Sharp End: The Sorrid History of Race, Space, and Inequality in Columbia, Missouri

**Note: Much of this history has been covered elsewhere, and much more substantively. I’ve provided links to the sources I consulted while writing this piece. For a strong academic treatment of Sharp End, see Jason Jindrich’s 2002 Master’s Thesis for the University of Missouri’s Department of Geography. This thesis serves as the foundation for how local papers and historians discuss Sharp End and the history of racial exclusion in Columbia, Missouri.[1]

With so much coverage over recent racial unrest at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, I thought it would be appropriate to provide a bit more context—historical and geographical—for those interested in understanding the underlying conditions of racial inequality that many students, faculty, and staff are calling attention toward. However, I want to broaden the perspective, and situate the demands for inclusivity and equity within the larger narrative of Columbia, Missouri.

A few days ago, a Facebook friend declared, “Never in our lifetime have we had any real racism that represented a large portion of our society as a whole…I’ve lived in Columbia my entire life and never has there been a real race problem until now.”

This person is near my age (I’m 33), so I was shocked to hear him claim that Columbia is an exemplar for racial tolerance. I’m a three-time alum from the University of Missouri, and spent roughly twelve years living, working, and going to school in the city. My instincts tell me that this friend’s statement is more a reflection of a failure to understand what racism actually is. This wouldn’t be uncommon. Numerous sociological studies show that often, when people discuss racism, they frame it as individual acts of hatred toward members of a racial or ethnic minority group. Shouting racial slurs, or proclaiming your own individual hatred of a certain racial group, are familiar tropes.

While these acts of intolerance are racist in the sense that they articulate a set of beliefs about a particular group’s inferior status based on that group’s racial membership, racism isn’t just a set of beliefs or attitudes. Racism also refers to the actions and practices guided by these beliefs and practices. Ideologies are the cement from which a whole architecture of policies and practices arise. Democracy, for example, isn’t just a belief in representative government, it’s also how that belief is put into practice. Racism, then, is not just a set of beliefs in the inferiority of other racial groups. It also includes practices at the individual and collective levels that flow from those beliefs.

One set of practices that has received incredible attention among scholars and journalists alike is urban renewal, and the displacement of low-income and nonwhite residents that typically follows. Columbia’s history of redevelopment is no different than that of many other cities, yet I’m surprised it has received so little attention by national and local media, who seem to think the recent racial unrest at the University of Missouri is new, and in sharp contrast to the perceived serenity of this popular college town. So, allow me to introduce many of you to a brief history of Sharp End, a once-thriving black business district in the heart of downtown Columbia, that was completely wiped out by Columbia’s first foray into ‘urban redevelopment’ in the mid 1950s.

Sharp End was located within the historic Douglass neighborhood, an area that was once home to Columbia’s business center—Market Square—in what is now the Flat Branch area. Figure 1.1 shows the approximate location of Douglass, marked by the red square. Within the southern border of Douglass is Sharp End, denoted by the smaller black rectangle. The larger, black shape to the south of Douglass and Sharp End is a rough approximation of the University of Missouri (per 2010).[2]

Figure 1.1: Columbia, Missouri 1950

1950Around the turn of the 20th century, city planners recognized that this bottomland was prone to flooding, and relocated Market Square to present-day 8th and 9th streets in downtown Columbia. Because Columbia was still highly segregated due to Jim Crow laws, free blacks could not live in white neighborhoods, or frequent many white establishments. The newly deserted area in Flat Branch was one of the few areas in the city where free blacks could live. As whites left, free blacks moved in, and began building what would soon become a commercial and cultural hub for black residents. Sharp End was solidified as a black business district sometime after 1910, and over the next forty years was home to a collection of thriving black-owned shops, bars, and restaurants that stretched along Walnut St., and between 4th and 6th streets. During Jim Crow, these were important alternatives to white-owned businesses that blacks were prohibited from patronizing.

Nevertheless, the city’s neglect of the Douglass neighborhood through the first half of the twentieth century was blatant, and had severe consequences. City officials refused to pave or repair roads, and Douglass residents were denied many city services enjoyed by whites. As late as the 1930s, the city was dumping its refuse into Flat Branch creek, which ran through the western edge of Douglass. The city gas plant was also found to have leaked oil into the water of the creek, which accumulated human and livestock waste as it passed between black residences on Park and Ash streets. Finally, intense segregation—both residential and occupational—made for high concentrations of poverty among Columbia’s black residents in the inter-war years.

As a result, many Douglass residences consisted of wooden shacks, often without plumbing or electricity. Few black residents were able to afford city sewage, so their waste from their privies often flowed into the neighborhood creeks. A survey of Columbia’s waste management in 1919 revealed that, city wide, only 5% of black residences were connected to a sewer, compared to 80% of white residences.[3] Landlords often regarded Douglass-area property as a lost cause because it was black-occupied. For example, one landlord is quoted as saying, “Negro property is a fine investment because you don’t have any upkeep expense. All you have to do is pay taxes and insurance, and the taxes are very low on that property. Then besides, the niggers pay their rent, they don’t get behind like other people do.”[4]

As a teaching point, we should recognize that while this landlord’s statement reflects racism, it isn’t racism simply because the landlord uses the word “nigger.” The landlord’s statement, rather, reflects the dominant ideology of the time: blacks are less than human, and therefore do not require humane conditions or treatment. Importantly, this ideology cemented itself through specific actions (or in this case, inaction), resulting in massive racial disparities in the distribution of resources and opportunities. The practice of neglecting predominantly black neighborhoods on account of them being predominantly black—a practice that was institutionalized and supported by local government— is racist with or without the use of a racial epithet.

Importantly, the historical neglect of the Douglass neighborhood by city officials and local realtors alike laid the foundation for justifying the forced removal of its residents and black businesses in the 1950s. Following the 1949 Federal Housing Act, Columbia, like many other cities across the country, took advantage of redevelopment loans and grant programs by the Housing and Home Finance Administrator. Title I of this act authorized local public agencies to purchase or condemn areas of the city deemed “blighted or deteriorating.” Cities were then authorized to clear that land and “make it available, by sale or lease, for private or public redevelopment or development in accordance with predetermined local redevelopment plan for the area.”[5] In the case of Douglass and Sharp End, any ‘blight’ within that neighborhood was a direct consequence of the intentional and explicit denial of basic city services, including proper sewage and road maintenance.

Columbia twice failed to pass an ordinance for the creation of a local housing authority in 1952. However, in 1956 voters approved the formation of the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority, and its first meeting took place that June.[6] Records from the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, housed at the University of Missouri, show the authority had, as its objective, “slum clearance and urban renewal.” The authority selected 126 acres within the Douglass neighborhood for its first project, including within it the Sharp End district. Under the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, the city of Columbia was allowed to condemn Douglass under eminent domain laws. Though the law requires that the taking of private property must be justified for a public purpose, and that property owners must be compensated fairly, this was not the case for black residents and business owners. In 1958, a consultant hired by the LCR Authority had estimated the total worth of the 126 acres at more than $1 million. Yet, the city managed to only pay $591,000 for the land; or, less than 60 cents to the dollar.[7] Residents who refused to sell had their properties condemned under eminent domain, and were forcefully removed.

The Douglas School Urban Renewal Project began in May of 1959, and was completed by July of 1966.[8] When it was finished, more than three hundred structures were completely eradicated, including at least eighty black-owned businesses. A portion of the Douglass neighborhood was rebuilt as public housing. However, many former black homeowners were not eligible for residency. Yet, because they were black, they were unable to secure loans for new homes. Local lenders still operated under revised models of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which had pioneered a ‘risk rating’ system that incorporated race as a marker of credit-worthiness as well as property value. By the logic of HOLC, and later FHA, black homebuyers ‘invaded’ neighborhoods, and compromised the value of surrounding properties.[9] Realtors and lenders were discouraged from showing black renters and homebuyers potential properties in predominantly white areas, denying even blacks with capital the opportunity to purchase affordable homes that would retain their value over time.

Consider the following racial dot map of Columbia, Missouri in 1970. Just over a decade after the initial razing of Douglass and Sharp End, we can see the extreme residential segregation of black residents in relationship to whites. Each orange dot in the map represents two black residents; each green dot represents two white residents. According to data from the U.S. Census, there were a total of 3,863 blacks living in Columbia in 1970.[10] More than half (~56%) were concentrated in Tract 8, which encompassed the former Douglass neighborhood. Though, as the map shows, the southern edge of Douglass, including Sharp End, were nearly devoid of residents, indicating this land was in the midst of being redeveloped for primarily commercial interests.

Figure 1.2: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 1970

1970DotBy 2013, the former Douglass area had a lower concentration of black residents. However, if we take into account the two neighboring census tracks directly to the north and the tract directly to the west, those four tracts (including the one that encompasses the historic Douglass neighborhood) accounted for nearly 35% of all black residents in Columbia, Missouri (Figure 1.3).[11]

Figure 1.3: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 2013

2013Complimenting the racial dot map is the following map of average gross rent for black-occupied units in Columbia, Missouri, in 1970 (Figure 1.4). As this figure illustrates, blacks were primarily concentrated directly to the west and north of the former Douglass Neighborhood. Because so few blacks were able to rent in any other area of Columbia at the time, there is no available data for the average amount of money black residents paid in rent throughout the rest of Columbia. Average rent for blacks ranged from $74 per month in the former Douglass neighborhood and encompassing census tract, to $153 per month just to its South, where the current University of Missouri campus now extends.

Figure 1.4: Average Gross Monthly Rent, Black-Occupied Units, Columbia, Missouri, 1970

Rent1970Now, let’s overlay that with the composite gross monthly rent, irrespective of race (Figure 1.5). Here, the story becomes even more interesting. The blue shaded tracts are spaces where blacks’ gross monthly rent exceeded the composite gross monthly rent of that same area. In the tract directly to the north of the former Douglass neighborhood, the average gross monthly rent for blacks was 1.3 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($112 to $99). Directly to the south of the former Douglass neighborhood, overlapped by the south side of the present-day campus, monthly rent for blacks was nearly 1.4 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($153 to $112). This data suggests that, despite federal laws prohibiting such practices, Columbia realtors and landlords were still engaging in racist rental practices in 1970.

Figure 1.5: Gross Monthly Rent for Blacks vs Composite Gross Monthly Rent, 1970

GrossComparison1970Finally, let’s look at the median value of homes in these areas. In 1970, the median value of homes in Columbia, Missouri was $21,900.[12] In the areas in which blacks were primarily concentrated, the median value of homes ranged from a low of $10,824 in the former Douglass neighborhood, to a high of $15,627 just to its west (Figure 1.6). Put differently, the median value of homes in neighborhoods in which blacks were primarily concentrated ranged from 49%-71% of the median home value for the rest of the city.

Figure 1.6: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 1970

HomeValue1970By 2013, not much had changed (Figure 1.7). The median value of a home in Columbia, Missouri was $169,800. In the former Douglass neighborhood, it was $101,400 (59% of the median value). Just to the north, it was $66,500 (39%).

Figure 1.7: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 2013

HomeValue2013My goal with this very brief analysis of the Sharp End District and its demise at the hands of city government is two-fold. First, I want to illustrate that Columbia, Missouri is far from a racial paradise. Like most other cities in the United States, it has a long history of institutionalized racism, clearly identifiable in the local politics and decision-making among city officials, planners, and developers. Second, I hoped to demonstrate with this analysis that the effects of this institutionalized racism do not simply disappear because we wish for it. Without intentional, deliberate anti-racist policies and practices, racism and its effects will continue to fester. In the case of black residents of Columbia, Missouri, a multi-generational community, and its wealth, were nearly eradicated through deliberate practices by local government and developers.

As of 2015, the north side of the former Sharp End district houses the Columbia Post Office. The south side of Sharp End was converted into a parking lot upon the first phase of urban renewal. It remained so for nearly fifty years, until in 2011 it was converted into a ten-deck parking garage.

Footnotes

[1] Jason Jindrich, “Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri” (M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri, 2002), Microfilm, University of Missouri Libraries.

[2] All maps and figures derive from data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and were created using Social Explorer.

[3] August F. Larson, A Housing Survey of Columbia, Missouri (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1919).

[4] Audrey Nell Kittel, The Negro Community of Columbia, Missouri (University of Missouri, 1938), 44.

[5] United States Senate, “Housing Act of 1949” (United States Government Printing Office, 1949), 2, https://bulk.resource.org/gao.gov/81-171/00002FD7.pdf.

[6] Arcenia Harmon, “Columbia’s Sharp End,” Columbia Daily Tribune, April 4, 2004, http://archive.showmenews.com/2004/apr/20040404feat009.asp.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Phillip Sitter, “Sharp End District Remembered for ‘Togetherness,’” Columbia Missourian, May 19, 2015, http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/sharp-end-district-remembered-for-togetherness/article_cdb41a50-fe83-11e4-83cf-c715d4cd44fe.html.

[9] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 92.

[10] United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of the Census, 1972).

[11] United States Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey, 2009-2013 (5 year estimates.” Washington, DC. 2014. Accessed via Social Explorer.

[12] United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.”

6 thoughts on “Sharp End: The Sorrid History of Race, Space, and Inequality in Columbia, Missouri

  1. Excellent review of privileged vs non-privileged. I know of a family whose house was moved from ‘cemetery hill’ behind Grant elementary school into the area just south of Ridgeway elementary school. The house sits in a low areas which has historically flooded. The house, left where it was would now be worth $160,000, in its current location it is worth about $45,000. This black family has been hit like this again and again and has affected their mental and physical health.

  2. Thank you for this excellent break down of our local history. I was the city’s first City Heritage Scholar and have talked often with the city’s Civic Relations Manager on doing more public exhibits and work to educate our community on Sharp End, and to try to regain some of the lost culture and stories of the people who lived and worked there. The city is finally putting some effort into repairing Blind Boone’s home. I think an important addendum to this would be that these efforts to remove these historically black neighborhoods via “urban renewal” have not stopped. Just a couple years ago the city pushed for a vote that would render the predominantly black neighborhoods that lay west of Providence (across from the Douglas High School)in the elbow of Providence and Business Loop 70, as “blighted” to essentially repeat history and make those homes subject to a new zoning that would allow them to be taken by the city for an improved business district. Thankfully, it was not passed and it caused considerable outcry by both blacks and whites. To say that racism does not exist in this town is turning a blind eye and willfully perpetuating a systemic sickness in our community. Thank you again for sharing this history in hopes that more people are aware of what has happened and is happening in their community.

  3. You will find Doug Hunt’s reearch and writing “Black and White Justice in Little Dixie” an additional source on Columbia’s fraught race relations.

  4. Thank you for sharing your work here. I have been interested in Columbia’s racial and racist history but have found surprisingly little on the topic given that we live in a university town! I do hope that one day soon a Black history walking or driving tour of the Columbia can be established and maintained in perpetuity. I would also like to see a Black history museum for the area with maps and many photographs perhaps to start or end the tour.

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