By Kelsey Ryan
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.
While England didn’t experience violence, he does remember the racism.
He said he would have to go in through the back door of a store. Blacks in town could go to only one movie theater, and once there they had to watch the movie from the balcony. There was one black officer on the Joplin police force who could arrest only black residents.
“They had signs up: ‘Colored Here,’ ‘White Here,’” England said. “Now, you can go anywhere you want to.”
After graduating from Lincoln School — Joplin’s segregated black school — just before World War II, England moved to Tulsa, Okla., and eventually joined the Army. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor (after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack) and in Okinawa, Japan, for more than three years.
He returned to the United States after his service and went to work at R&S Chevrolet in Joplin for $1 an hour. He attended Pittsburg (Kan.) State University for two years, studying refrigeration and auto mechanics on the GI Bill. From 1948 to 1952, England was the president of the Joplin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which pushed for improvements to Ewert Park. The group had created the park for blacks in the mid-1920s.
England also recalls marches in downtown Joplin during the civil rights movement.
He said that in the years after he came back from World War II, the racist attitudes were fading.
In 1954, the city elected it first black councilman, Marion Dial. Joplin Junior College (now Missouri Southern State University) was integrated that fall. The next year, the Joplin Board of Education desegregated its schools after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.
England’s grandniece, Kim Weathers, of Joplin, said he gives her details about that history every day as they drive through town.
“It’s just unimaginable to live like that to me,” Weathers said. “I’m used to eating where I want to eat, going where I want to go. It’s hard to believe, and it’s amazing for people to see how it used to be.”
England worked at FAG Bearings for 11 years before retirement. Now a resident of the Frisco Station Apartments downtown, England is known as the “mayor” of the building where he used to work shining shoes as a youngster.
England has gotten close to Obama a couple of times.
He had a ticket to see Obama during a campaign stop in Springfield before he became president, but he was unable to see him because he couldn’t walk to the viewing area.
Last May, when Obama visited Joplin after the tornado disaster, England saw the president’s motorcade pass through town. It went right by the Frisco Building.
A lot has changed in his 90 years, England noted.
“Joplin changed before the South did,” he said. “I feel like a free man. I enjoy life. I can go to the movies. I can go out to eat, walk around. A lot has changed in Joplin. ... I’m glad the world is getting better and better every day.”
GRADUATION CEREMONIES are scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, May 21, at the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University. The university plans to shut down the campus for the event. There will be an overflow room for residents in Taylor Auditorium. Each graduating senior will receive eight tickets to be used by family members.