|UDC Picnic at Pennytown: Photo by Marlan Warren|
United Daugthers of the Confederacy visit first black settlement site in Missouri:
"Our mother told us if there was ever a fire, grab a box of records and run..."
There isn’t much left of Pennytown anymore. But when Virginia Huston looks at its vacant landscape, she sees more than just meadows, a church and a house. She sees memories that must be preserved.
Huston was the last person born in Pennytown, a black settlement located eight miles southeast of Marshall that was started by Joe Penny in 19871 when he managed to purchase eight acres for $160.
“What is unique about Pennytown is that it was started by a freed-slave,” Huston said.
As times changed, people began to move elsewhere and by 1943, the town had all but died. Huston’s mother Josephine Jackson Lawrence devoted herself to building public awareness of Pennytown. It was finally listed as a national historical site and in the Marshall register. The University of Missouri-Columbia and Marshall Public Library now house the town’s records.
“Our mother told us kids that if there was a fire, we each had to grab a box (of records) and run out,” says Huston. In fact, one day there was a fire, and she ran out with a box and left her glasses. “My brother had to go back and get them.”
Huston took her mother’s place as tour guide after her passing 14 years ago. Many organizations ask for tours, but until this month, the United Daughters of the Confederacy® had not been one of them.
On March 11, Huston welcomed the UDC, Marshall Chapter, to the Pennytown site. Members unloaded food, children and cameras. Some had brought friends. All looked ready to live up to their motto: “LOVE, LIVE, PRAY, THINK, DARE.”
Their presence stemmed from a phone call UDC member Judy Frerking made to Huston, asking her to speak at their March meeting. Frerking had read about Pennytown and thought the group might like to learn more about it.
“She said some of the members had never been to Pennytown,” recalls Huston. “So I suggested they have the meeting there.”
After lunching in the unseasonably warm sunshine, the group gathered around the table next to the Pennytown Freewill Church and grew attentive as Huston began her oral history presentation. She passed out documents (“Here’s Aunt Penny’s slave record…”), showed scrapbook photos and award certificates. The attendees pored over them.
Pennytown was once the largest Saline County black hamlet. It boasted farms, stores, two churches and a close-knit community. Now only the (recently restored) red-brick church remains, and only open for special occasions. Huston can still recall the baptisms that went on in the pond behind it.
UDC members began to interject their own stories. Raylene Cornine recalled that when she was a little girl, she was very sick and Huston’s father brought a folk medicine that cured her. The medicine turned out to be skunk oil.
Was he a doctor? “No, he just heard I was sick,” Cornine said.
Huston’s revelation that Joe Penny is buried in an unmarked grave on private property garnered the biggest reaction. Members expressed concern and said someone should look into getting a marker.
The lone Pennytown house is falling apart. It used to belong to Huston’s uncle. One UDC member’s grown daughter offered to help look into grants for a renovation project.
Huston smiled. She said Friends of Pennytown Historical Site is open to suggestions.
In closing, Huston read her mother’s favorite hymn “We’ve Come a Long Way, Lord.” Then she read her own handwritten thoughts, scribbled the night before:
“It has been a struggle to get where we are but we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Huston read. “And there’s still more work to be done. We can sit and be a spectator…or learn from our fears and walk together.”
Everyone said, “Amen.”
President Bonnie Keyserling presented Huston with a donation from UDC, Marshall to the Friends of Pennytown. Then they started their meeting.
Frerking said the event was a success because “you don’t learn unless you’re educated,” and this was an opportunity to “mend fences.”
I grew up in Florida with "Yankee" parents, and a mother who despised racism. I remember separate drinking fountains, restrooms and schools. Mom loved to tell the story of when she asked our very Southern neighbor for the name of her African American cleaning lady. "We don't call them ladies," Mrs. Cochran replied, unwittingly giving Mom the anecdotal ammunition she craved to shoot Mrs. C down behind her back by imitating her "dumb drawl" every chance she got to tell this to anyone who would listen.
My high school yearbook, senior year, shows the boys from the Key Club proudly standing around a Volkswagen Bug that was painted like...a Confederate flag. I knew those white males and there might have been one or two who was a prejudiced jerk, but the rest were blithely unaware the flag meant "slavery" to those who suffered it.
I'm not defending the Confederate Flag. Mom used to say, "These ignoramuses are still fighting the Civil War." Our high school was eventually integrated with a few African Americans before I graduated. One of them was in a play with me. No big deal. Or so I thought.
Now, in light of this latest heinous crime--the mass murder of good, decent African Americans in their own church during Bible Study by a complete moron who loved his Confederate flags and was driven by the desire to ignite a "race war," our country is re-evaluating the Confederate flag, the Confederacy, the dead Southerners at the end of that awful war.
May we all do the right thing.