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Feb25

Black History Month in Missouri State Parks

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At first glance, the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site looks to be a modest tract of wind-swept prairie. But as you learn the significance of these 40 acres, the site grows in importance.

February is Black History Month and the Battle of Island Mound is among the top moments in the story of African Americans and their struggle for equality.

Just miles from the Kansas border, the site is south of Butler amid the soybean fields of rural Bates County.

In late October of 1862, some 220 members of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, most of them freed or escaped slaves, marched into Missouri with orders to clear out a band of Southern-sympathizing guerillas.

“The rolling prairie is very much what the soldiers of the First Kansas would have seen when they were out there in 1862,” said John Cunning, program director for the resource management and interpretation program of Missouri State Parks.

After setting fire to the prairie as a smoke screen, the “bushwhackers” attacked a scouting group of the black soldiers.

Although out-numbered and on foot against a foe on horseback and armed with shotguns, pistols and sabers, the black troops fought back and drove the attackers into a marshy area known as Hog Island. When reinforcements arrived from the next day, the guerillas had fled.

Although a skirmish in terms of numbers, the battle had an impact that made headlines as far away as New York.

“It was the first time African Americans were allowed to put on a Union uniform and fight for their freedom, and they did it very successfully,” Cunning said. “In many ways, it opened the door to allow the formation of additional African American units in the other states.

“There was a commonly held belief in both the North and South that African American soldiers would not fight, would not fire on the white Confederates. But they stood their ground and fought. It changed the opinion of lots of leaders in Lincoln’s cabinet.”

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Missouri State Parks has released a documentary film that tells the dramatic story of the battle and explains its importance in American history. The 20-minute documentary is available for purchase online at mostateparks.com/shop/civilwar.htm.

The story is based on the oral history as told by the late Jimmy Johnson, a descendant of George Washington, who fought at Island Mound.

In the film, the actor portraying Washington says, “Something was changed that day at Island Mound. We showed we were worth something, we were free, we were men and we were never going back.”

To reach Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site, take Highway 52 west from Butler, and go south on Route K to the park signs. The site has a circular gravel path around the prairie, with interpretative panels along the way.

“Folks that I’ve talked to that have visited do get a sense of the landscape, and how it affected the battle,” Cunning said, “and maybe just a tiny taste of how those men felt.”

Missouri State Parks is celebrating two other sites, Washington State Park and Scott Joplin State Historic Site, during Black History Month.

Black CCC Company Built Park Projects

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In 1933, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Congress passed legislation aimed at putting young men to work and to restore the nation’s devastated landscape.

Under the segregated Civilian Conservation Corps, some 100 black men, from the age of 18 to 25 and primarily from the St. Louis area, formed Company 1743 and eventually were sent to Washington State Park between 1934 and 1939. They were among some 4,000 men working in 16 Missouri state parks.

Learning masonry and carpentry from local craftsmen, the members of Company 1743 left behind a legacy of stone artistry that remains impressive today.

The CCC projects at Washington State Park include a dining hall decorated with a stone thunderbird like the one found in ancient Indian rock carvings in the park, an octagonal shelter high on a bluff overlooking the Big River valley and the 1000 Steps Trail, where giant stone slabs were muscled into place to form stairways up and down a hillside.

“The stone was quarried locally, but exactly how they placed them is not on the record,” Cunning, the interpretive program director, said of the huge slabs. “I can’t tell you exactly how they moved all that stone.”

Like other CCC work, the dining lodge is a stone-and-timber structure in a design created by the National Park Service in the 1930s.

“The dining lodge is an iconic building in the park,” Cunning said. “The architecture is so enduring that, when we design new buildings, we’re still influenced by it.”

Company 1743 later moved to Mark Twain State Park in northern Missouri where it built a stone shelter.

“They disbanded when Word War II started up, going into military units,” Cunning said.

A Deep, Mellow Sound

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The Scott Joplin State Historic Site in St. Louis marks a special birthday this year – the Kimball upright player piano that is the highlight of tours turns 100 years old.

The piano was made in 1915 in Chicago, and still thrills visitors who get to choose piano rolls that are played at the end of the tours of the house where Joplin, the King of Ragtime, lived from 1901 to 1903.

“It’s the icing on the cake,” said Almetta Jordan, site administrator of the modest walk-up flat at 2658A Delmar, which was located near the honky-tonks and saloons where Joplin played after he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis.

“He was giving piano lessons and possibly violin lessons – he was versed in several instruments – to augment the money he made playing,” Jordan said. “He only lived here for a very short time, but he produced quite a bit of work, including ‘The Entertainer’.”

“The Entertainer,” the hit from the 1973 move “The Sting,” is the most requested song to be played on the old upright, Jordan said. “Maple Leaf Rag,” one of Joplin’s earliest successes, also is popular.

Asked to pick a roll to play, Jordan inserted a ragtime two-step called “Weeping Willow,” and the house was filled with Joplin’s spritely composition.

“We have other player pianos,” she said. “But this one has a deep, mellow sound to it.”