Black History in Missouri: Business Districts

See Photo Location

Segregation laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries forced Black citizens to build businesses in second-rate areas of a city. However, many enterprising and entrepreneurial Black Missourians rose above the challenges they faced in order to carve out their own thriving centers of commerce, culture and community.

18th and Vine – Kansas City

Restrictive covenants limited Black Kansas Citians from moving to certain areas of the city during the first half of the 20th century. As a result, hundreds of businesses owned by Black residents popped up in a relatively small section of the city, and the diversity of the businesses allowed the community to become largely self-sufficient.

The 18th and Vine district was specifically known for its entertainment options. And to this day it’s closely tied to many of the things that make Kansas City famous: jazz, baseball and barbecue.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, jazz musicians from across the country flocked to Kansas City due to its laid-back approach to Prohibition. Locals like Charlie “Bird” Parker and legends like Louis Armstrong performed at the Gem Theater, which still hosts shows today.

The Kansas City Monarchs were the longest-running franchise in the Negro Leagues, which was established in Kansas City in 1920. The leagues gave Black baseball players the opportunity to play at a professional level while also bringing money into Black communities where the games were held. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine district details the history and famous players, like Jackie Robinson, that made the Negro Leagues great.

Two of the city’s most famous barbecue restaurants – Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and Gates Bar-B-Q – started in the 18th and Vine district. It’s close proximity to the livestock exchange and the expert pitmasters in the area proved to be a match made in heaven. Visitors and locals alike continue to enjoy the delicious tradition that started so long ago.

With so much activity and growth happening in the area, it’s no surprise that a popular newspaper also called the region home. The Kansas City Call was established by Chester Arthur Franklin in 1919. Its reporters covered significant events, highlighted injustices and called for social change. Lucille Bluford, who became the editor of the newspaper in 1955, was known as the “Conscience of Kansas City.” The Call became one of the most prominent Black newspapers in the country.

The Foot – Jefferson City

The Foot in Jefferson City was named for its location at the foot of the hill near Lincoln University’s Lafayette Street entrance. The Foot developed as a result of housing restrictions and an influx of citizens moving to the area for its proximity to Black schools.

Lincoln University was well known across the country as an excellent academic institution, eventually earning the nickname, “Black Harvard of the Midwest.” It was opened in 1866 by Black Civil War veterans who dreamed of giving their fellow Black citizens the opportunity to learn. By the mid-20th century, some of the nation’s best and brightest academics were recruited from Ivy League schools to teach there. Many students who graduated from Lincoln went on to achieve significant accomplishments, but it was the university’s impact on the local area that made it so important to The Foot district.

With an influx of well-educated Black residents and visitors, businesses of all types began to open. Hotels, restaurants, bars, service stations and more provided a place to stay, dine and shop without concern about segregation laws or customs.

In addition to the numerous businesses, public spaces, including parks, churches, a swimming pool and a community center, were opened. All of these places helped foster a strong sense of community that endured until the 1960s.

When urban renewal efforts began sweeping the nation, many Black business districts were demolished to make way for more “modern” facilities and neighborhoods. Since very few of The Foot’s buildings remain, efforts have been made to honor the area’s legacy. The Community Park on Marshall Street features informative plaques and statues to educate visitors about the lost district.

The Sharp End

Sharp End was a commercial and residential district in Columbia in the early 1900s. It is frequently remembered for being a city within a city – a place where Columbia’s Black residents were able to create their own haven of Black-owned businesses and housing.

It all started when Gilbert Akers and John Lang purchased land in an “undesirable” part of town in 1865. The area was right in the middle of a floodplain near Flat Branch Creek, which is why it was situated away from well-to-do white neighborhoods. But that didn’t stop a vibrant community from developing.

Before long, Sharp End became known for its thriving nightlife. While the north side was ideal for families, there was a strict age restriction for the establishments in the south side. It became a rite of passage for 18-year-olds to visit and socialize at the restaurants and dance halls once they were old enough to not require parental supervision.

Beyond the nightlife, the area had all the businesses and services necessary to be a nearly self-sufficient community. An ice house, movie theater, barbershop, funeral home, grocery store, restaurants and more populated the district.

However, a lack of electricity and indoor plumbing and structural issues with many of the homes and businesses in Sharp End made it a prime contender for Columbia’s urban renewal program. Individuals were forced to move from their homes and close their businesses as the city replaced a much-beloved neighborhood with low-income housing.

The Blind Boone Home and several churches are some of the only holdovers from the bygone era. A historical marker commemorating Sharp End is located on East Walnut Street.

The Ville – St. Louis

Despite the fact that The Ville takes up less than half a square mile of St. Louis, it has long been known as a cultural hub. Restrictive covenants limited the areas that Black St. Louisans were allowed to live, so many moved to The Ville where they began opening businesses and building a community. The area continued to grow as more people were attracted by the robust commercial and education offerings the area provided.

In a time of segregated education, The Ville stood out because it was home to five schools, including Sumner High School, the first Black high school west of the Mississippi River, and Poro College, which was opened by Annie Malone as a manufacturing facility to produce her company’s hair care products as well as a training facility to prepare Black women to work in the cosmetology industry. Annie Malone’s business savvy was widely known and respected; today she is recognized as being the first Black woman to become a millionaire. Poro College also served as a civic, religious and social gathering place, giving Black citizens options for entertainment and fellowship during a time of segregation.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital was another famous institution in the area. It was the only public hospital for Black people, and in the mid 1900s, more Black doctors and nurses were trained there than any other hospital in the world..

Considering the impressive businesses and institutions that sprung up in the area, it makes perfect sense that many notable figures have called The Ville home over the years. Rock ‘n’ Roll icon Chuck Berry; tennis great Arthur Ashe; Missouri’s first Black state legislator, Walthall M. Moore; professional boxer Sonny Liston; one of the few Black scientists to work on the Manhattan Project, Moddie Taylor; and many more lived in The Ville at some point during their lives.

The Ville was designated as a local historic district in 1987. And while some of the district’s most famous buildings are no longer standing, some remain as commercial and residential spaces. Visitors can learn more about The Ville’s impact on St. Louis and the Black community at the Griot Museum of Black History.

The Wedge – Hannibal

Segregation in Hannibal led Black residents to establish neighborhoods of their own. The Wedge was one such neighborhood where professionals congregated to start their businesses and provide services for their community.

The Wedge had everything it needed to meet the needs of the residents who lived there and could not patronize white businesses. From coffee shops to a doctor’s office and pool halls to taxi companies, there were a wide variety of trades represented in the area. Almost every establishment at the convergence of Broadway and Market streets was owned by a Black proprietor.

Almost nothing remains of The Wedge since it was mostly demolished in 1985. The city put up a memorial plaque to honor the entrepreneurs who called the area home. Its 80-year legacy made a lasting impact on Hannibal and the local Black community. Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center not only tells the story of Daniel Quarles, the man who inspired Mark Twain’s character Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but also the larger story of Hannibal’s Black residents since the town’s founding in 1819.