"A quiet conspiracy to keep colored areas marginalized"
COLUMBIA, 8/18/12 (Beat Byte) -- "By 1900, the pollution of Flat Branch Creek was one of the more obvious problems facing Sharp End," writes then-Mizzou graduate student Jason Jindrich in his May 2002 thesis about the geography of racial inequality in Columbia, Missouri, "Our Black Children."
Repeatedly cited over the last decade for its detailed, 104-page retelling of Columbia's lost black geographic history, Jindrich's thesis has achieved something akin to the fame that comes to the explorer of an undiscovered country.
Neglect from City Hall was an ongoing factor in the decline of the Sharp End and surrounding black residential areas, Jindrich discovered. This conclusion of our series is taken directly from his thesis.
Complaints Columbia city government was dumping refuse into the Flat Branch creek were recorded up until the late 1930’s (Crighton 1987). The city gas plant leaked oil into the water that accumulated human and livestock waste as it passed between houses on Park and Ash Streets.
Local poverty also contributed. Few residents of the black community were able to afford city sewer, so waste flowed into the creeks from privies, trash piled up in ditches, and cinder from burned coal was everywhere.
The persistence of a difficult and unhealthy landscape within the bounds of Columbia's Negro community doesn't seem to be accidental, Jindrich writes. It could be argued that the original location of settlement by Blacks in the bottom was determined by the undesirability of the land to the White community and city government purposefully neglected that area because it was racially undesirable.
That interpretation is supported by the conclusions of Kellogg (1977; 1982) who argued that there was a quiet conspiracy by the White leadership of southern cities to keep colored areas marginal.
But the reality was probably more complicated.
Slumlords contributed, too.
Audrey Kittel believed that landlords of both races in the Black district regarded maintenance of their buildings as a lost cause.
Kittel collected many complaints about how Black landlords were just as bad, if not worse than White.
One landowner remarked, "Negro property is a fine investment because you don't have any upkeep expense. All you have to do is pay taxes and insurance, and the taxes are very low on that property. Then besides, the niggers pay their rent, they don't get behind like other people do." (Kittel 1938, 44).
The data August Larson collected in 1919 concerning the disposal of household waste provides the best example of how the city and property owners equally conspired to create the landscape of Sharp End.
City sewers were extended last into Black neighborhoods, and when they were available landlords made almost no efforts to connect houses. Out of the 75 houses Larson surveyed along Walnut Street, 45 had potential access to the city sewer and only 19 were connected.
The racial differentiation in access to city services was strikingly demonstrated in the Railroad Row neighborhood. Of the 80 houses Larson surveyed, 45 were on streets without potential sewer access, of those 44 were occupied by Negroes. City wide only five percent of Negro houses were connected to a sewer, in contrast with eighty percent of White houses.
Mire and muck
Another service that was strikingly divided between the White and Black communities was road paving.
By 1919 the mire that plagued early Columbia persisted only in the colored community, only one road was paved in Railroad Row and none of the houses surveyed by Larson in the Sharp End area were paved.
The result was a general bottomless muck that turned into deep dust during dry spells. Among the White community, only the shoe factory employees lived along dirt streets.
Beginning with Larson in 1919, and continuing at least through the 1950s, proposed solutions for Sharp End were rooted in public programs and education (Brooks 1950) that consistently placed an agent between the White community and the Negro recipient.
Those agents -- who evolved into key parts of Columbia's significant non-profit community -- remain middle men, so to speak, between the races.
As the Sharp End declined, land ownership and therefore prosperity plummeted. Non-profit assistance and permanent, government-subsidized rentals were the consolation prizes, to a community that to this day struggles over the loss of both its heritage and part of its history -- the prosperous part, that settled the land nobody wanted but then had to relinquish it when Columbia grew into its path.
Jason Jindrich's famous thesis -- "Our Black Children": The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri