Editor's Note: The following is the speech given by Jon Cozean during the dedication ceremony for the St. Luke's A.M.E. Church Park on Nov. 4
Greetings! I want to thank all of you for allowing me to offer some brief comments at the dedication of this highly significant addition to the Farmington park system.
More than 30 years ago a young man came into Farmington from Springfield, Missouri to build a large, modern motel here. His name was Dick Stange and he hoped to attract more tourists to the Mineral Area to help fill his motel. He commissioned a group to make a study of the tourist potential of our area and they discovered that Farmington and the surrounding cities were within 50 miles of more state parks than was any other location in Missouri. From this study group came the idea of calling our area the “Parkland.”
Point is, we are surrounded by an incredible number of unique parks – such as Elephant Rocks, St. Joe State Park, Washington State Park, Hahn State Park, Pickle Springs, Pilot Knob… the list goes on. All of these parks celebrate the wonderful unique and geographical features that surround us.
And we love these parks. But consider this: we are here at one of the state’s most unique and important parks. This park does not focus on geography, but rather it focuses on people. People who helped Farmington grow and prosper. People who helped our city move ahead in commerce, government, religion, and education. Indeed, we are here to celebrate our town’s African American heritage.
By now I am sure many of you are aware of many of these African American leaders who played an important part in this legacy. One was Dayse Baker, who was superintendent of the Douglas school for 51 years. Another black leader was a cabinet member during the Eisenhower Administration. Who can’t forget Ethelean Cayce who was active in her church and PATH, an organization dedicated to helping young people with physical disabilities? She was active in Methodist Church activities for nearly a century, and also in her invaluable contribution to the data base of our St. Francois County Historical Society. Many African American families here operated their own businesses and held other leadership positions in Farmington.
You may not know it, but African Americans made up a large percentage of our county’s population at the time Missouri became a state. According to information compiled by our Historical Society, the very first Federal census to include our area, conducted in 1830, showed that our county’s population then consisted of 1,932 whites and 436 blacks.
Many of those black families who lived in Farmington stayed here after Emancipation and a number of these first families continue to live here today. You might be surprised to learn that soon after the Civil War, the African American community that lived here purchased land near the center of our town so that they could build homes and businesses. We are, right now, in the midst of that land which was along Jefferson and Franklin Streets east of Columbia Street. This area extended south to near the Masonic Cemetery.
One of the first things the black community here did once they owned land was to build a church, which is located right here where we are standing. Our historical society records show that this church, St. Luke’s African American Episcopal Church was the first black church congregation west of the Mississippi River. It was built in 1887 and torn down in 2004. The Church was organized by a Reverend Christopher Tayer. Early members included Louis Kennedy, George Alexander, John Cunningham, Hillard Douit, James Hill, Sam Pozler and Jim Hunt. Also be aware, that just a couple of blocks south of us, Sarah Barton Murphy is buried in the Masonic Cemetery. She is credited with saying the first protestant prayer and holding the first Sunday school west of the Mississippi River. So, in a way, all of us right now are standing on hallowed land!
As the city’s black community developed, they decided to create their own cemetery which is located on the north side of the city. They purchased the land and organized a cemetery board at the end of the nineteenth century. The first burial there was on Jan. 4, 1900, when Dora E. Cayce was laid to rest. That cemetery is still very much in operation even today.
Now, while we honor St. Luke's which was on this site, there was another church building just a couple of blocks from us on Second and Jefferson Streets. It has an interesting history as well. At one time it was home to three different Episcopal Methodist churches, a black lodge, a popular black meeting place, a restaurant, and an art gallery. Both buildings were quite old and structurally unsafe when they were dismantled. Still, the front steps of that building also remain.
However, this location should be forever revered and preserved. We and future generations will be eternally grateful for the creation of this park. First, our thanks to Bill and Charles Matthews who donated the land to the city; to Mayors, Mit Landrum and Larry Forsythe who appreciated its significance and shepherded this project through the City Council. We own a special debt to the city’s tree board who designed the park. Just look at it! The two rows of silk trees indicate the sides of the church building and the box woods indicate the location of the church alter. It has all been put into place by the careful supervision of the city’s Parks Department.
While doubtless many people will come here to enjoy the surroundings and sitting on these benches, many others will also point to this park as a reminder of the rich heritage of African Americans who have always lived in our city.
Their contribution should never be forgotten. Thank you for being here. We owe a special thanks to the Matthews family for its willingness to give this hallowed land to our city, to our city government for having the foresight to develop this site into a city park, and especially, our African American citizens who have played a vital role in making Farmington the progressive city that it is. May I leave you with this point: While this park may be small in size, its historical significance is gigantic.