SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- This city’s minority population is small compared to other cities of its size. That costs the city jobs. Companies with diverse workforces look at the city but turn away because they think their employees might feel unwelcome and isolated. Some in Springfield want to change the city's makeup, but their efforts aren't always appreciated.
As Springfield business and civic leaders gathered on renovated Park Central Square for a formal reopening ceremony in November, a Missouri State University band played several tunes, among them “Dixie.” Considering what happened on the square more than a century ago, playing “Dixie” seemed an inadvertent selection. It’s been called Springfield’s darkest hour and it’s one reason for Springfield’s lack of diversity.
Over Easter weekend of 1906, a frenzied mob of white people broke into the Springfield jail, dragged two black prisoners to the public square and lynched them. The drunken mob then burned and dismembered the bodies.
The two prisoners were jailed on suspicion of raping a white woman. Investigators later determined she was not raped.
That night, the mob also lynched a third black man. Black Springfieldians, long oppressed, fled. Within days, thousands of them left. Most of them never returned.
At the ceremony on the square on Nov. 18, Tim Rosenbury spoke because his architectural firm redesigned the square. The audience was all white. The only minority people in the area were passersby.
“It shows you how far we’ve got to go,” said Rosenbury.
Rosenbury caused a stir about diversity in Springfield last year.
“Many companies that maintain diversity as a value will not choose to locate here. We have to realize that to become competitive, we have to become more culturally diverse,” Rosenbury said as he became chairman of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors.
“When I talked about diversity, you could have heard a pin drop,” Rosenbury said in a recent interview. “A lot of people were thinking to themselves, ‘He’s talking about something I’m not sure we should be talking about.’”
Many thanked him for his courage, however. The Chamber had paid for a study that said the same thing: companies don’t bring jobs to Springfield because the minority population is so small.
“Springfield is the second whitest city of its size in the country,” said West Pratt, coordinator of Diversity Outreach/Recruitment at Missouri State University.
Pratt grew up in Springfield but left after college because of lack of opportunity. After decades in larger cities, he moved back and now works with minority students at MSU.
“Springfield’s going to be an even better place to live and work,” he said.
“This is a good place to be, this is a good place to raise a family. I encourage them. I say, ‘Take a look.’
“Used to be, when students would graduate, first thing they wanted to do was get out of here. Now they’re saying,’ I’ve invested four years here. Things are starting to happen here. I’m interested in pursuing a career here and raising a family.’”
For years, universities here have aggressively attracted minorities. The most visibly diverse segments of Springfield’s population can be seen on campuses.
The Chamber of Commerce also promotes several diversity education programs like “Facing Racism.”
Still, Renae Myles says there’s work yet to be done.
Myles has a doctorate in education, worked years in East Coast cities, and now works for Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar. She is active in the NAACP and speaks at each meeting.
Myles says her social life, however, is dismal. She knows few peers as a black professional. So her life outside of work consists of her church in Springfield and NAACP meetings.
Myles holds strong views on the lack of diversity here.
“Springfield needs to get on board. Springfield, in my opinion, is not even operating in the 21st century. Change is hard, but it’s going to happen regardless of what you do about it,” she said. “Springfield will literally die if they don’t accept diversity and change.”
Those are powerful words from a woman who knows what minorities face in this area.
The solution lies in education, sensitivity training, and business and civic leaders working together more than ever. The lack of diversity costs the city new jobs in a recession, and brings fresh ideas and culture.