Reflecting on Jefferson City’s historic Foot District.
Astrong Black culture has been present in Missouri for 200 years — although not always well-documented, spoken, or shared among the wider public. After the Civil War, the state presented a strong prospect for many Black families to create a life and have a home. The Missouri River provided ample opportunity for jobs on steamboats or working trade along its banks. There were also a number of Union troops garrisoned in Jefferson City during that time, which provided protection.
As many Black families chose to make Jefferson City their home, a majority of these families lived along the river. The historic Lohman’s Landing Building, near the railroad station, was home to several Black families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Families also lived downtown, in homes along alleyways. They found work at downtown businesses or worked as domestic help to wealthy white families who lived nearby.
Housing restrictions during segregation also caused issues for Black residents. With the opening of the segregated Washington School in 1904 on East Elm Street near Lincoln University, residents began to relocate to the neighborhood for their children’s education. With education came infrastructure, and Black residents began investing and owning their own businesses. The historic Foot District community began to grow.
The Foot received its name for its location at Lincoln’s Lafayette Street entrance, often referred to as the “foot of the hill.” Streets including East McCarty, Chestnut, Atchison, and Jackson formed a loose boundary of the area. The Foot became the heart and soul of the Jefferson City Black community. Throughout the next 50 years, in addition to the development of Black-owned businesses like hairdressers, photographers, and front stores, there were several places of worship, a park, a community center, and a pool that established footing for families living in this area.
Just as this area was hitting its stride, the establishment of Highway 50 and the national trend of urban renewal in the 1960s caused much destruction and pain for The Foot residents. Jefferson City native Patsy Johnson grew up in The Foot and still resides there today. Although she was young at the time, she can recall the feeling of loss in the community that followed the demolition of these community businesses. Buildings were bought off, sold, and bulldozed to make way for Highway 50 as well as other renovation projects.
“When your neighbors and friends are hurting, you are hurting,” Patsy says. “The national trend had no regard to the destruction of local culture and infrastructure.”
Yet Patsy has very fond memories of growing up there with her 12 siblings. As the middle child and the third generation to live in Jefferson City, she holds an array of memories from her large family and neighborhood.
“It felt like a town within a city,” she says. “We were so close-knit. There were always barbecues, parties, and celebrations with many families.”
Children, including Patsy, attended Lincoln Laboratory School — an affordable, private primary and secondary school near Lincoln’s campus. Aptly named the Kittens, mirroring the LU Blue Tiger mascot, the school prepared and encouraged students to further their education after they graduated. Black students were bussed in from faraway areas, such as New Florence and Fulton, to have the opportunity for a high school education.
Funding for the school eventually dwindled, and it closed in 1975. Students were transferred to Jefferson City High School, some eventually dropping out because of adversities like racism, harassment, isolation, and manipulation.
Following the urban renewal of The Foot and the closure of the Lincoln Laboratory School, the community continued to suffer. Basketball courts were removed, the pool closed, and the community center and park quality continued to diminish due to lack of funding and attention from the city. The Foot community remained, but only in a small fraction of its prime for many years.
However, within the last five years, additions to the community have brought some of the original culture of The Foot back to life. The new Jefferson City Boys & Girls Club opened in 2017, and The Linc, also opened in 2017, provides a place for locals to play basketball, work out, and practice good health. In 2020, the full-service Community Park opened, presenting a splash park, shelters, and inclusive playground equipment for all ages and abilities.
Although many parts of The Foot’s original infrastructure are no longer standing, the cultural importance of this historical district stands firm in Jefferson City and Missouri history.
The next time you visit Community Park in The Foot, you’ll be able to learn more about our Black history on the east branch of the Jefferson City Greenway thanks to the Jefferson City Arts Foundation, JC Parks and Recreation, and MoDOT, as well as their financial sponsors Ameren UE, Central Bank, the NAACP, and others. Be on the lookout for the latest history panel project to learn more.
I know a place that’s small and quaint,
Where people cherish all the simple things,
And value their neighbors and friends,
Where kindness glows and families grow,
In seemingly normal and healthy ways,
Where children play,
Going about their way,
In their town to feel safe and secure,
At a pave restrained, with a peace contained,
In a call for a life demure…
Excerpt from poem “Before the 1960s” by Joyce Williams, a Jefferson City native and resident of The Foot, published in the book “Seasonings that Bind” by jBenét.