Springfield’s old Jones Alley was the heart of a vibrant—and largely self-reliant—local economy
At the Greene County Archives and Records Center, there’s a book full of old memories of an era long gone. In it, you’ll find black-and-white photos of African-American children learning at Lincoln School and customers getting their hair cut at a Black-owned barbershop.
The book is the fourth volume of Black Families of the Ozarks, and it shows life in the Black community of Springfield in the 20th century.
One of the most important centers for Springfield’s Black community in the first half of the 1900s was the Jones Alley Business District. Located between Chestnut Expressway and Tampa Street, it was a collection of Black-owned businesses; by the mid-20th century, it was a thriving marketplace. Standing at the top of Jones Alley, you can see Drury University's campus to the north, and Central High School not far off.
The businesses of Jones Alley included Sportman Pool Hall, Cradle Café, and Deluxe Barber Shop. Those businesses grew up around residential areas with a large Black population.
Alma Clay, who frequented Jones Alley in its heyday, says many of its residents lived in an apartment complex.
“All down in there, there was a big apartment building that we called the Rock Castle," Clay tells KSMU. "There were a lot of families who lived in the Rock Castle.”
Clay says the district was also home to the Lincoln Nursery School.
“My children, in part, went to the nursery school down there in Jones Alley,” Clay says.
Nearby was a community center where Black youth could go after school. On the weekends the center hosted parties where kids could play pool and ping pong. Former City Councilman Denny Whayne, who’s 76 now, remembers the youth center from his high school days.
Whayne remembers, “On Tuesday night it was family night, where families would come to read stories to us. Just socializing.”
Not far off was the popular BBQ restaurant Graham Rib Station, which also had cabins where Black travelers could stay during the era of segregation. Whayne says those businesses helped foster a sense of belonging in Springfield’s Black community.
“It brought about communication. Participation. You know, it brought about identification.”
There’s a lot more life in those faded black-and-white pictures than there is today at Jones Alley, which is eerily quiet.
Dr. Lyle Foster came up with the idea for an African American heritage trail in Springfield. He says these Black-owned businesses were significant during the time of segregation because often Black residents couldn’t go anywhere else.
“Not only at Jones Alley, but throughout the north side, people we interviewed talked about little corner stores, little corner businesses that don’t exist anymore," Foster says of his research. "And so when students would come out of Lincoln School there’d be a candy store, there’d be a little corner store they would go to. But Jones Alley was kind of a, I almost want to use the word ‘ramshackle,’ but that’s probably not fair. It was a little collection of small entrepreneurial businesses that served the primarily diverse community around it.”
Wes Pratt’s north Springfield roots run deep. He went to Boyd, Pipkin, and Central Schools, as well as Drury University. Now part of the leadership team at Missouri State, Pratt helped design the local heritage trail. His grandfather owned the pool hall in Jones Alley, and Pratt says got his haircuts at the barber on Tampa Street as a young boy.
“It was just a vibrant community," Pratt recalls. "There was the business sector there, and there was always a sense of community. In the summertime people would be out on their verandas or their porches, and it was alive. It was alive.”
Over time, that sense of community was lost as redevelopment uprooted many businesses. Pratt estimates Jones Alley’s commerce started to decline in the late ’60 and early ‘70s. There were many factors that led to its disappearance. Pratt says one of them was Springfield’s practice of redlining, which kept banks from investing in Black neighborhoods and businesses.
“There was an inadequate access to capital, for instance. For small business loans, or for purchasing homes and things of that nature.”
When Chestnut Expressway expanded, the footprint of many of those old businesses were covered by pavement. Today, none of those old businesses on Jones Alley still exist. In place of the barbershop is a fenced-up cell tower. Under the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge by the railroad tracks, there’s an abandoned shopping cart filled with clothes. And stretching out on both sides of the narrow alley is an expanse of parking lots.
But it was here, and it was real. Pratt says growing up with Black role models and community stalwarts gave him opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise, even as Black folks in the Ozarks faced significant challenges due to racism.
“That sense of community created a sense of survival," Pratt says. "And the fact that folks valued me, believed in me, knew me, and knew what skillsets I may have had even though I didn’t know them myself. Those folks changed my life. I’ve benefited from standing on their shoulders, being supported by them, being lifted up by them, and most importantly, being valued by them. The trail values the history of folks who, unfortunately, too often, were not respected, not treated with dignity, nor valued.”