Racial History of Howell County Part 4
Wed, 09/16/2020 - 2:10pm admin
I am indebted to Dave Malone for the answer to a question I posed the last issue. Two separate groups of African Americans immigrated to Howell County after the Civil War. Roughly ten years separated them, and I puzzled as to how they might be interrelated. The answer is they were not.
In 1869 a small wagon train, perhaps ox-cart train, made the four hundred plus mile trek to Howell County from Bedford County, Tennessee. Led by members of the Bobo and Farrar families mentioned in my previous article, the object here was to settle and homestead land in what was still a contentious and violence-torn area. Former Union soldiers and their sympathizers were still shooting it out with their ex-Confederate enemies. Howell County would have been a tough place to come as a white settler, and the bravery and determination of this group must be admired. That they picked land to settle in what would become the same Olden community and home of another African American group arriving here a decade later was a coincidence.
The first black family documented in the Howell County in census records is William Bobo, who met the enumerator on August 16, 1870. On the form, he appears to have initially been marked by the census taker as white, then the "W" in the race column was marked over with the letter "B" for black. William was 34 years old, living with his wife, Rachael, age 35; daughter, Nancy, age 15 (the only one in the household who could read or write,) son John, age 14, and William Junior, age 13. All the children were listed as mulatto. Bobo is listed as a farmer, with 200 dollars worth of personal property and 300 dollars in real estate. Their wealth is average for their neighbors working as farmers elsewhere on this census. The majority of persons living in Howell County in 1870 were farming.
From the records, we see the Bobos, Farrars, and other African Americans coming in this group so early brought money and resources necessary for their new life here. They had been successful as yeoman farmers in their previous home in Tennessee.
The 1874 Howell County personal property tax assessments show William Bobo owning three horses, five head of cattle, nine sheep, and nine hogs, amounting to $261 in assessed value on which he paid taxes. William died in 1880 and is buried in the Sadie Brown Cemetery at Highways 14 and 63.
In August 1877, Morris Farrar was issued four patent certificates for a total of 320 acres of land, signaling his completion of the requirements for clear title to land under the Homestead Act. This land today is located at the north end of West Plains, extending northward. Morris' father Isaac completed his homestead filing for an additional 160 acres in December 1879. His land was north of the Morris Farrar filing, extending up into the Olden area.
A History of Baptists in Missouri noted in 1878 that William Bobo served as a minister in the Howell County Union Association. A short time after 1870, a Missionary Baptist Church was established at Olden and Bobo along with a minister by the name of Darr served as pastor. The tenents of the Association included the rejection of pulpit affiliation, rejection of alien immersion, and rejection of open communion. While whites were busy fighting each other over post-war politics, newspapers of the period did not report any racial strife in the community, and this African American group was integrating with, or at least getting along with their fellow (white) pioneers.
Additional families arriving in the early African American community were the Dryers, Moores, and the Hites. A level of self-sufficiency as a black community had been obtained by the time additional families arrived from Oxford, Mississippi, in the early 1880s to clear the land for Colonel J.C. Evans' and B.F. Olden's fruit orchards. In this group, we find the family names of Ball, Bradley, Brown, Smith, Shaw, Wade, and Jackson.
Additional African Americans came to live in Howell County as a result of the railroad. According to the Springfield News-Leader & Press, this was the case in the arrival of one of the best known African Americans who lived in the West Plains. The article, dated in December 1923, read:
"When 'Pony' Thomas died in Howell County last week, West Plains lost its quaintest Negro character - one who had been a resident of the town for more than forty years, and who had the confidence and respect of every person in the community."
"Lewis Thomas, as he officially signed his name, was born a slave (1851) on a Virginia cotton plantation. After the close of the war, he went west to grow up with the country. Along in 1883, about the time George Nettleton, Nathaniel Taylor, and H. H. Hunnewell were building the Kansas City & Memphis railroad through the Ozarks from Springfield to Memphis, Thomas drifted into the West Plains section with a tie gang."
"Short of stature, not a bit taller than a 14-year old schoolboy, "Pony" was a giant for strength. He could pick up a railroad tie, put it on his shoulder and run up the gangplank into a railroad car with the strength of a giant. For several years he was with a tie loading crew on the Frisco."
"Pony was the janitor for three banks of West Plains, and he also worked in several stores about town. Every morning he came downtown at 8'oclock to begin work. He was industrious and honest, and everyone was his friend. The Thomas home was the center of all social festivities among the colored population of West Plains. There was universal sorrow about town when it became known that Pony was dead."
The West Plains High School Ridgerunner magazine, Spring 1989 issue, stated, "the first school for African Americans was started in 1892 at Gum Springs." This spring was located about 2 miles northwest of the town of West Plains. "In the early 1900s, the West Plains School system built the Lincoln School in what was once called 'Illinois Town.' This section of North Washington Avenue was where most of the Black settlement in West Plains occurred. Lincoln was just a grade school, so Blacks that wanted a higher education had to go to Springfield or St. Louis to go to high school. The first Black to graduate from West Plains High School was Monk Oaks, who graduated in 1957. Larry Forbes was the second to graduate while being the first to play football and basketball."
Segregation was a reality in Howell County when African Americans left their farms or homes to attend anything. While the concept of separate but equal was applied to the West Plains Schools, the Lincoln School never came close to meeting the standards of the schools for whites. The inequality was attested to in a field trip taken by the white students of West Plains High in 1916, featuring photos of the school in the school annual or yearbook. In an interview with West Plains students in 1989, Evelyn Givehand, a granddaughter of "Pony" Thomas, described growing up in segregated West Plains. Evelyn was born in 1900 and told the students she grew up with no running water or electricity and was lucky to go to town once a week. She said, "Black teenagers went to the movies for a quarter, but had to set in a different section." She graduated from Lincoln School from the eighth grade and had to get a job. She told her interviewers, "her biggest dreams were to go to high school, check books out of the library, and to be able to eat ice cream at a soda fountain, but they were impossible then."
During the First World War, eight African Americans from Olden and West Plains served in the United States Army. There they were segregated from white soldiers and placed mostly in service and labor battalions. Earl Shaw of West Plains, assigned as a cook in the 309th Labor Battalion serving overseas with the American Expeditionary Force, lost his life during August 1918. Their photos and profiles are separated from the white soldiers in the Howell County Honor Roll published after the war.
While African Americans were able to navigate the Jim Crow era and segregation in the city of West Plains into the 1960s, other towns in Howell County were even more restrictive. While I've never been able to document a sign or city ordinance in print or photo prohibiting African Americans in the communities of Willow Springs and Mountain View, I've been told by those who lived there that the reality of "sundown towns" existed. The basic premise was that no black person was allowed to remain in the city limits after sunset. I know that trains arriving at Willow Springs and stopping overnight did not allow black railroad employees to disembark overnight. I'm not sure about passengers, but likely they had to remain on the train too.
We will conclude this series in our next issue.