The Story of Betty Smith & Joplin’s East Town Neighborhood
Joplin's East Town neighborhood is historic, and through Betty Smith's efforts to preserve its history, she's become one of its key pieces.
If you ask anyone who the best source of knowledge on Joplin’s East Town, they’ll tell you Betty Smith.
Over the course of her life in Joplin, Betty has become the historic neighborhood’s storyteller. Through her preservation of materials, memories, and more, Betty has cemented her own place in the area’s legacy. This especially goes for her understanding of the city’s black community, and the journey it’s been on since the turn of the century.
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone, but a community dream. Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Those are the words of Joplin native Langston Hughes, the beginning of a stanza from “Freedom’s Plow” – a poem he wrote in 1943.
At the time, a 14-year-old girl named Betty Smith was growing up in Hughes’ hometown. Betty always observed the world around her.
“We couldn’t go to the restaurants and eat any time you wanted, and you couldn’t go to motels and all of those places and sleep,” she said. “But there were others in our own community that had houses to rent, and everything. We didn’t have to go all over town because we had it right there in our neighborhood on Broadway.”
Yet even though school and other public spots were segregated, everyone in her neighborhood seemed to see the bigger picture.
“And I stand by that. You needed your neighbor, then we were there. It didn’t make any difference who you were, and that’s the reason integration went so good in Joplin because we had lived that life all of the time.”
Since then, East Town’s progressive nature has learned to show itself in other ways. In more recent years, a resurgence has resulted in a stronger art scene, including murals like this one, which paints the journey of East Town, and pays homage to some of its most influential figures.
“There’s Mr. Dial, he was the principal of Lincoln School, and he went out of his way to get with the superintendent when we didn’t have good books,” Betty recalls. “He and the Superintendent became close friends and both of them decided there has to be a change.
“Mrs. Cuther, the other lady on the mural, she opened doors in every way you can think of. Every time we couldn’t go and see the entertainers, she and Mrs. Jay Wilder made sure the entertainers came to us at Lincoln School in a matinee – no matter who it was. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Marian Anderson, and all of these that ever appeared at Memorial Hall.”
It’s those influential figures like Mr. Dial and Mrs. Cuther who not only found ways to provide equal opportunity for kids in Joplin, but motivated a young historian to soak in every moment of her life. Nine decades later, Betty has cemented herself as one of the key sources of knowledge on the story of her neighborhood and Joplin’s black community.
We just continue to learn more and more about the history of the black community, the African Americans, what they have achieved, and what they’re still doing to make Joplin and the area and United States a better place to live.
That 14-year-old girl never left Joplin, and 76 years later, her legacy is set in stone – in a monument to an unrelenting push for progress.
Not my dream alone, but our dream. Not my world alone, but your world and my world belonging to all the hands who build.