One by one, Missouri’s black towns disappear

Topics:
U.S.
Race & Ethnicity
Missouri

Small rural spots founded as escapes from the Jim Crow South are vanishing into nothingness

Missouri State Historical Society

All that’s left of Pennytown is a small church. Rotting skeletons of houses represent the remains of Pinhook. Much of Kinloch — which lies in the shadow of a major airport — is overgrown with weeds and covered with trash.

Once home to thousands, these three small black communities in different parts of Missouri are of a sort that was once common throughout the region. But these testaments to the state’s African-American history have all met a similar fate: They’re nearly empty, if not completely wiped from the map. Their residents and descendants are scattered, struggling to maintain their history and in some cases struggling to reclaim their homes.

“People don’t really think about African-Americans in the country,” said Todd Lawrence, a descendant of Pennytown residents. “They don’t think about African-Americans as farmers. They don’t think about African-Americans raising animals. And that’s certainly what [those communities] were. Those were places where black people lived in rural settings and thrived. We’re losing that sense, certainly in the Midwest, that there is this culture of rural blackness.”

Freed slaves founded Pennytown in 1871, and sharecroppers in the 1920s settled Pinhook. Kinloch is the oldest incorporated African-American community in Missouri.

“These are places where black people came to escape Jim Crow,” Lawrence said. “Those towns became a kind of paradise for black people, because it allowed them to create a space free from external oppression, to a certain extent.

“We can’t let the knowledge of these places pass into nothing.”

Ryan Schuessler

PINHOOK, Mo. — Debra Tarver remembers feeling the bed shake and the windows rattle in the darkness of that May night. Most everyone in the Missouri Bootheel felt it: the distant rumble of explosives.

“It was a sickening feeling,” Tarver said. “You knew it was coming.”

On May 2, 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the Bird’s Point Levee along the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri in order to save the city of Cairo, Ill., from catastrophic and potentially historic flooding. The corps detonated charges along the swollen river, unleashing its waters on the communities below.

Debra Tarver.
Ryan Schuessler

The corps had been monitoring the situation for days leading up to the breach, and the move was not entirely unexpected. Politicians from Missouri and Illinois were embroiled in highly publicized debate over whether or not to breach the levee, and the state of Missouri took legal action that ultimately proved unsuccessful. The final decision was made that Tuesday afternoon. Just after 10 that night, the explosions shook the region.

The corps maintains that it followed protocol. However, the residents of Pinhook say they were caught off guard and found out about the decision by word of mouth. Tarver said she found out from her brother in New York. She was at work when she got the call. One family was on vacation.

By the time she found out the breach was moving forward, Tarver had only hours to organize her town’s evacuation before the 15-foot wall of water ripped through Pinhook. 

A stereo, clothes in a closet and other items remain in an abandoned Pinhook home.
A stereo, clothes in a closet and other items remain in an abandoned Pinhook home.
Ryan Schuessler

“My 7-year-old grandson asks me, ‘What made them do that to us, Nana?’” Tarver said. “I tell him, ‘It was nothing we did, it was just something that happened. And we thank God nobody was hurt.’”

In 2011, approximately 30 people lived in Pinhook. At its height, there were nearly 300. The village was founded by black sharecroppers in the early 1900s whose descendants continued to work the land until they were forced to leave.

It was a close-knit town where everybody knew everybody, Tarver said. Pinhook wasn’t a collection of families — it was a family.

“They were trying to accomplish having their own land,” she said of Pinhook’s founders. “They did. They settled there, they cleared the land. It was all trees, stumps and swamp. It was a place of accomplishment.”

Pinhook was founded in a time when it was difficult for African-Americans to buy decent land, and this village was no exception. Its citizens lived under the constant threat of flooding, including the first intentional breach of the levee in 1937. But nobody thought the corps would do it again.

Rubble seen through the doorway of what was once a church in Pinhook.
Ryan Schuessler

“It took me a year to accept the fact that you couldn’t go home,” Tarver said. As the village chairwoman, she is leading an effort to secure funds to rebuild the town outside of the spillway.

Three years later, the shredded houses remain caked with mud and full of destroyed belongings. Pinhook’s citizens had time to grab only a few things.

“You couldn’t hear a bird, you couldn’t hear a bug,” Tarver recalled from when she returned to her home after the waters receded. “It was silence, as if you had dropped off the face of the earth.”

In the years following the flood, Pinhook’s residents have relocated to nearby cities like Sikeston and East Prairie, but are eager to rebuild and return to country living. Nearly half of their empty homes were destroyed by arson, as was the village’s church. Just a few weeks ago, the house Tarver’s mother and father designed and built by hand was also burned down. Given the remote location of Pinhook, and the fact that it is vacant, there are no leads on a suspect or motive. 

“It was devastating,” Tarver said. “That church represented everything.”

Yet her faith remains unshaken.

“Had we not been rooted and grounded in that church, it would have been much worse,” she said. “When you’re all alone and you have no one or nobody, you look to God.”

Listen: 'Heartland Home'
Ryan Schuessler

PENNYTOWN, Mo. — Virginia Houston still comes to Pennytown’s church to connect with her family, her past and God. It’s a modest one-room brick building just off a gravel road in rural Saline County. From time to time she’ll pack a lunch and drive out to sit on the bench that serves as a memorial to her late mother.

“When you first come over that hill, you feel a peaceful spirit,” Houston said. “That is what Pennytown is.”

Virginia Houston.
Ryan Schuessler

Freed slave Joe Penny, who moved to Missouri from Kentucky, founded Pennytown in 1871. For more than a century, it was the largest African-American settlement in central Missouri. At its peak, approximately 1,000 people lived here, all freed slaves and their descendants.

In 1944, Houston became the last person born in Pennytown.

“This town existed,” Houston said. “These people was determined, they had faith in God. They were proud people.”

A sign marking Pennytown's Freewill Baptist Church.
Ryan Schuessler

It was the economy that ultimately brought about Pennytown’s end. Houston’s family, like many others, moved to nearby Marshall for more opportunity shortly after she was born.

“Pennytown didn’t have anything to offer,” Houston said. “Most worked for the white families around here.”

The Pennytown Freewill Baptist Church is the only building left. It sits on a tiny plot of land bound by a rusted wire fence on three sides. On the other side there’s a pond, farmland and cattle.

Houston’s mother and other ancestors were all baptized in that pond. Cows graze on what was once the road leading to Pennytown. All that’s left now is the empty field, but Houston remembers when it was full of houses where hundreds of people lived. Her uncle and aunt were the last people to live in the village. Their house still stood — on the other side of the fence — for many years after they died, but the new owners of that land tore it down last year. 

The Pennytown Freewill Baptist Church.
The Pennytown Freewill Baptist Church.
Ryan Schuessler

“It wasn’t meant for us to have,” Houston said, gazing out the window of the church. “God had another purpose for it.”

The only reason the church is still standing is that the community bought the tiny plot from the farmer who had let them build it on his land in 1894. Everything else changed hands, and bit by bit Pennytown disappeared.

“You don’t find these things in the history books,” Houston said of Pennytown. Nor, by extension, in African-American history. “It’s up to the people and descendants to keep their memory alive.”

Ryan Schuessler

KINLOCH, Mo. — Kinloch is a musical place, especially on Sundays. You can’t drive more than a couple of blocks without seeing a church. Cars line the streets and music drifts out the windows, carried down the block by the breeze.

But then the roar of landing planes drowns out the voices. That’s a more apt representation for what this north St. Louis County town, which in 1948 became the first incorporated black town in Missouri, is today: empty.

“It done turned around 300 percent,” said Earbie Bledsoe, the pastor at Devotional Baptist Church, who first joined the church in 1955. “It turned around for the worst.”

A mural marks significant moments in Kinloch's history.
Ryan Schuessler

It was the airport that destroyed Kinloch. In the 1980s, the city of St. Louis started buying up land to be used for a proposed expansion of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Kinloch was to be turned into a runway. Families started moving out, and the city lost more than three-fourths of its population in a decade.

“We had no plans of moving,” said Steven Peebles, who grew up in Kinloch and moved when he was 20. “It was sad, but exciting. Life as I knew it wouldn’t be the same.”

Kinloch would never be the same, either. Despite the airport buyout, no expansion project ever began. In 1980, more than 4,000 lived in Kinloch. Today there are fewer than 300. Almost everything bought by the city has been torn down, and a highway runs over its old cemetery. The official city boundaries have shrunk to less than 1 square mile of land.

“There’s an old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. This town was that village,” said Peebles, now 44. “[The airport] took that structure and eradicated it.”

While the buyout, on paper, was voluntary, Peebles recalls those years as being characterized by fear, uncertainty and pressure. Eminent domain was looming in the back of everybody’s mind. His family was one of the last to leave.

Steven Peebles.
Ryan Schuessler

“Whether you chose to accept it or you chose to fight it, you knew eventually you’d have to leave,” Peebles said. “There was this feeling of helplessness. We were essentially and effectively gobbled up.”

Kinloch has since become more or less a collection of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Its once vibrant streets are riddled with cracks and potholes. Trash and junk line the roads, as there are no city services. When the people moved out, so did Kinloch’s tax base. The grass and trees are overgrown, and much of it looks as if it belongs out in the country because it’s been untended for so long. There are even rumors that a herd of deer has moved in.

“We’re very hurt by what Kinloch has become,” Peebles said. He can still point to a vacant lot and remember the store or family home that used to be there.

A sign advertises the now-defunct Cotton Club in Kinloch.
Ryan Schuessler

But that hasn’t erased a sense of community. Several churches are still functioning and attract the community’s diaspora every week, bringing old neighbors back together. They say Kinloch was once a proud, self-sufficient, family-oriented place to live. 

“It was a self-supporting community,” said Richard B. Riddlespriger, 61, who moved to the area when he was 21. “The things that was needed in the community was already here. It was established.”

Kinloch’s vacant buildings have become a magnet for violence and crime that residents say comes from outside the community. Bodies are occasionally found in the heaps of trash, and some of the old street signs have bullet holes in them.

These days, that’s the St. Louis area’s stereotype of Kinloch. But it’s an image far from what Peebles and others remember of their hometown.

“I really can’t emphasize [too much] how family-oriented Kinloch was,” Peebles said. “It was a community of love.

“The sense of accomplishment will disappear,” he added, “if and when Kinloch disappears.”

Pennytown, Pinhook and Kinloch aren’t the only towns with this history in Missouri, or the country. Not far from Kinloch, there’s a neighborhood called Meacham Park, which was annexed into neighboring Kirkwood in the early ’90s. Parts of the town were bought up to build a Walmart, Target and Lowe’s. Closer to Pinhook is Hayti Heights, which has seen a steady decrease in population the past few decades.

These towns were born in an era when African-Americans weren’t allowed to live in white communities, nor was it safe to be in them. The memories of that sanctuary and community are what makes the current state of Kinloch, Pinhook, Pennytown and others especially painful for their former residents.

“They felt safe in the confines of the town in ways they didn’t outside the town,” Todd Lawrence said.

It’s that sense of community that continues to bring people back. Peebles, like many displaced Kinloch residents, brings his children to church there every week. His mother joins them, in an echo of what they did during his childhood. Every May the residents of Pinhook come together to remember their town in the hopes that one day they’ll be able to rebuild it. There’s an annual homecoming at the Pennytown church in August when descendants come from all over the country to reconnect and celebrate their heritage.

Last year, the descendants of the slave masters who had owned the founders of Pennytown came to the community’s homecoming as well, where they were welcomed as “family.”

“You can’t hate people for what they did,” said Pennytown native Houston. “You just pray for them. That was the way things were back then. And you just pray that they will never be like that again.”