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Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Missouri man spearheads drive for slavery museum

July 30, 2000

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— Iron shackles that once bound his great-grandfather now are conversation pieces on Father Moses Berry's coffee table. Yellowed old photographs and charcoal portraits of former slaves invite questions about his family history.

Berry, an Eastern Orthodox priest, hasn't always been so open with his heirlooms. Many years ago, his grandmother told him to be careful about how much he told the outside world.

"She said if you share something sacred with people who won't respect it, they will try and reduce it to something that they can understand -- and miss the sacredness," Berry said.

"But now we're in such difficult days, that if only one person can be touched by what I've been given, I'll take the risk of having our pearls trampled underfoot."

Berry, 49, hopes to use artifacts from his and other families to open the first African-American heritage museum in the Ozarks. He has raised $3,000 of $15,000 needed to create the museum in an old school built for children of former slaves. He also plans to restore a slave cemetery on his farm.

Opening a family album

Ash Grove may be best known for a footnote in white history books: Nathan Boone, the youngest son of frontiersman Daniel Boone, was buried here. But the community's hidden black history is typical of the Midwest.

This area was settled on the backs of slaves who broke the ground, cut the trees, fed the pigs and worked the fields, Berry said.

"My family is now one of two black families in Ash Grove, but people don't realize that's not how it always was," he said. "There is an untold story of American history here."

Much of that story can be told by looking through Berry's own family album.

His great-grandfather was Wallace White, a former slave and the first black in the Union's Missouri 6th Cavalry Troop. He was also the only member of his troop not to receive a Civil War veteran's pension.

Berry's great-grandmother, Caroline Boone Berry, was raised on the Nathan Boone plantation. Later, as a free woman, she settled in the farmhouse where Berry lives today.

His ancestors were among the few blacks who remained in the Ozarks after a 1906 lynching of three black men in Springfield, which frightened many families out of the area.

"Hundreds of black families fled the area the weekend of those lynchings," said Katherine Lederer, a professor at Southwest Missouri State University who writes about black history in Missouri.

"There weren't many African-American families in the Ozarks in the first place, but after the lynchings and the rampant discrimination, the numbers just dwindled," she said.

Despite the small number of black families here, Berry has managed to collect more than 100 artifacts -- paintings, slave-made quilts, pictures and other memorabilia -- that paint a picture of black life in the Ozarks.

"I have always had a strong sense of knowing who I was and where I came from," Berry said. "I have always had a particular fascination with my ancestry."

Learning from the past

Berry, who grew up in Ash Grove, returned in 1998 to his family's wheat farm and 1873 homestead built on the edge of the town. A year later, he learned that the historic Lincoln School was going to be demolished for a new subdivision. He decided to wage a campaign to save it.

"Lincoln School was one reason black families moved here in the first place," Lederer said. "Around the turn of the century, it was the only black high school in southwest Missouri. Later, it was the only state accredited black school outside Jefferson City."

The tiny wooden school with the dirt floor was built in the late 1800s for the children of former slaves. Berry's father and uncle were members of the school's last graduating class before desegregation.

"Some people think of it as a negative thing, a place where poor black children learned with used and torn books on a dirt floor. But to me, it's wonderful," Berry said. "These people had a great sense of community. They lived, worked and struggled together."

The cemetery Berry wants to restore is on the northwest corner of his farm, its crumbling gravestones shaded by overarching walnut trees. There lie the bodies of Berry's ancestors, other blacks, American Indians and paupers.

The cemetery is recognized by the Missouri State Historical Registry as one of the Midwest's oldest slave cemeteries. Both the Ozarks Genealogical Society and the Underground Railway Assn. have expressed concern about preserving the graveyard.

Berry hopes to have the museum open by this time next year.

"It's amazing to me that I was born just 80 years after the abolition of slavery. It's a part of American history that children need to hear about," he said. "They need to see the slave chains and hear the stories, and not be saddened by it but learn from it."

His drive has drawn others to the cause. Bob and Carolyn Loehmann, developers in Ash Grove, donated the Lincoln School to Berry. The president of the Nathan Boone Rendezvous Committee has agreed to move the school. And contractor Rex Mueting plans to provide labor to build a building foundation.

"It's a good community project," Mueting said. "We need to remember history, so we don't repeat the mistakes that we did."

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