From Preservation Issues, Volume 5, Number 1

Historic Preservation Program Updates
National Register of Historic Places


The Visible History of a Race

by Steve Mitchell
"If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated." Carter Woodson, 1926.
Photo not attributed.
Sedalia Hospital No. 2 (ca 1926) provided medical care for Sedalia's black community until 1954.

On learning the city administrator had recommended that Sedalia's New Deal-Era Hospital "No. 2" be demolished, Lauretta Emerson, former nurse at the hospital, expressed her support and relief. The building, in Emerson's opinion, "has little historical significance... and is not worth saving as a monument to anything. Except, perhaps, hate and ignorance" ("Sedalia Democrat", September 4, 1994). The building, constructed ca 1940 by the Works Progress Administration, is a legacy of legalized segregation, designed to serve the African-American population of Sedalia and the surrounding area in a time when a sharp color line divided or restricted most public facilities. However, the hospital, touted as "modern,..., unexcelled in the state" when constructed, was inadequate even by the standards of 50 years earlier.

Despite the bitter but understandable judgment of Emerson, however, Sedalia's Hospital No. 2 is significant, not just as narrow reminder of an era of prejudice and misery, but as a broader document in which can be read the sanctioned bigotry that was woven into every American institution for much of the national history. Although the building is important for its closely defined place in African American history, it is even more important for its place in a broader American culture of which, as Frederick Douglass noted as early as 1848, African Americans were only one class. The building provides insight not only into one tragic segment of the history of a race, but also into the errors and misjudgments of the country. It is also a lesson and a reminder that the perceptions that fueled the errors are still vital and must be guarded against.

The National Register of Historic Places is the nation's official list of significant cultural resources worthy of preservation. Properties considered for the register are assessed against the Criteria for Evaluation, a set of guidelines designed to establish, in as objective a manner as possible, the significance of the resource; the criteria do not presume to place an emotional value on a property, nor does the National Register represent events or trends that uplifted the human spirit or celebrate achievements that advanced the causes of justice and equality. The failures and mistakes of the nation may also be recognized, provided they are associated with events or trends that contributed to the broad patterns of our history. For example, the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, the site of an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, has been listed both on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark.

A number of Missouri properties listed in the National Register for their association with African American heritage, including Sumner Public School in Boonville and Lincoln School in Canton, also necessarily acknowledge the bitter effects of a separation that could never be equal. Other properties that housed institutions segregated by choice, such as Washington Chapel A.M.E. Church in Parkville and the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge #2 in St. Louis, represent the triumph of a people over the inequalities forcibly imposed upon them.

The visible history of Missouri's African American population is, and has been, disappearing for a number of years. Entire towns, villages, and urban neighborhoods have been obliterated, their histories forgotten, and the diverse cultural heritage of the state diminished.


All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
Return to the Preservation Issues home page.