Hannibal Courier-Post (MO) - Saturday, January 17, 2004
Author: MARY LOU MONTGOMERY, Of the Courier-Post
A near capacity crowd was on hand Sunday afternoon, Jan. 19, 2003, for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Freedom Under Fire gathering at the Willow Street Christian Church. Many of those gathered at the meeting marched as a group from the intersection of Grand Avenue and Broadway to the church in an act of solidarity.
Minnie Smith, one of the featured speakers, talked about black history in Hannibal, particularly at the area formerly known as The Wedge. She had recently skimmed through a Hannibal history book and realized that the black community was represented by only two photos.
"I'm 63 and I've lived in Hannibal a whole lifetime unnoticed," she said. "Blacks were and are a definite presence in this town. Many of our black businesses were located at The Wedge for years. The space was literally taken away from us when the National Food Store was built and traffic was rerouted."
She searched her memory and available resources to come up with a list of businesses formerly operated by African Americans in Hannibal. "There were two black medical doctors (in Hannibal) during my childhood," she said, "and a black dentist operated at The Wedge." Also at The Wedge: A bar and pool hall, a restaurant, a barbershop, a UBF Hall which offered minstrel shows, and two taverns.
Other businesses were located in "the bottoms," including a skating rink, which hosted dances and where Ike and Tina Turner and Ray Charles once performed, and three taverns. Hannibal had five state-licensed beauticians, a bar, and a restaurant that featured the famous McElroy tamales, a restaurant on Gordon Street "that served the most delicious lemon pie I ever tasted," Smith said, a mortuary, J.T. Brown's moving company, a gas station on Hill Street and a laundry on East Gordon Street. Professionals offered music lessons, there was a trash hauler, a funeral home, group homes, and "Chester Brown provided transportation to the polls for anyone who would vote Democrat," Smith said with a chuckle. There was a black school attended by students from throughout the area, and two black police officers, including Cass Jones, who walked his beat, and "Clint Dixon, who (two decades later) got to drive a car," Smith added.
A 8x10-inch plaque on the corner of the Save-A-Lot parking lot was all that was left to denote the former location of the Robinson Funeral Home, a building that qualified for status on the National Register of Historic Places. Until recently, "The black leadership of Hannibal had no knowledge it was there," Smith said. It is located behind a large bush near the entrance to the parking lot.
"I suggest we symbolically claim this space as our own," Smith said. "Black folks were a presence in this town then, and we are a presence in this town today. We want to remember this as our space. An 8x11 plaque behind a bush doesn't adequately represent this space's significance to this community. It should be easily seen as we walk or drive by. When our space was taken away we were made invisible. Newcomers have no idea. We were here then, we are here now, lest we all forget."
"We've been here all our life and there is nothing to show for it. It will take a community to solve this problem," Dixon said, while challenging those gathered to get involved in the process.