Black History Month: Learning about our Midwestern neighbors

Black History
Garden area at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis that honors George Washington Carver

It continues to amaze me how many people of significance come from the Midwest. As we travel around our 12-state region, I learn more than I ever could have in school about this area. I recall learning about George Washington Carver as a kid in school, and his role with studying the peanut. Little did I know that he hailed from Missouri.

George Washington Carver

Born into slavery during the early 1860s in Diamond, the Show Me State produced one of the world’s best minds for his time. He was one of 10 children born to his parents. After the Civil War ended and slavery was gone, Moses Carver, who “owned” his parents, kept George and his brother. He educated the children at home.

Black History
Statue of George Washington Carver at the state botanical gardens

Later, George Washington Carver moved around the Midwest, eventually graduating high school in Minneapolis, Kansas. He was admitted to a Kansas college, but later denied because he was African American.

Carver lived and worked in Winterset, Iowa, for a time. He eventually made his way to Ames and attended college at what is now Iowa State University. He worked as a professor there, also. He left Ames for the Tuskegee Institute, where worked as a professor and inventor.

Black History
Winterset honors Carver with a park

Carver is known for his work with plant biology. He sought ways to improve peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes and pecans. He invented more than 300 uses for peanuts, including an alternative peanut butter, cooking oil and axle grease.

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham was known as a great dancer, and later as a choreographer. The Illinois native made her mark internationally before running a dance troupe in St. Louis. She has been recognized as one of the 250 St. Louisans during the city’s 250th birthday celebration in 2014.

Black History
Katherine Dunham’s star on the Missouri Walk of Fame in St. Louis

During the height of her popularity in the 1940s-50s, her dance company performed on Broadway. Following the closing of a show after almost 40 performances, the group made its way to South America and Europe on tour. While in Europe, the dancer appeared in three films.

Black History
Outfits worn by Dunham’s dancers

Charlie Parker

During the blues and jazz era, Charlie Parker made a name for himself. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Parker was a solid saxophonist in Kansas City (Missouri), where her performed at clubs in the 18th and Vine District.

Black History
Charlie Parker display at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City

He was nicknamed “Bird,” because his tone was clean, sweet and somber. Despite a short life (34 when he died in 1955), Parker performed with some of the greatest names of the era, including Count Basie. Parker was considered a model for the “hipster” subculture.

Black History
Parker was one of the first recipients honored by the American Jazz Museum’s Walk of Fame

A statue of Parker stands near the American Jazz Museum. He was one of the first people to be named to the Kansas City museum’s Walk of Fame, in 2014.

Black History

Chuck Berry

Across the state, St. Louis is the proud hometown of Rocker Chuck Berry. An early icon of the Rock-n-Roll era, Berry is known for hits such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and  “Maybellene.” He had a hit song in the 1970s called “My Ding-A-Ling.”

Black History
The great Chuck Berry statue in St. Louis’ Delmar Loop

Berry owns the restaurant Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop (University area). We’ve dined there before. It’s a nice place, not fancy. I’d like to visit it again the next time we’re in St. Louis.

In Nebraska, two athletes made names for themselves that extended beyond the Cornhusker state borders.

Bob Gibson

Bob Gibson was (still is, in some minds) the greatest pitcher in baseball during the 1960s. He dominated games, winning multiple Word series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a Cy Young Award winner as the best hurler. Baseball even reduced the height of the pitcher’s mound because of his domination.

Black History
Omaha Storm Chasers’ honor Bob Gibson

Gibson was more than a baseball player, though. He was a great basketball player for the Creighton Bluejays during college. He even played as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters during offseasons while a member of the Cardinals.

The Omaha native still lives in the area, in suburban Bellevue. He has worked with charities during his retirement, among his post-baseball adventures.

Marlin Briscoe

Omaha is the hometown of “the Magician.” Marlin Briscoe, a star player for the Omaha University Indians, became the first African American to start at quarterback in modern professional football as a member of the Denver Broncos. He was signed by the Broncos with the team planning to move him to receiver.

Black History
Marlin Briscoe’s jersey with the Denver Brocncos

Briscoe made his start in 1968 during an American Football League game. The starter was injured and Briscoe was given the ball as the QB. He passed for almost 1,600 yards in five games, with 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He later played for the Buffalo Bills, where he was moved to wide receiver. He won the 1973 Super Bowl championship with the Miami, as a member of their perfect team (17-0). He finished his nine-year career with 3,537 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns.

Briscoe was the true path blazer for today’s African American quarterbacks. For a long time, football “experts” didn’t think blacks could play quarterback. The color barrier truly wasn’t broken until Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback start and win a Super Bowl with Washington. Others played before him, including James Harris and Joe Gilliam. Today, no bats an eye when an African American takes the field as a starting quarterback. That truly is progress. By the way, there were five African American starting quarterbacks during the 2016 season (ones who played started regularly).

I’ve enjoyed studying and learning more about the national and international starts who come from our region. I look forward to learning more about my Midwestern neighbors.