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Mo-Curious

Mo’ Curious: Preserving the Disappearing Memory of Missouri’s Little Tuskegee

Madelyn Paine remembers getting weighed at the Dalton elevator. Diane Pippens feels her light skin helped her pass for white or Mexican when she integrated her town’s high school. William Payne recalls the town’s annual reunion where he met his future wife.

It was at Dalton, Missouri’s annual reunion in 2021 that I did my first interview for this episode of the Mo’ Curious Podcast. Throughout that summer and ending on Labor Day of the same year, my collaborator Jennifer Thornburg and I conducted six oral histories with alumni from the former Dalton Vocational School in Chariton County.

The living legacy of Missouri's dramatic 1939 sharecroppers' strike Mo' Curious by Missouri Life

Back in 1939, the world was a different place. For one thing, there were a lot more people involved in farming. In the Bootheel of Missouri, this meant cotton. Under the sharecropper model, those Missourians who grew cotton had no guarantees of a wage. They could be evicted anytime from the land on which they lived and worked. In this episode of Mo’ Curious, we learn about the 1939 sharecroppers strike in Mississippi County, Missouri. It was on January 1 of that Depression year that Bootheel tenant farmers, or sharecroppers, participated in a protest. They camped on the roadside to draw attention to the deplorable economic and housing conditions that kept them impoverished and dependent. For two months, fifteen hundred Missourians lived their lives on the side of Highway 60 between Sikeston and Charleston. In order to bring a better understanding of the strike to area youth, we asked Charleston High School students to conduct oral history interviews. These interviews aimed to explain the strike and its legacy on the surrounding communities. Mo’ Curious by Missouri Life is a podcast about the past, present, and future of the 24th state. Hear past episodes at MoCurious.com.
  1. The living legacy of Missouri's dramatic 1939 sharecroppers' strike
  2. Preserving the disappearing history of Missouri's 'Little Tuskegee'
  3. Digging Deep: Macon County Mining Memories
  4. The View from Beacon Hill
  5. Start Your Engines: I-70 and Missouri's Culture

Dalton, now listed as a village by the U.S. Census Bureau, had an official population of seventeen in 2020. Nathanial Bruce started the school for blacks in Dalton in 1907. Between 1907 and 1956, Bartlett Agricultural and Mechanical School (later Dalton Vocational School) graduated young men with skills in farming and machinery. Young women learned how to type and cook in preparation for future work in offices and as house-keepers.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate-but-equal facilities like schools were unconstitutional. This led to the closure of the school perched on the hillside in Dalton. After the 1956 school year, active Dalton students attended now-integrated schools in their hometowns.

Now seemed like a great time to gather memories of Dalton Vocational School from the shrinking pool of aging alumni. This podcast tells the story of Dalton Vocational School—Missouri’s “Little Tuskegee”—in the former students’ own words.

Videos of these oral histories are planned for a future online and in-person display of Black education at Salisbury, Missouri’s Chariton County Historical Society Museum.

By Trevor Harris

I got involved in community radio back in 1990 and later worked in public radio. I enjoy listening to people's stories. Collecting them seemed like a logical marriage of my love of audio gathering and preserving the stories of those around me.

2 replies on “Mo’ Curious: Preserving the Disappearing Memory of Missouri’s Little Tuskegee”

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