By Kaitlyn McConnell
While many aspects of Springfield's history positively shine, there are others that are shades of less-than-ideal to downright horrific. These situations offer opportunities to grow and change, and evolve to serve the community and its people.
One example is diversity.
Diversity can mean many things to many people. It can be tied to gender and sexuality, or simply different ages on a spectrum. Commonly it is used to describe race relations, and how accepting residents of a place are toward people who are different than them.
One who has seen progress in this area locally is Denny Whayne. The 74-year-old former city councilman has spent the vast majority of his life in Springfield and has witnessed dramatic changes -- but he also says that change isn't complete.
"There's still some 'separation' that needs to be worked on," says Whayne. "A lot of companies would like to come to Springfield, but they see there's not a lot of diversity here. So they choose not to come here.
"Blacks are beginning to be more present now in different areas, so that is helping the whole situation of Springfield."
An example Whayne points to is the recent hires of Maurice Jones as Springfield deputy city manager and Dr. Angela Holloway Payne as principal of Boyd Elementary School, and the election of Abe McGull as a Springfield City Councilman.
Such involvement -- as well as his own election to Springfield city council in 1998 -- signify great change from when he was growing up in Springfield in the 1940s and '50s, says Wayne. Back then, he wasn't even allowed to attend the same school as white children in his neighborhood.
"I went to the black school until the third grade," says Whayne.
For his first part of his education, Whayne attended Lincoln School, a facility that today is part of the campus of Ozarks Technical Community College. It wasn't until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that separate wasn't equal in its decision on Brown v. Board of Education, that schools were integrated across the country.
In Springfield, Whayne says, the transition was swift, and he soon began attending Boyd Elementary.
"I was the first black pupil to enroll in Springfield Public Schools," he says, noting that Springfield was also one of the first districts in the country to comply with the decree.
"We didn't have a lot of problems integrating because of the numbers," says Whayne of low black student population. "The kids knew one another. Kids played together, you just couldn't go to school together."
That doesn't mean, however, that racial issues were non-existent.
While Whayne was in middle school, the Chamber's Civic Affairs committee, headed by Rev. Thomas Zimmerman, who eventually served as superintendent of the Assemblies of God, announced that a study of local race relations would be one of its primary focuses. The group made inquiries at local restaurants, motels, hotels and theaters, seeking to see which ones would serve African-American patrons.
In September 1958, the final report painted a very sad picture:
"Most of our inquiries were made via telephone and spread out over a period of time, which we felt would be sufficient to avoid arousing any undue suspicion that an integration move was, perhaps, underway in the business herein under consideration. Each establishment was asked one of the following questions: 'Do you serve colored people in your restaurant?' 'May colored people stay in your hotel?' 'May colored people attend your theatre?' 'May colored people stay in your motel?'"
Out of 116 restaurants contacted, 76 would not serve African-Americans at all. Eleven would only serve them in certain instances, such as in the kitchen. Two drive-in theaters allowed African-Americans; the Landers had a "colored" balcony open on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Only two out of 22 lodging options would allow African-American guests.
In addition to hard data, the Chamber committee members shared sentiments in the report:
"We feel that the findings of our study are shameful for a city which boasts of its many churches and Christian atmosphere, and which takes such pride in the display of its having been chosen as one of the few 'All-American' cities. We feel that it is shameful that all human beings, regardless of color, who have the price of a meal, the price of a night's lodging, or the price of a theatre ticket can't go into anyplace of their choosing and receive the same services and treatment accorded all persons. If we, the members of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, wish to make our city a truly All-American city, abiding by the spirit and letter of our nation's constitution, we will not wait until we are required by a decision handed down by the highest court of our land -- we will open all of our privately-owned public places to all of our nation's public."
Despite this information, major change didn't seemingly come to Springfield until 1960, when then-vice president Richard Nixon planned a visit.
The visit was something of a surprise; the newspaper announced the kick-off of Nixon's campaign for president on Sept. 2, in an article that gave a list of campaign stops for a "whirlwind" tour. At the time, Springfield was not on the list -- but that same day, it was also noted in the newspaper that an invitation had been extended by Dr. Durward G. Hall, Republican nominee for Congress from the 7th District.
Less than a week later, the invitation was accepted, and the newspaper announced that Nixon would address a crowd at the Shrine Mosque on Sept. 21.
The visit quickly grew in scope and size. A few days after that, the newspaper's pages told about the organization of a committee to plan festivities around the visit, including a motorcade that would go from the airport. Five bands would perform along the route; all local Republican organizations were involved, and eventually, the Nixons would arrive at the Kentwood Arms Hotel, where they were scheduled to stay -- theoretically.
However, the entire visit was brought into question when Nixon threatened to skip the city if two African-American reporters traveling with him weren't allowed to stay at the then-segregated hotel.
The hotel made an exception for the two reporters, but the local NAACP still began planning a protest to coincide with the visit. Whayne says that it didn't seem fair for an exception to be made -- but that "regular" people weren't allowed to stay.
"Del Caywood kind of got wind that we were going to picket," says Whayne of the local leader who was involved at various times with institutions including the city, the Chamber, the Republican county chairman and later helped found Smith-Glenn-Callaway Clinic. "So he called a meeting with the city fathers, explaining what was going to possibly happen and that it could give Springfield a black eye."
Things came to a head on Sept. 19, 1960, just two days before Nixon's scheduled visit. Ultimately, it had more lasting impact on Springfield than the visit itself.
That night, a "capacity crowd" attended the Springfield City Council meeting to support the establishment of the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights and Community Relations. This commission eventually was established, and is still in existence in 2019.
Faced with Nixon's impending visit, demands for a Human Rights commission, a possible demonstration and, hopefully, a desire to do the right thing, several of Springfield's key businesses integrated overnight. Whether they changed for the "right" reasons or because business owners felt political pressure is up for debate. But they changed.
"Kentwood Arms, Heer's ending segregation," proclaimed the front page of the Springfield Daily News the day before Nixon was scheduled to visit.
Within the next couple of days, many other businesses affirmed their commitment to integration. The newspaper noted that the list, as of that day, included the Kentwood Arms Hotel, Heer's, Inc., Springfield National Theaters, Crank Drug Company, the Colonial Hotel, Woolworth's and Kresge's, Colonial Dinner House, Arrowhead Restaurant and Davidson's Cafeteria.
Landon Smith, then-president of the NAACP, voiced his appreciation in the newspaper:
"He singled out for praise a number of businessmen who yesterday announced desegregation of theater, hotel and restaurant facilities -- 'It is only through the efforts of men of vision and integrity that this problem of discrimination and segregation may be abolished.'"
And John Hughes, a teacher, said in the newspaper, “This is one of the happiest days in my 14 years in Springfield."
The integration may have changed some options and opportunities for African-Americans, but it unfortunately didn't change all minds. Whayne speaks of a particular example in his own life, when he was thrown out of a restaurant when he was in high school.
"I didn't get all the way in," says Whayne, before a group of customers threw him out. "I've still got the scar on my arm."
At Central High School, Whayne was a star basketball player, and found friendship with the other athletes. After graduating from high school, Whayne eventually moved to Tulsa, where he lived for about eight years.
"It was a lot more devastating in Tulsa than it was here," says Whayne. "I experienced (being hit with a) fire hose, and dogs, and spitting."
After going through a divorce, Whayne debated about coming back to southwest Missouri. Eventually, a friend in Tulsa helped him make the decision.
"I shared with him my involvement in Springfield, and he said, 'Denny, you need to go back to Springfield 'cause you are a pioneer,'" recalls Whayne. "He said, 'You need to go back and help make things better in Springfield.' So that played on my sawdust mind for a while, and finally I made a decision to come back home. I immediately got involved, and I guess the rest is history."
So back he came; back to Springfield, and back into activism, where he's been in different forms ever since.
While some things had changed while Whayne was away, things hadn't progressed quite as quickly as he would've liked. One thing he says has slowed the pace of change is the amount of diversity in the city. When the majority of people are white, it's easy to think there isn't a problem -- because there's not one for the majority of the population.
"Springfield was subtle with its prejudice," says Whayne. "It was subtle. It wasn't just blatant, if you will. It was still here. I did notice a little change. Things began to open. Employment began to get a little better. Not as fast as it should've."
Whayne had a number of careers after his return to Springfield. One took him to the city, where he served as a license auditor. He owned a dry cleaning operation. He worked in the automotive business, and co-owned a car lot near the corner of Boonville Avenue and Chestnut Expressway. He also worked as a salesman for Thompson Cadillac.
Eventually, Whayne was approached about running for city council. He was plugged into the community, and knew many people: An example is his membership at Turning Point Church, the former Washington Avenue Baptist Church, of which has been a member for many years.
At the time he was originally approached about running for council, however, he didn't live in the city limits. But with the possibility in mind, he moved and started his two-year residency requirement to run.
In 1998, he was elected in Zone 1, becoming Springfield's first African-American city council member since the late 1800s.
"The first thing I'm going to do is go back into the neighborhood and listen to what they have to say," he told a Springfield newspaper reporter upon his election. Today, he echoes similar sentiments.
"At the watch party, I promised the citizens that I would represent them to the best of my ability," recalls Whayne of the night of the election.
Despite suffering a massive stroke in 2004, Whayne overcame and was re-elected in 2005. And while he worked to benefit the whole of the community, Whayne also looked for ways to increase diversity on city boards and commissions.
"When I got elected to city council in 2001, I was on the public involvement committee," he says. "It appointed people to different committees, so I began to appoint some African-Americans to the different committees. Of course they had to be qualified. So that brought about a change. Then they began to see as I did, how the community really operated. You had to be at the table. If you weren't at the table, you didn't know how things ran."
Whayne retired from council in 2009. Looking back, as well as to the future, the thing he believes Springfield can do to improve its diversity is conscientious employment.
"Employment is the key. Seeing is believing, especially for the young generation," says Whayne, who notes that the Chamber is a leader in helping create change in the community. "If they see role models, then they might want to stay here. But the reason why the young people choose to leave is because they don't see any role models."
Much has changed in the city with a horrific stain on its past, when three innocent African-American men were lynched on the Square in 1906; to a place where just 60 years ago African-Americans couldn't eat at the majority of restaurants; to a city that is diligently working to celebrate and recognize its African-American past. An example is the establishment of the African- American Heritage Trail, which marks various sites of importance throughout the city including Park Central Square, where a monument dedicated in 2019 now marks the site and tells the story of where three men lost their lives in lynchings.
From the Chamber's side, encouraging diversity in the community is also a priority.
The Chamber brought the "Facing Racism" institute from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Springfield after the Community Leadership Visit to that community in 2009. The Chamber continues to support that program in partnership with MSU’s Division of Diversity & Inclusion, and also provides support to MSU/DDI’s Collaborative Diversity Conference and Minorities in Business.
Additionally, other Chamber initiatives enacted to help promote diversity include The Network, a networking group for young professionals, and the Chamber's Talent Attraction Initiative (LiveInSpringfieldMo.com) were designed in conjunction with inclusive excellence objectives that also promote diversity.
The commitment to diversity is also found through Chamber leadership. The Chamber convened community partners to help formalize the “Public Entities Diversity Initiative,” and continues to participate in that group, for which there are a number of subcommittees. Matt Morrow, current president of the Chamber, serves with this group.
Such efforts are an important factor as Springfield continues to grow, says Whayne. He warns against assuming that there isn't work to do today simply because nothing seems wrong on the surface.
"It may be fine for you, but I don't think you can answer that question for me," says Whayne. "You don't know how I feel. You'll never know how I feel. I don't know how you feel. But together, we can help each other."
"I have a saying I keep in my pocket: Things change. People change. People change things," says Whayne.
And even though there is work to be done, Whayne says that he would encourage other minorities to make Springfield their home.
"I would encourage them to come and help make it better," he says. "Come and help us make it better."
"Committee members chosen for Nixon visit here," Springfield Leader and Press, Sept. 13, 1960
"Denny Whayne's a 'trailblazer.' So were other black councilmen who came before him." Alissa Zhu, Springfield News-Leader, Dec. 22, 2018
"Hall invites Nixon to visit Springfield," Springfield Leader & Press, Sept. 2, 1960
"Human rights panel stirs up interest," Springfield Daily News, Sept. 20, 1960
"Kentwood Arms, Heer's ending segregation," Springfield Daily News, Sept. 20, 1960
"Negro group cancels demonstration plans," Springfield Leader and Press, Sept. 20, 1960
"Negro youths form council," Springfield Daily News, Sept. 15, 1960
"Nixon planning whirlwind trip," Springfield Leader & Press, Sept. 2, 1960
"Nixon to address Springfield rally," Springfield Leader & Press, Sept. 6, 1960
"North side picks up council clout," Robert Keyes, Springfield News-Leader, April 4, 2001
"Ozarks GOP plans colorful welcome to vice president," Sunday News and Leader, Sept. 18, 1960
This article is part of the Chamber's special Centennial publication. Click here to return to the main page.