“The Journey Continues,” Foster says, “is the root. As it grew, one of the branches became the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail.” This new branch of the project uses historical markers to recognize important sites in Ozarks history that relate to the African American experience.
The trail, which is supported by public and private partners, will commemorate places such as Jones Alley Business District, Graham’s Rib Station and the former Lincoln High School.
“These places, in some cases, don’t exist anymore,” Foster says. “We just have remnants left. In another couple of decades, there will be no remnants. That was part of the motivation: How do we preserve these places?”
To maintain the project’s historical integrity, each suggested location undergoes a vetting process. The vetting committee has approved 17 initial sites for the trail.
Foster, Knapp and their partners are considering ways to connect these locations so that schools, community groups and families can visit them as part of a unified experience.
“Part of this vision is a ‘docent day’ with people at each marker, portraying the history of the location,” Foster says. “For example, at the old Lincoln High School, you might see a teacher speaking to her class.”
As the idea for the trail developed, Foster found that many people expressed support and enthusiasm. “The effort and interest in diversity and inclusion is at a heightened peak in our region,” he says.
In addition to Missouri State, partners include the City of Springfield, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Ozarks Greenways, Ozarks Technical Community College, Drury University and the History Museum on the Square.
And while the trail grew out of The Journey Continues, Knapp says, “We don’t want to get too much credit. It’s not our project. It’s now a broader, community-based project.”
That said, Foster describes the trail as “a neat expression of Missouri State’s public affairs mission. We’re honored to share this story, and it’s exciting that our university is interested and supportive of this grass-roots approach.”
Physical representations of history, like the trail markers, also provide new ways to begin tough discussions, Foster says. “Throughout the country, people are more interested in every side of the story,” he says, “even if the story isn’t a happy one. The heritage trail is a way to trigger these very important conversations.”
Knapp agrees. “It’s an understanding of the history that’s necessary to move us forward,” he says. “It’s an historical project, but there’s a lot of forward progress to it as well.”
And, Foster says, it’s a more dimensional approach to African American history than simply spotlighting the most well-known achievements and the most famous names.
Growing up, he says, “we never got to fully appreciate our local history because it wasn’t available or shared. Working on this project made me have a new-found appreciation for local heroes.” The Journey Continues and the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail both shed light on local people who helped build the community.
This history includes experiences of sadness and struggle, Foster says, alongside stories of inspiration, triumph, mentoring and development.
“I’m interested in Graham’s Rib Station, the Jones Alley Business District, the people who started churches right after slavery ended — often with help from members of the white community, who donated land,” Foster says. “These stories help us understand Springfield, today and tomorrow.”