JOPLIN, Mo. —
Russell England never thought he’d live to see a black president.
Now 90 years old, England — who born when the Ku Klux Klan was at its most powerful and who lived through the Jim Crow era — saw that come true in 2008.
Now he has one more wish.
He wants to be there when President Barack Obama speaks at the Joplin High School graduation ceremony later this month.
“It would be the happiest thing in my life,” England said. “It would be history for me, too. Obama — he’s my man. ... I didn’t think that day would ever come, but it did. It did happen.”
Several weeks ago, Bruce Baird, a former Joplin resident who now lives in Alameda, Calif., put ads on Craigslist seeking graduation tickets for England, a longtime family friend. Baird is still waiting to get two tickets, one for England and one for England’s grandniece who would take him to the event.
“It was quite moving for him and most blacks in America to finally break that barrier,” Baird said, referring to Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president.
Baird’s father, Ralph Baird, was a friend of England’s since the 1930s. Ralph Baird, an attorney, was the host for a cocktail party for poet and novelist Langston Hughes when Hughes visited Joplin on Oct. 9, 1958.
England and a 10-year-old Bruce Baird met Hughes that night.
England said he never personally experienced racially motivated violence while growing up in Joplin, but racism was prevalent.
After a lynching in 1901 in Pierce City, Joplin received an influx of blacks from that community.
But on April 15, 1903, whites in Joplin lynched a 20-year-old transient black man from Mississippi named Thomas Gilyard, who was accused of murdering a white police officer. Gilyard, who was lynched downtown, never got a trial.
In a book titled “White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909,” writer Kimberly Harper notes that some whites, including Joplin’s mayor, fought to save Gilyard and later kept his body from being put on public display. But, there was no indication that the Joplin Police Department or the Jasper County sheriff tried to stop the mob.
After the lynching, mobs stormed black neighborhoods in Joplin, creating a climate that led to an exodus from the community. Hundreds of blacks left, according to Harper.
England’s family stayed.
“It’s our home,” he said.
In 1921, the year England was born, a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Joplin’s Schifferdecker Park was attended by about 1,500 men in white sheets. The KKK held a parade through Joplin two years later. Participants carried burning crosses as they marched down Broadway, which ironically was renamed in 1976 in honor of Langston Hughes.
England grew up in an era when men wearing white robes could walk into Joplin High School and make a presentation of the American flag to the ROTC, and when a large KKK sign lit up the roof of the Connor Hotel.
England said he never worried about the Klan when he was a child.
“They didn’t bother me,” he said.
And, in fact, there were many who opposed the Klan. In March 1924, Joplin residents held an anti-Klan rally, and 1,800 people attended. It was led by former U.S. Rep. Perl Decker.