other black schools to go to in the county except for Lebanon so he and his sister came to Lebanon to go to school, and they worked their way through. He was ten or eleven years old when he entered first grade. He then went to Tennessee and was educated and became a preacher--a bishop. He went to Arkansas and established a college, in fact, he built the college, hewed the logs. After this, he wasn't satisfied with his work. He met some people from Africa during the World's Fair [in St. Louis] and went back with them to Africa, in the Congo [at Schieffelin in Liberia]. And he established there the boarding school and university that exists in the Congo now. There he gave his life as a missionary. We are all very proud of those two men."

The late Ida Pennington told about an outstanding woman. "Aunt Easter Jones was a beloved nurse or midwife, to whites and Negroes alike. As a matter of fact, in terms of that day, she grannied me. She also cooked for the soldiers who marched through here during the Civil War. She bought a great deal of property at fifty cents an acre along the railroad in Old Lebanon, and also real estate in New Lebanon."

When asked about the race relations in Lebanon, Mrs. McDowell said, "I don't know whether there is much prejudice or not. You know you can't tell about people. So often people will say things they don't mean. And right now I don't get out so much, but my experience has been real good. Now I said awhile ago that they didn't have any problems, but I do know this. In the early fifties when they first started playing ball together, Little League, Stanley Allen had the team and Lebert was the only black kid on there. They went to Springfield and at first they wouldn't let them play because Lebert was on the team. Stanley Allen told the officials, 'Well if he don't play, none of them plays. Unless he plays, I'm gonna take my kids home.' So they played. And I know Thomas Lee Roper had a little bit of trouble here when he was playing football. You know how kids will go somewhere after a game and all, and he went into a drug store. They didn't want to serve him.. But I think they got that straightened out.

"Now I go over to Hope House [senior citizens center] a lot. I don't know whether they mean it or not but they treat me nice. I have never had any trouble. But, of course, that's a Federal thing now, and if you don't do right Uncle Sam will take his money back! I don't know. Michelle, don't you think you could go down town anywhere and get a job you really wanted? I'm sure you could! I see one of our girls working over there at K-Mart. I think perhaps the blacks have been put down so much that maybe they are still just a little timid. Well, I think perhaps the churches have done a lot to help.

"Now as far as the relationship between the blacks and whites, I think here it has always been more or less very good. I guess everyone here thought that was how it was being done everywhere else, so that's how it was done. If you're capable of doing something, then you can do it, if you're qualified, and you can't be qualified if you aren't given a change. If it's a good job for Jack it's a good job for Bill. You can't have half one thing and half another. Also you can't do anything until you try. And if you aren't allowed to try, then you never know if you can or not. So I think it's all for the best. Of course, I've been here so long that I don't have any problems. Things aren't always going to be just like you want them, but nobody has everything given to them."

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Mr. Case also expressed his feelings, "I don't think there's very much prejudice in Lebanon now. I'll be the first to say that there is some. I'll also say that maybe all of it isn't on the white side. It may be on the black side, too. But no, I think the youngsters that live in Lebanon are very, very fortunate, as far as the race relations are concerned. The Lebanonites get along very well as far as I can see. During the time the other cities were having riots and what not, Lebanon was just going along unnoticed. I would say prejudice is not as bad maybe as in some of the towns, but it was definitely here in the past. For instance, in the '30's Detroit Tool and Durham [local industries] wasn't integrated, and now they are, and seem to be doing fine. We now have blacks in our fire department and in years past we didn't. I think it has really opened up since then. The churches were segregated and I've seen that changing. We became integrated in '66 and we've had a very successful period in that respect too. Lebanon has changed."

Not only are the blacks of the past remembered, but also those people who have accomplished many things in the present. Mr. Case spoke of several young men who have done very well in their respective careers. He believes their home life and closeness to the church helped give them the initiative to work hard towards their goals. "Blacks have to show that they can before they are picked. But there's nothing wrong with that. We've had black athletes, blacks on the student council. The very first black to become an Eagle Scout in Laclede County was Kenny Case from Mr. Lebanon Church. He also went on to join the Order of the Arrow, and he's still a scout and is now serving in the Marines. Just last week he was honored enough that his name was sent on to Washington, D. C. From Mt. Lebanon's congregation we sent a young man to the Miami Dolphins. He also went to the Kansas City Chiefs. That was Mrs. McDowell's son, Sammy McDowell."Mrs. McDowell spoke of her other son, Lebert, who was my softball coach during the summer. I found that Lebert McDowell is a fine leader and athlete and works very well with people. "I have two sons, Sam and Lebert and both of them went to school over here. Lebert went to Lincoln University and Sam went to Southwest Missouri State. He got a football scholarship."

Mr. Case told about Air Force Captain James Ford, son of Mr. and Mrs. Aldoph Ford. "As I understand it, the entire armed forces send a very few men from all over the armed forces to study law. And Captain Ford was one of these."

Another young man from Lebanon who has gone far is Andrea (Butch) Wilson, a 1976 graduate of Lebanon High School. He has served in the Navy since June, 1976, involved in computer processing.

The young men of the community have taken advantage of the opportunities open to them, and in some cases they made their own opportunities where none existed before. But, from the information given, it would seem that the young women often do not go on to higher levels of education or pursue careers. They often marry, have children and remain in Lebanon.

Both Mrs. McDowell and Mr. Case feel that the blacks have come a long way. Mr. Case, at a recent church service, expressed some of his thoughts which seem to sum up the feelings of many of the older black citizens.

"We have something to be proud of--our heritage as we know it. We've had our struggles, right? We started out in slavery. Of course, everybody knows that's right. But I just want to bring you up to date. Our white masters would not let us assemble together. We had to be separated. We didn't have a place to assemble or a place to worship. So we would gather together in homes, cabins. And when we weren't serving our masters, we would get together and serve the Lord. We couldn't get together like we are now, so we had to struggle in the cotton fields or corn fields. But now you know the beautiful part is that the Lord told us 'Where a few are gathered in My name there I am also.' That is very beautiful.

"What we want all of you to think about it where we have come from and where we are going. This is the time to be awake and to be aware of what your heritage is. And I think that we as a people, as a black race, have come a long way. A very long way. But we've still got some struggling to go."

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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