Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994

Black in the Great Depression:

by James S. Baumlin, Kimberly Hanan, and Meghan Dorsett

James S. Baumlin, is a professor, Meghan Dorsett an instructor and Kimberly Hanan a graduate student in the Department of English, Southwest Missouri State University. Katherine G. Lederer is senior professor in the same department.

Springfield Mo., the county seat of Greene has a population of 65,000, Negro 1,779. Joplin is in Jasper County and has a population of 33,454, Negro 755. Carthage, the county seat of Jasper County, has a population of 9,735, Negro 269." So observes the Negro City and County Directory of 1937, whose last page declares (in boldface): "This Service of a Negro Directory is a Service of a Demand, and a Just Demand, because Negroes are often times placed in embarrassing and uncomfortable positions." The Directory itself calls attention to several of these "positions,'' inequities that a deep economic depression could hardly have lessened. Its "Index of Manufacturers and Industries in Springfield" lists 59 firms, placing a letter "N" by "the Ones that Employ Negroes." Only 12 of the 59 are so marked. According to the 1937 Directory, both the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway and the Missouri Pacific Railroad employed African Americans. Dr. Pepper Bottling Company did, too, though the Coca-Cola and Nehi companies did not. Colonial Baking Company did; the Mueller and Lippman baking companies did not. Swift and Company did; Armour and Borden did not.

Springfield Gas and Electric Company did; Springfield Newspapers, Inc. did not. The number of prospective employers in manufacturing--again, 12 of 59 listed--was small, but such information could still be vital to an African American looking for work in the 1930's.

Another of the "uncomfortable positions" to which the Directory calls attention is "Accommodation for Travelers," difficult in a time when most White-owned restaurants and motels refused service. As the Directory notes, African Americans could lodge at S. L. Smith's, 855 Summit Ave., Springfield; and other places of respite could be found, by word of mouth, within the African-American community. A business like Graham's Rib Station, Black-owned, was known to host African-American entertainers who came through the Ozarks, and other Black-owned businesses survived, though fewer than before the lynchings of 1906 had lessened by half Springfield's once-prosperous African-American population; indeed the lynchings had broken much of its previous economic strength when Black businessmen, physicians, teachers, and other professionals were literally run out of town. Older Springfieldians may still remember the Black-owned grocery store occupying two adjacent buildings on St. Louis Street; by the 1930's, it had been replaced by a one-room wooden store on Sherman Avenue. Clearly Springfield's African-American population, which the 1937 Directory estimates at 1,779, could look upon the Great Depression as but one of many "uncomfortable positions."

Graham's Rib Station in the 1930's, on Springfield's north side.


The Frisco Railroad's fire fighters had been inte grated by 1930 (a contemporary photograph shows several Black members), though no African Americans served in Springfield's fire department. Nor were they accepted to serve in the city's police force: none had since 1906, and none would again until the 1970's. None served on the School Board, either, and none would again until the 1990's (here too, African Americans had served prior to 1906). Local sports teams were segregated, as were most churches and all public schools. Yet the Negro City and County Directory of 1937 lists Lincoln School, on Sherman Avenue and Central Street in Springfield, as a "Negro High School of the First Class," one of 16 in the state and the only "first class" (that is, fully accredited and--by White standards--adequately equipped) Black school in Southwest Missouri. In fact this facility had been built and dedicated just two years prior. A program of the 1931 Dedication survives, at which the Assistant State Superintendent, O. G. Sanford, made an official presentation of Rosenwald Foundation aid. When the history of Missouri's Black education is finally written, Lincoln School will figure prominently both as the state's first Rosenwald School and as a rallying place for African Americans throughout the Ozarks: though hardship and threatened violence drove Black families away from Springfield in the early 1900's, by the 1930's many had returned for the sake of their children's education. Here, alone in Southwest Missouri, an African American could graduate from a fully-accredited public high school. And graduates of Lincoln School during the 1930's were aware of the difficulties, the "uncomfortable positions," lying ahead. Their motto, "the elevator of success is broken; take the stairs," rings doubly tree for graduates of an African-American school newly-built in the Ozarks in the midst of the Great Depression.

Tindall Market, a Black-owned grocery store on Springfield's north side.

One of the first graduating classes from the New Lincoln School, on Springfield's north side.


Being the first Rosenwald School established in Missouri, Lincoln is now one of only two public schools recognized as a Springfield historic site. Yet this had once been forgotten; only by the research and dedication of Dr. Katherine G. Lederer was Lincoln's historical significance recently reasserted. Education, indeed, even the Great Depression, forms but a chapter or two in the larger history of African-Americans in the Ozarks, a history whose writing remains still before us. In broad outline, nonetheless, it can now be assembled and recorded thanks to the labors of Dr. Lederer, whose Collection of Ozarks African American history provided the photographs and materials for this present discussion. Indeed, so extensive and significant is the Lederer Collection--with nearly 35,000 items, mostly unpublished and hitherto unre-corded-that we wish to conclude with a brief description.

Readers of OzarksWatch may already know Dr. Lederer as a Professor of English at Southwest Missouri State University and the author (among other texts) of Many Thousand Gone: Springfield's lost Black History. Over the past two decades, Dr. Lederer has built a private collection of documents and artifacts-slave registers (including bills of sale and advertisements for runaways), deeds of sale, legal proceedings, wills and probate records, maps, genealogies, newspaper clippings and advertisements, church and school records, census reports, insurance policies, cemetery records, mortgages, telephone directories, birth and death records, marriage records, enlistment papers and local military records (of segregated regiments from the Civil War through the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection to World War I), transcripts and tape recordings of personal interviews, diaries and autobiographies, personal letters, unpublished creative writings, and objects of racism (post cards and newspaper reports of lynchings, burnings, and riots, Klan publications and the iconographies of Pickaninny, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Tom), in addition to several thousand photographs--all relevant to the history of African Americans in the Ozarks. With nearly 35,000 artifacts, Lederer's is among the largest collections of regional Black history in the American Midwest, and perhaps the largest private collection in the nation.

We await a complete, accurate catalogue and description; kindly, the College of Arts and Letters at Southwest Missouri State University has offered support in cataloguing the collection, though this work has just begun. In earlier paragraphs we merely glanced at materials relevant to the 1930's; truth to tell, the collection's strength lies in materials from the 1830's through the early 1900's. But it is not our task to say what shall be found when all is surveyed and interpreted; books alone would serve, but let it suffice to suggest that race-relations in Southwest Missouri shall be open to thorough rethinking. Predictions aside, pressing now is the need to find a permanent home. Several nationally-prominent Black archives, including the Amistad Archives at Tulane and the library at Fisk University, have expressed interest in housing the collection. Must it be removed, then, from the Ozarks? Clearly, the Lederer Collection is one of our region's great unmined treasures. We trust that institutional support will be found to keep it, preserved and housed and accessible to scholars, here, where it belongs.

Katherine Lederer is author of "My Old Man's a White Old Man: Black Women Search for Roots," OzarksWatch, Fall, 1990

Documents and Photographs from the Katherine G. Lederer Collection of Ozarks African-American History

Copyright -- OzarksWatch

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