The organizers of the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail unveiled an artist’s rendering of the trail’s first marker at the annual Park Day Reunion Aug. 3, 2018 at Silver Springs Park, which celebrated its centennial that day. The permanent marker was installed Dec. 13, 2018.
The organizers, which include business owner Lyle Foster, Missouri State University Chief Diversity Officer Wes Pratt, MSU faculty member Tim Knapp, NAACP Springfield President Cheryl Clay and City of Springfield Director of Public Information & Civic Engagement Cora Scott, plan to designate as many as 20 sites on the trail with distinctive, historical markers and have partnered with the City of Springfield, Springfield-Greene County Park Board, Ozark Greenways, Missouri State and Drury universities to make the project a reality.
The trail will follow an existing greenway that runs near several of the important sites, such as the Sherman Avenue Corridor, the former Lincoln High School, (Springfield’s black high school before integration, now known as Ozarks Technical Community College’s Lincoln Hall) Jones Alley Business District and the Historic Church Quadrangle (Washington Avenue Baptist Church, Benton Avenue AME Church, Gibson Chapel Presbyterian Church and Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church.)
There will also be signs directing people to other significant markers from the greenway.
Silver Springs, Springfield’s only public park open to black residents during segregation, was established in 1918 on land owned by Springfield school superintendent Jonathan Fairbanks, who had died the previous year. The night before Easter 1906, Fairbanks opened his home to black residents frightened by the lynching of three black men – Will Allen, Fred Coker and Horace Duncan – on Park Central Square. A memorial honoring the three men will be incorporated into the heritage trail.
The Park Day Reunion dates back to 1952 when Gerald Brooks, a parks supervisor and a teacher at Springfield’s former Lincoln School, and Robert Wendell Duncan, also a park supervisor, started a day of games and sports events for young African-American residents at Silver Springs.
Park Days includes a parade, beauty pageant, concerts and a picnic, and provided the backdrop for the 1998 film “Park Day,” by director Sterling Macer, Jr., who grew up here.
“One of the goals of the whole project is to promote healing and appreciation for the African American community’s past and present,” said Mayor McClure, in his 2018 State of the City address. “… We are making great strides forward in diversity and inclusion but we have a long ways to go.”
In April 2019, the trail committee announced plans for additional trail markers commemorating four churches historically interconnected to form the core of the African-American religious community in Springfield, and markers commemorating Alberta’s Hotel and Lincoln School. These markers will be installed in summer 2019.
The trail project, which is now in its second year, recognizes the history and contributions of the African-American community to area history with trail markers commemorating local history, culture and points of interest.
The new markers will be recognizing the following historical sites:
Church Square North
During slavery, some slaves met in secrecy to worship in the woods along Jordan Creek (formerly Wilson’s Creek).
In the north area bounded by Central, Benton, Washington Avenue and Brower Street (currently Bob Barker Boulevard), the Benton Avenue African Methodist Episcopalian Church (AME) was organized in 1872. In 1926, the current two-story brick building was completed.
Washington Avenue Baptist Church, organized in 1867 as a mission by members of the white congregation of the First Baptist Church, was called Second Baptist Church (Colored). The church was renamed Washington Avenue Baptist Church to remove two stigmas: the use of the term “colored,” and eliminating Second Baptist Churches as inferior “offshoots” of First Baptist Churches. The church was later moved 300 feet north on Washington Avenue so that Drury University could build a new science center. The church is now the Drury University Diversity Center.
Church Square South
The southern area of the historic Church Quadrangle includes Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church, built in 1865 after an arsonist torched the log cabin church along Jordan Creek.
The other church is Gibson Chapel at Tampa and Washington Avenue, which was formed as the First Negro Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1865 by a former slave, the Rev. Peter Lair.
The community hospital for the black community was remodeled by Ms. Alberta Ellis to include rooms for paying guests; a large dining room, a rumpus room, beauty salon, barbershop and snack bar. The hotel, staffed by family members, was located three blocks north of historic Route 66. Alberta’s Hotel was listed in The Negro Travelers’ Green Book beginning in 1954. Over the years, Route 66 travelers from across the United States and other countries stayed at Alberta’s Hotel.
The Rosenwald Foundation in 1930 issued a grant to pay for a new school for Springfield’s Negro students and a two-story redbrick school was dedicated on May 21, 1931. When it opened, teachers led students in a parade on Central Street to the New Lincoln School. Once there, students sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The new school had 15 rooms, including a gymnasium, mechanical arts shop, domestic science room and a library. Lincoln School, described in the local newspaper as “one of the best equipped Negro schools in the state,” was a community school. Teachers, administrators and parents sponsored scout troops; a community library and child care center; as well as held dances, plays, concerts, talent contests and fashion shows. When Springfield public schools integrated, Lincoln School became a junior high school and is now Lincoln Hall on the Ozarks Technical Community College campus.
Funding support for the African-American Heritage Trail has been received from the City of Springfield and Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Donations are welcome and encouraged, and can be sent to theSpringfield-Greene County African-American Heritage Trail c/o of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. The markers cost approximately $8,000 apiece.
Want to get involved with this project? Contact Cora Scott at 417-380-3352.