George Sears

In 1907, the front page of the Joplin News-Herald featured the obituary of George Sears. Obituaries on the front page were not uncommon, but in this case it was unusual that Sears was featured so prominently because he was African-American. Both the Joplin Globe (a Democratic paper under Gilbert Barbee) and the Joplin News-Herald (the city’s Republican paper) failed to highlight the lives of the city’s African American residents, save for when they were caught committing crimes.

His obituary stated,

“’Uncle’” George Sears, one of the best known and most highly respected colored citizens of Joplin, died at his home, 112 Pearl Street [Avenue], this morning at 9:30 o’clock. Uncle George would have been 60 years old in seven days and has been a resident of Joplin ever since there was a Joplin. He was the first negro in Murphysburg.

He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1847, and came to Joplin when a young man. When he first came to Joplin, he engaged in mining which he followed until he became too old to work in the ground. He then took up janitor work of the M.E. Church on Fourth and Wall Streets. He joined the Baptist church when young and was a Baptist deacon for about twenty years. He was also a member of the K.P. and Masonic lodges.

Uncle George has distinguished himself several times in the Republican convention by making speeches and exerting his influence for the party. He had gained a famous reputation as a barbecue cook and was always in demand.

He was married in 1885 and leaves a wife and three daughters and one grand-granddaughter. A few years ago, out of pity for two little orphan boys, Deacon Sears adopted them and they were often seen with him. The arrangements for his funeral have not yet been completed, pending word from a minister. Throughout his life in Joplin, Uncle George bore a spotless reputation and stood well among all those who knew him.”

Rarely does one see such an obituary for an African-American in any of the early Joplin papers. From his obituary, however, it is clear that George’s passing was featured on the front page for several reasons: One, he was the “first negro in Murphysburg.” Second, he was an active participant in local Republican politics. It is possible he worked to secure African-American votes for Republican candidates which, the News-Herald being a Republican paper, may have been grateful for. Third, he was known as a top-notch barbeque cook, and probably served up ‘cue to a large segment of Joplin’s population throughout the years.

A Snapshot of Race Relations in Joplin

African Americans played an important role in Joplin’s history.  Although segregation prevailed in the local mining industry, African Americans worked backbreaking labor intensive jobs as hod carriers, day laborers, carpenters, washerwomen, and other less desirable occupations.

Joplin newspapers often echoed the narrow minded racial beliefs of the time by perpetuating common stereotypes of African Americans as criminal, subhuman individuals.  In comparison to some local papers, such as the Stotts City Sunbeam and the Springfield Leader (which was founded by fire-breathing former Confederate Daniel Curran Kennedy), the Joplin papers were fairly tame.  While African Americans were most often portrayed in a negative light by the papers, sometimes a positive story would appear.

It’s often easy to look back over the last century, even two centuries, of American history and fall prey to dangerous generalizations.  This story illustrates that while racism certainly did exist in Joplin, it was not pervasive.

In the early fall of 1906, a crippled black man drove his blind mule along the streets of Joplin.  He was a well known figure as he drove a wagon that carried advertising signs to drum up business for local merchants.  The old man was, “old, feeble, and helpless, and few would take advantage of the poor old man’s infirmities to make him the object of a stinging jest.”

As the man and his mule approached Sixth Street and Moffet Avenue, a group of three white boys in a delivery wagon spied them.  One of the boys shouted, “Whoa there, mule.  Ha ha ha, look at the blind mule.  Look at the nigger.” The other two began laughing which a Globe reporter said, “sound as near like the braying of an ass as anything else.”

The elderly black man sat quietly but onlookers could see that “his feelings were deeply hurt.”

One of the boys called out, “Why don’t you get an automobile?” The other two began to yell when a white miner named Fred Winchel came upon the scene.  Winchel, incensed at the abuse the boys were heaping on the old man, jumped into the delivery wagon and grabbed one of the delivery boys.  He jerked the boy out of his seat and out onto the street.

Winchel growled, “Do you want to fight?” The boy, frightened by the miner, stammered, “N-n-n-no.” Winchel, still angry, snarled, “Then take that you cowardly whelp!” before he slapped the boy viciously on the ear.  The boy’s two companions tried to drive away but Winchel ordered them to stop.  The two boys complied.

Once again Winchel jumped into the wagon and drug the remaining two boys out.  He asked, “Do you want to fight?” The boys, like their companion, replied that they did not.  Winchel boxed their ears and sent them on their way.  He was overheard to say, “I ought to be kicked for not cleanin’ every one of them.”

Source: Joplin Globe