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Community Gathers to Unveil Black History Mural in Downtown Joplin | Local News

Some of the faces in the new mural on the side of Bruce Cuthbert’s eye care business on First and Main streets may seem familiar to those who remember artists from the early and mid-20th century.

A face in this mural, that of saxophonist and musician Charles McPherson, is someone who is still alive. All are Black Americans who performed in Joplin during the segregation period of the early and mid-twentieth century or were originally from Joplin.

They may all be African American, but as Melissa Swindell, president of the Langston Hughes Cultural Society, said after the mural’s dedication on Sunday, “it’s our whole story.”

“It’s not just black history,” Swindell said. “Everyone who lives here now, was born here, it doesn’t matter – it’s your story too. People should know that these big names came through Joplin in the first place and it’s part of their story.

Some of the faces in the mural are famous: Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie were very well known musicians and performers in the 1900s. Joplin’s own Langston Hughes was a poet and writer of International fame.

Other faces on the mural are civil rights activist Marian Anderson, performer and singer Melissa Cuther and singer Mamie Smith.

Linda Teeter, local artist and member of the Langston Hughes Cultural Society, said they were on the mural because at some point in their entertainment career they performed in Joplin, even though during segregation , they might not have been allowed to watch a show at the venues where they performed or might not have been allowed to stay overnight in one of the motels near those venues.

“That’s why this position (on the wall from Bruce’s perspective) is very important,” Teeter said. “It’s the beginning of the downtown shopping district, and the community at one point didn’t welcome African American musicians to come here and play or stay the night after they played. For us, the bottom line is that life has gotten a lot better, history is sort of being corrected, and we have the final say.

Nanda Nunnelly, president of the Minnie Hackney Community Service Center in downtown Joplin and founder of the Langston Hughes Cultural Society, one of the groups that pushed to raise money for the mural, said people on the mural may have been famous, but they faced many challenges in their lifetime.

“We wanted to show that these are people who, against all odds, during the years of segregation, were able to come and live their lives,” Nunnelly said. “They were making music and entertaining people even though they had barriers in front of them. What I think he needs to show is that it’s OK to talk about these things. … But it’s also good to acknowledge and recognize that we’ve come a long way since that time and still have a lot of work to do.

The mural also features a building at the bottom and the words “Joplin Uplift” at the top. The building is the former Lincoln School, where African American children attended school during segregation.

McPherson remembers going to school in Lincoln before his family moved to Chicago when he was 9 years old. One of those present was Robert “Bob” Smith, whose mother was McPherson’s first grade teacher at Lincoln.

Nunnelly said “Joplin Uplift” was the title of an African-American newspaper published in Joplin in the 1920s and 1930s.

The ceremony also honored the mural’s creator, famed Kansas City muralist Alexander Austin, known for his massive artwork in Kansas City, including an 18,000-square-foot mural in the Power and Entertainment District. City Light and a five-story mural of Kansas City Baseball Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil.

Joplin Mayor Pro Tem Keenan Cortez presented Austin with a city proclamation declaring September 18, 2022 as Alexander Austin Day. Austin was visibly shocked by the gesture.

Austin said he hopes the words on the mural become something people use for inspiration as they drive around it every day.

“I would like it to instill a bit of pride and elevation, as the name of the newspaper suggests,” Austin said. “I want people to be uplifted every time they see it. A lot of communities don’t have murals, but one thing we know as artists is that art changes a community. for the better. I just hope this one uplifts this community.