Springfield Native Traces Roots Alongside City's African American History
Harold McPherson, originally from Springfield, has traced his family history in the Ozarks back to the 1800s. He’s written about 80 pages documenting his lineage and hoping to compile a book soon for his family.
“Studying my own family history has given me a lot of insight in Springfield history because they go hand-in-hand obviously,” McPherson says. “I’ve been able to document a lot of my own personal family successes, triumphs and things, and then sort of juxtapose those onto the timeline of Springfield and the events that took place here.”
Much of his family history, McPherson says, has been gathered by listening to stories from his older relatives and asking questions while growing up.
“My main source up till recently, over the last 10 years, was my parents, my mother and both my grandmothers,” McPherson says.
Now he’s been able to dig through databases like ancestry.com, newspaper archives, slave records and the census to confirm facts and find new information.
“Searching for slave names in Missouri or Springfield or anywhere, you have to probably go to the probate court or at least go to where records where kept with slaves,” McPherson says. “Up until 1860, slaves’ last names or names even weren’t even put on the registry. It’s called the slave schedule. It was a version of the census but it was for slaves.”
McPherson says one of the easiest ways to track his family has been through the probate records because slaves were accounted for like any other property that was taxed. However, he has made other discoveries with the Internet.
“I’ve got two great-great grandfathers from here that served in the Civil War, which is something I’ve discovered about a year, year and a half ago,” McPherson says. “They were both infantry soldiers who volunteered.”
McPherson believes his great-great grandfathers were freed men, although he can’t confirm it, because of the mass manumission, or freeing of slaves, in Missouri when the war started because owners couldn’t take care of them anymore. In addition, McPherson says slave owners were granted a stipend for slaves that joined the Union Army.
After the war, McPherson says both of his great-great grandfathers then worked as laborers at the wagon factory, the biggest manufacturer around at the time, on what is now Sherman Parkway and Chestnut Expressway.
“Those wagons that came out of here were used to go to California and Santa Fe,” McPherson says.
McPherson’s grandfather and father worked at the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, known as Frisco and headquartered in Springfield, as train porters for 90 years between the two of them.
“The interesting thing about the porter job was, and my grandfather had the same job as my dad was, they were forced to belong to a different union,” McPherson says. “Because they were black, they belonged to the Trainmen’s Union. Where white men who were brakemen were given a title and were given a union that was completely different, and they had different benefits. Porters had to go 185 miles to make a day. Whereas a brakeman could go 165 miles and his day is over.”
Frisco sent its last passenger trains out in the 1960s, and industry in Springfield changed. McPherson says many blacks of his generation left Springfield because of the greater opportunities elsewhere. He served in Vietnam, attended what was Southwest Missouri State College and then left.
“There was nothing culturally here strong enough to keep young African Americans, like myself, wanting to be here and experience this,” McPherson says.
These days, McPherson lives in Kansas City and is a retired Sprint network engineer. Beyond digging into history and genealogy, McPherson is also a percussionist and plays Afro-Cuban, jazz, gospel, funk and R&B music.
Here the complete interview with McPherson above. The conversation was conducted in partnership with The Journey Continues, a project from Missouri State University Sociology professors Dr. Lyle Foster and Dr. Tim Knapp examining Springfield’s race history.