If you lived in Hannibal, you knew Bennie Howard
Bennie Howard, photographed in the late 1960s or early 1970s by Debra Hartley. Shared by Nick Long. Reprinted with permission from the photographer.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
On Sunday evenings back in the day, Hannibal’s black churches (Second Christian on Broadway, Helping Hand Baptist, the Church of God in Christ on Settles Street and Scott’s Chapel Methodist ) hosted Union services, bringing people of all denominations together for joint praise and worship. It wasn’t at all uncommon for individuals to break out in song during these services, as the spirit moved them.
Bennie Howard was among those led to sing, a memory recalled by the Rev. Minnie Smith, present-day pastor of Willow Street Christian Church.
Singing acapela, “he would belt out the song in his heart almost every week,” Rev. Smith said. “He always sat in the back, and at the end of the service he would walk forward, singing, ‘I’ll Go - I’ll Go’. I have vivid memories.”
“I’ll go where You want me to go, dear Lord, O’er mountain, or plain, or sea; I’ll say what You want me to say, dear Lord, I’ll be what You want me to be.”
A Hannibal character to be sure, Bennie Howard, born circa 1894, is remembered for the derby-style hat he wore tipped to the side of his head, and an ever present tobacco pipe. He wore bib overalls and a “jump jacket” with big pockets. He carried a gunny sack (perhaps containing tools) on his back. Standing at just 5-foot-2, Bennie walked everywhere he went, at a quick pace, along routes on Gordon and Settles and Market streets. He extended greetings to all he encountered, Linda Williams Head remembers.
“He was a Godly man,” Dorothy Simmons said in a Facebook post on “Old Hannibal.”
Tillie Hale Persons remembers that he lived next door to her family on Settles Street in the 1960s. (In 1959, he lived at 1918 Settles, according to the city directory of that year, Ruth Linear found.)
Red (Ernest L.) Nelson operated the Annex Cafe at 1228 Market Street during World War II. Working with him was Roma Witt, mother of Raymond Witt of Hannibal. The business, which catered to shoe factory clientele, operated two shifts, one at 11 a.m. and the other at noon.
And each day, Bennie Howard arrived at the restaurant at 11 a.m., to start washing the dishes.
“He had a coffee can,” Raymond Witt, now 86 years old, remembers. “He had holes poked on either side with a wire. He’d give me a nickel or a dime, and I’d go to Al Till’s tavern to fill with it with beer; he’d sip on it when he was washing dishes.
“Here I am just a little kid (8-9-10 years old) going to the tavern.
"Bennie washed a lot of dishes. Mom and Red had a real good trade; people from Bluff Shoe Factory, Rubber Plant and Seventh Street plant, were making boots during the war. They used to bring the boots in at Ninth and Lyon and they had a shoe factory there that repaired boots. There was a three-story building and a crossover, back and forth across.”
After the lunch shifts ended, Bennie finished the dishes. “There was a table sitting back there (in the back of the restaurant); colored people couldn’t sit with the white people,” Raymond said. “He’d sit there and he’d eat his lunch, dinner was part of his payment. I would sit in the back with him. He was a nice guy.”
Stories that Bennie told Raymond included those of members of his family who were slaves before emancipation. (See associated article at the end of this story.)
Bennie was just 16, back in 1910, when his mother died. Living with Bennie at Black Creek Township, Shelby County, Mo., were his siblings, his widowed father, James Thomas Howard, who was born in 1861 during the Civil War years, and his paternal grandparents, John Howard, born in circa 1828, and May Howard, born circa 1839.
Something unique that Raymond remembers is Bennie’s watch. “He had a gold watch, big around as a hardball, about 3/4 inch thick, his father’s watch. I always admired that watch. He’d push the top and it had a song chime to it.”
Bennie “got sick one time and Red Nelson took him back home in the bottoms where the water plant is now. That street was a row of colored people’s houses, he lived in one of them.
“Once Bennie had a severe cold and Mom took him over to (our) house across the street and she doctored him.”
Raymond remembers Bennie eating Christmas dinner with his family.
Bennie was buried in Robinson Cemetery, Raymond believes. “Me and (my wife) Neta went up there one time and walked the whole cemetery, we never did find his stone. May be an unmarked grave.
“He was one of the nicest people I ever ran into. I always respected him; he would come in and have a cup of coffee and talk to Mom and Red.
“He was well known in town. He was a character of Hannibal. I think he deserves to be acknowledged.”
Note: Some of the information for this story was gathered from contributors to the “Old Hannibal” Facebook page, hosted by Rhonda Brown Hall. Thanks to all who contributed memories and helped to verify information.
The 1910 census offers a glimpse into the Howard household at Black Creek, in Shelby County. Items in parenthesis denote names and dates gathered during research:
James Thomas Howard, 47, widow (died in 1950)
Etta Howard, 23, (Gaines, widow of Curtis, Joliet, Ill.)
Willie Howard, 20 (Died in 1968 at Joliet, Ill.)
Bess Howard, 16 (Hubbard, Buckman Haley/Hale)
Ben Howard, 16
Jerry Howard, 14 (died in 1917)
Edward Maxie Howard, 12 (died in 1949 at Davenport, Ill.)
Lucile Howard, 2 (Died in 1952 at Quincy, Ill.)
John Howard, father, 82 (Died 1914, age 92)
Mary Howard, 71 wife (Died 1915, age 89)
Macio Howard, 11 adopted son
(Mollie Howard, wife of James Thomas Howard, died in 1910.)
One by one, the Howard children reached adulthood and moved away from Shelby County. Some - like Bennie - settled in Hannibal for awhile. Most moved on to towns including Kirksville, Mo., Davenport, Iowa, Dayton, Ohio and and Joliet, Ill., where jobs were more plentiful for this first generation following emancipation.
Bennie’s younger brother Jerry died of complications of measles in 1917 at Camp Funston, Kan., at the age of 21, soon after he was called to active duty as the war in Europe was escalating.
Aunt Mary Howard:
“Aunt Mary Howard dead (Shelby County Herald, June 30, 1915)
“Aunt Mary Howard, a respected colored woman and one of the oldest residents of this community, died last Monday morning of heart trouble. She had been in poor healthy for years but felt as well as usual Monday morning when she suffered the heart attack and fell lifeless. “Aunt Mary, as she was called by all who knew her was 89 years old and was formerly a slave of John S. Duncan. She was bought by John Howard, her deceased husband, before they were freed for $750 and the amount was paid after the war.”
John O'Donnell wrote that McCooey High School kids frequently had lunch and hung out at Red’s Cafe. For many years Red Nelson was the St Mary’s grade school basketball coach. He was also assistant BB coach for MHS’s Ken Scheu. Red’s son Robert Nelson was MHS grad & football star. I recall seeing Bennie many times at back of Red’s Cafe.
Red’s Cafe had a very popular “pinball machine” in front near the window & the MHS kids kept it busy.
Jim Van Hoose wrote: When I was a kid living in the Lindell Ave area I spent a lot of time on Market either on foot or bicycle. I remember frequently seeing Bennie. I didn’t know him but knew what his name was. I remember my older brother said, “That’s ole Bennie, he’s a nice fella.”
Denny Bramblett: I remember him also, never knew his name. Thank you for a very interesting article and stirring memories of my youth.
Mark Kempker: I remember Bennie giving me a quarter to call the cab for him. And sweeping my dad's upholstery shop out. Sometimes we would take him down to a cafe downtown . He was a nice guy. Dad was a pallbearer at his funeral. Buried in Robinson cemetery.
Ginger Brokes: I loved Mr. Benny. My dad had a barber shop on Market (Jim's Barber Shop, James E. Deardeuff, 1404 Market) across from Whalen's Pharmacy and he bought a shoe shine station and put it in the shop and Mr. Bennie would shine the customers shoes while they waited on a haircut. I think it filled some of his time as well as making a little money. This would have been in the mid sixties. He always gave me and Cookie a dime so we could go to Long's 5 & 10 and get some candy. He was one of a kind. I can still see him leaning on the post on Market Street smoking his pipe.
Debra S Hartwig Overfield: I remember Mr. Bennie always being around throughout my childhood and beyond. He was frequently around Kempker's upholstery shop. We turned off Market, going down Lindell Avenue to Wardlow, to get to Vermont. Always a smile, a wave and a "hello" when you'd pass by. To me he never seemed to age or change. I remember Debra Hartley's sketch of him on display at school. She captured him so beautifully.
Bill Hatton: I remember Bennie as the old gent that carried coal for people on the Gordon Street and so. Always smiling. I believe that he worked for the grocery store on Market across from Levering Hospital.
The interior of The Wedge was photographed by Charles Webster on May 10, 1977, before the buildings were demolished. The Annex Cafe, where Bennie Howard washed dishes during World War II, was located 1228 Market, the fifth business to the west of the Wedge. Ernest Nelson and Roma Witt were still serving customers at this location in 1971. Steve Chou collection.
Robinson Cemetery, Hannibal, Mo., as photographed by Mary Lou Montgomery in 2017. Raymond Witt believes that Bennie Howard is buried at this cemetery, but the grave may be unmarked. His date of death has not been ascertained.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” and “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’” 47 stories of the Market Street Wedge and on west to Lindell Avenue. Montgomery can be reached at Montgomery.firstname.lastname@example.org Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com