Among the best things to explore in Independence, Missouri are the numerous African American sites and attractions that provide insight into the many influential personalities that helped to shape the cultural, economic and social landscape here.
“The African-Americans of Independence were among the most important pioneers and builders of this community. They came as slaves of the first white settlers, but they left their mark on the city like no other group. They cut the roads through the timber. They felled the trees to build the city. They made the bricks by hand. They laid the bricks and cut the logs to build the buildings. They built the brick courthouse on the Square. They cooked and cleaned, farmed and hauled produce, cared for the young and old and did many things too numerous to mention to make this pioneer community prosper…”
– Excerpted from “The African-American Community of Independence, Missouri,” Written by Bill Curtis for the Community of Concerned Citizens, Independence, Missouri.
Among the most influential African Americans in Independence back in the day was Hiram Young. Born a slave in the early 1800s, Young originally came to the city with his abolitionist master, impressing everyone with his exceptional woodworking and carpentry skills, eventually saving up enough money to purchase his freedom as well as that of his wife. Because the area was in the center of the Westward expansion movement, he was able to apply his trade to building wagons and ox yokes for pioneers, becoming a rich and highly respected man in the process.
At what is now East Lexington Avenue on the side of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, Young purchased slaves from the auction block, gave them jobs, taught them new skills and allowed them to also purchase their freedom. After a short stint in Leavenworth, Missouri (about an hour and a half drive from Independence) during the Civil War, Young returned and founded a school for African American children.
Historical accounts vary as to whether it originally started in both the St. Paul A.M.E. Church and Second Baptist Church and moved to its own building, or began in its own building. Nevertheless, the school was named the Young School after his death, was later torn down and relocated, and unfortunately is no longer today.
Hiram Revels founded St. Paul A.M.E. Church in 1865, after Young placed a request to the Missouri Conference of the AME Church. Revels, who incidentally was in Missouri at the request of Fredrick Douglas to recruit African American soldiers during the Civil War for the Union Army, became the first pastor of the church and later moved to Mississippi where he became the first African American Senator in the U.S.
Second Baptist Church, founded in 1861, is the oldest black church in Jackson County and the building, constructed in 1887, is the oldest black church in the Kansas City area.
African American James Boldridge made a name for himself as the top horse trainer for the city’s wealthy families. In fact, he was such an integral part of the environment here, that upon his death in 1918, many business owners closed their businesses just to attend his funeral.
Slave Sam Shepard is credited with using his incredible craftsmanship to build the 1827 Log Courthouse, which still stands today. Judge Harry Truman held court here a few times, and it also served as a Mormon mercantile store at one point. Shepard lived to be over 100 and many of his descendants still live in Independence, as well as Lawrence, Kansas where he also resided after the Civil War.
African American females made their mark on the landscape here as well, including Emily Fisher who donated the first load of bricks for Second Baptist Church. Also a former slave, Fisher obtained her freedom and opened a very successful hotel on the Square, catering to pioneers traveling west. The invention of a special healing salve is another one of her well-known accomplishments.
Sister Mary Jerome Shubrick was not black, but she earned the distinction as “The Prisoner’s Friend,” which is also engraved on her tombstone, because she risked her life to smuggle books, food and other items to black and other prisoners living under deplorable conditions in the 1859 Jail.
To pay homage to Hiram Young, James Boldridge, Emily Fisher, Sister Mary Jerome Shubrick and numerous others, visit Woodlawn Cemetery, located just a few miles from Independence Square.
Their journeys were long, their accomplishments great, their impact everlasting. These are just a few of the many African Americans of yesteryear in Independence, Missouri.