Early Independence was built by the strength, skill and ingenuity of its first black setters. They cut the trees, cleared the land and began the farming that would sustain the pioneer population. They sawed the timber and made the bricks to construct houses and businesses. Most are not remembered by name, but many of their accomplishments have lasted to the present. Many of the early brick houses and public buildings were constructed by these craftsmen.
Sam Shepard built the 1827 log courthouse in Independence, which still stands in testimony to his skill. The trails and roads that were to be the highways of the nation’s westward movement were constructed by these workers. Most were brought here as slaves from the South and back East. The cruel bondage of slavery kept them from realizing the income from their labor. Slaves were bought and sold on or near the Independence Square.
Not all black pioneers were slaves. Hiram Young had already purchased his freedom when he arrived in Independence with his wife, Matilda. He set up a highly successful blacksmith shop that made ox yokes and outfitted wagons for the long trip west on the Oregon Trail.
The freedom the Civil War brought was a bittersweet victory. Black people were free to reap the rewards of their work. However, the means to work were not always available. Most had been denied an education that would have enabled a decent occupation. Land for farming was difficult to obtain. A strong religious faith and a determination to do better kept many from despair. The church was a great help during these long years.
Poverty was so hard after the Civil War that some young men turned to crime. The old county jail on North Main Street had a large proportion of black inmates. However, justice was not too careful to determine if a black person was truly guilty. It is said that many were arrested merely to get workers for the chain gangs to do roadwork for the county.
Mother Jerome Shubrick from St. Mary’s Academy heard about the dreadful conditions in the jail. She had a leather belt made with hooks on it to attach food and a big cape to cover it so she could smuggle food into the prisoners. She would go into the cells and
listen to the prisoners’ problems. Mother Jerome would write letters for them, or if they were local people, she would go to their homes to tell their families. She was much criticized by Independence society for these actions. The Sisters of Mercy she left behind carried prison reform to the nation.
Conditions were not much easier in the first half of the 20th century, but more people improved their lot than before. Numerous black businesses flourished on or around the Independence Square.
Reference: “A Rich Heritage: A Black History of Independence, Missouri,” by William J. Curtis.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.