Did you know? Emily Fisher, a freed slave, donated the first load of bricks for Second Baptist Church.
Some say history is rather dull and boring. But not the third graders who spent a day touring the historic McCoy Neighborhood, where their school Ð Bryant Elementary Ð is a fixture at North River Boulevard and West College Street.
After touring the history-laced neighborhood – home of Harry and Bess Truman – the enlightened students returned with a deeper appreciation of their school and neighborhood than before the bus tour on Thursday.
“We start out by making history an exciting hands-on thing in their own neighborhood,” says Bill Curtis, historian of McCoy Neighborhood, which has sponsored the event for 10 years.
“History started here,” he says of the neighborhood, bounded by U.S. 24, Truman Road, Noland Road and River Boulevard. “We had pioneers, we had trails, we had the Civil War and we had all kind of things that impacted the whole nation Ð and it was right here where these things happened.”
Barb Wiley, longtime McCoy Neighborhood president, says the outing enables children to better understand their neighborhood, as well as to appreciate and be proud of it.
“We want them to know about the historic things that have happened right in their own neighborhood,” she says, calling the event a “fun and educational history lesson.”
The outing also is an opportunity for the neighborhood and school to partner, Barb says, with Bryant providing the students and sack lunches, McCoy providing the storytellers, history lesson and a snack and the Local Investment Commission providing the transportation.
Dressed in period attire, storytellers capture the youngster’s attention with intriguing stories at each of the nine stops. So what better story to excite the children than how Madeline Etzenhouser, a Bryant principal, prevented the kidnapping of Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry and Bess Truman.
At the first stop, 426 N. Delaware, where Etzenhouser lived at the time, storyteller Susan Rosenquist relates how the would-be kidnapper entered Bryant and asked for the release of Mary Truman.
“Of course, that raised all kind of questions for the principal,” Bill says, noting the Trumans’ daughter went by Margaret, her middle name; not Mary, her first name.
Etzenhouser left the room and telephoned Mrs. Truman, who replied no one was authorized to take Margaret out of school that day. However, when she returned to the front desk, the would-be kidnapper had left the building and a kidnapping had been averted.
Says Bill: “The kids love that story because Bryant is their school.”
Waiting for the bus at stop No. 2 was Cheryl Harness, who drew historic panels for a display at a shelter at College and Bess Truman Parkway.
She tells about the wagon trains coming through what is now McCoy Park, and how a mule-driven train carried cargo and passengers from the Wayne City Landing on the Missouri River to Independence Square.
Following her presentation, Bill Curtis talked about Hiram Young and the slavery issue, noting the former slave’s home and wagon factory was in the McCoy Neighborhood. Hiram’s home was at today’s Liberty and U.S. 24. The factory was built on what is now the middle of U.S. 24, before there was a road.
While in McCoy Park, Alversia Pettigrew recalled growing up in that area called “The Neck,” before urban renewal condemned the blighted area for “people of color” and converted it into a city park.
As a child, she recalls the iceman giving children ice chips to eat. Those were nice memories. There were also some not-so-nice recollections, including being forbidden to be on Delaware Street just west of “The Neck.” It was off-limits to black children.
Following lunch, it was off to a cell in the 1859 Jail on the Square to visit with Mother Jerome Shubrick, portrayed by Barb Wiley, dressed as a nun.
As head of the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Independence, “Mother Jerome was undoubtedly the highest society person that ever came here and the highest educated,” Bill says. “She was a member of the DuPont family and born on the DuPont family estate.”
However, “(Some) women in town considered her almost trash because she worked with imprisoned black people,” he says. “She would sit in the cells with them and write letters home and comfort them. And if they lived in the area, she went to their homes.”
At Main and College, Greg Higginbotham, a Civil War re-enactor, tells about a Civil War battle on that corner Ð just north of the Square. At that time, the corner was a curve on the Santa Fe Trail.
At Second Baptist Church, just east of the Square, Nina Falls portrays Emily Fisher, the first African-American business woman in the area.
“She was a slave,” Barb Wiley says. “Eventually, she was given her freedom and a hotel just north of the Square, and donated the first load of bricks for Second Baptist Church.” She lived on East Farmer.”
As the nosy neighbor, Joy Muir tells the humorous “exploding cow story” to the children’s delight in front of 105 E. St. Charles. It was in the kitchen of this house that Oscar Arnold’s sick cow died and exploded two days later while they attempted to move the bloated carcass outside.
Says Barb: “You can imagine how the kids liked that story.”
The last leg of their trip for the 48 third graders was a visit to the Victorian home of Jerry and Barb Wiley, 804 N. Main, for snacks and a game of “Identifying the Antiques.”
Sharing their exciting day were William Grove, Jeslynn Baker and Jacob Cook.
“I didn’t know history before, and (the trip) really taught me something,” says William, who was hearing first-time stories. ...”We are lucky to have history in the McCoy Neighborhood. “That is really, really cool.”
Says Jeslynn: “I thought (the outing) was kinda fun because I didn’t know much about history. I knew about the Oregon trail and stuff, but I didn’t know much about our history.”
Living in McCoy Neighborhood, Jeslynn says, makes her feel “a little bit proud” because of the history that happened there.
As for Jacob, he thought it was “really cool” learning more about his neighborhood because he knew so little.
Asked if he thought local history was boring, Jacob replies with an emphatic “no.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.