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West Plains exhibit tells the story of African American history in the Ozarks region

Missouri State University-West Plains

"African American Heritage in the Ozarks" will be displayed at the Garnett Library on the MSU-West Plains campus through the end of March.

The Ozarks Heritage Research Center (OHRC) at Missouri State University-West Plains will continue its exhibit about the African American experience in the Ozarks through March 31, 2024.

The traveling exhibit, “African American Heritage in the Ozarks,” is a culmination of the gathering of voices, memories and history of African Americans in the Ozarks region. The touring display stems from a more extensive exhibit that was curated by the State Historical Society of Missouri (SHSMO), which, in 2021, received an American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities and Missouri Humanities. Sean Rost, assistant director of research at SHSMO, said the interactive exhibit includes numerous artifacts with roots in the Ozarks.

"The traveling exhibit kind of incorporates not only this kind of history to kind of center African American history in the Ozarks and in a lot of these communities," said Rost, "but also kind of various documents that the viewer can look at and listen to and then, finally, the photographs of people who lived or still live in various corners of the Ozarks."

Documenting and preserving African American heritage for this exhibit was a collaborative effort between community leaders, archivists and key individuals such as Christine Peoples, Timmons Hall Education coordinator for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. As one of the curators for the exhibit, she played an integral role in gathering testimonials and photographs.

Christine Peoples (Photo taken in February, 2024)
Rich Lawson
Christine Peoples (Photo taken in February, 2024)

Peoples said personal cell phones can be used to scan provided QR codes linking to recorded conversations with African Americans of the Ozarks. She describes the sense of community seen in the exhibit, including numerous maps and visuals of old structures like churches.

"The storytellers are the ones that took the lead," said Peoples, "Questions were asked, you know, 'tell us about, you know, your childhood so we can learn more' and specifics that were important to the region that they were coming from. So a lot of those big picture moments like the railroad those contributions like that framed where you're able to talk about the the different contributions and timelines and such."

According to Rebekah McKinney, director of Garnett Library Services, the exhibit includes numerous contributions from individuals and organizations that cover Howell County and surrounding communities. People such as Crockett and Tonya Oaks gave their time and family memories to the display, including aspects of the Lincoln School Project and archiving information about the Sadie Brown cemetery, a burial ground for Black residents since the late 1800s located just north of West Plains. The interactive exhibit tells the stories of African Americans across the Ozarks from a variety of sources: "Documents from St. James, Missouri that detail enslaved people that would have been working in and around the Meramec Iron Works in the 1830s and 1840s," said Rost. "We have Voda Curtis, who was a Springfield resident — her retelling of the 1906 lynching and it's aftermath in Springfield on Easter. That was an oral history she did back in the 1970s. So we have an excerpt from that of her retelling those memories."

Based on the research of Sean Rost, the documents and other artifacts in the exhibit span from the mid 19th to the late 20th Centuries that includes the discovery of some of the “earliest coverage” of Emancipation Day in newspaper articles.

The exhibit “African American Heritage in the Ozarks” runs thru March 31 at the Garnett Library, 304 W. Trish Knight St., on the Missouri State University-West Plains campus.