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For our local history series, Sense of Place, we profile people, places, and events that have made this region what it is today. KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us the story of a man who looms large in Springfield’s public memory.
The year is 1901 and you’re walking home from church across the downtown square. Through the hooves clopping and the wagon wheels grinding you hear a rumbling sound. It turns out to be wagon propelling itself forward without the aid of a horse.
The arrival of the first automobile to a small town in the early twentieth century was reportedly a memorable experience to those witnessing it. In racially segregated Springfield, it was an even greater curiosity that the inventor and operator of this new vehicle was a young African American man named Walter Majors. Dr. Richard Schur is a professor of English at Drury University. He wrote a chapter about the life and memory of Walter Majors for the recently published book Springfield’s Urban Histories.
“He was going at this breakneck speed, which was very dangerous, which was about seven miles per hour and people were horrified. He chose to do his ride around the center of the city—the square—on a Sunday afternoon. And that’s pretty much it. It broke down on the way back to his shop, which was off of Jefferson Street, and he repaired it, and went back home. That was the story,” says Schur.
The story, that is, according to the front page of the Democrat-Leader a day after Majors’ famous ride. The tale of his jaunt was printed multiple times in the following decades and was remembered—primarily by European-American authors—differently each time. Schur says one story stated Majors was merely the driver, suggesting, perhaps, a white person had actually invented the car; years later another article claimed Majors was arrested for speeding but released because a law limiting vehicle speed had not yet been created in Missouri.
Harold McPherson’s family lived in this area since before it was Springfield, and he grew up hearing stories about the ride of Walter Majors and his success as a businessman and inventor. He’s an amateur historian of Springfield’s African American history and spoke with me from Kansas City.
“Majors was a figure that was sort of, almost mystical in the fact that he was an African American in Springfield, Missouri who made an automobile at the same period of time they were lynching black people,” McPherson says.
During a time of extreme racial tension and violence, Walter Majors became a symbol of what could be accomplished by resisting societal norms and stereotypes. McPherson says many members of Major’s family were skilled in mechanics and engineering. When Majors volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American war in 1898, he was mustered in as a wagoner, whereas most of the African Americans in his unit were listed as privates. This meant he was responsible for maintaining the troops’ transportation. After he returned he became a blacksmith for Springfield Wagon Works, a major national supplier of wagons. Richard Schur says, in 1899, Majors opened his first business, and there are scattered records of his pursuits at the beginning of the twentieth century.
“I’d also heard he was a good musician at one point and fixed instruments. One thing that I could just find in a telephone directory that he actually started an African American newspaper here in town with a sister. He had a bicycle shop at one point, he had a car repair shop, all kinds of things I could find little bits and pieces of,” says Schur.
Forty years earlier, in 1863, enslaved people made up 13 percent of the population of Greene County. Many of the black Springfield residents that helped build the city were brought to this area as slaves, their children and grandchildren stayed in Springfield and became farmers, business owners, laborers, teachers, artists and inventors.
By the latter part of the 19th into the very beginning of the twentieth century, there was a large and thriving African American community in Springfield. During this time there were African Americans elected to the school board, appointed to county positions, and J.H. McCraken was even elected to be county assessor (though that seat was later certified by the City Council and given to a white person). However, de facto segregation and a frequently racist white community maintained a status quo of exclusion and occasional violence.
Before Majors was born there had been two lynchings of black Springfieldians. The third was the infamous triple murder on Easter, 1906, just down the street from Majors’ shop at St. Louis and Jefferson. There was an exodus of thousands of African Americans from Springfield after that as well as a continued danger of racial violence.
“Majors was there, he was right there”
Again, Harold McPherson.
“Majors stayed there for a couple of years, but the atmosphere didn’t change and he moved to a city where there were a lot more African Americans.”
In 1908, Majors disappears from the records in Springfield and shows back up in St. Louis a couple years later, Richard Schur says.
“And he moved to St. Louis and he worked for, actually, one of the richest African American Women at the time, a woman named Annie Turnbo Malone. She became a millionaire selling beauty products to African American women,” Schur says.
He essentially worked in research and development--and continued this career as an inventor, registering at least 11—though come report twice that many—patents with the Library of Congress by 1932. He also ran his own mechanic shop and patented several inventions for taxicabs.
McPherson says the memory of Majors was kept alive, largely by the then much smaller black community after the lynching of 1906.
“People since that time had very little to talk about, there were no good things to say—“oh yeah, remember the good old days?”—no there weren’t. People lived in fear. The population was so small that they didn’t have the opportunity to create any sort of resistence.”
To Richard Schur, Majors is a reminder of a forgotten history—when the African American community in Springfield flourished in the midst of extreme adversity. As Harold McPherson says, Walter Majors has become a mystical figure, a symbol of exceptional creativity and strength in the face of violence and oppression.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.