Columbia was once a hub for slave trading. In the 19th century, two major trails ran along the city, which was convenient for Southerners moving north with their enslaved. At one point, there were four slave trade dealers in the city. The Southern families that moved to Columbia dominated the local culture, the economy and the government well into the 20th century.
Today, buildings, streets and institutions throughout Columbia are named after the area’s early settlers who also enslaved people, such as David Hickman, James Rollins, John Sappington and William Switzler.
In the past decade, there has been a nationwide movement to remove all powerful symbols of slave owners, members of the Confederacy and white supremacists. Just this week, the Mississippi Legislature voted to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag, the Cape Girardeau Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to take down a local Confederate statue and several television shows removed episodes that featured blackface from streaming services.
In 2018, this movement reached Columbia when the board of education voted unanimously to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary to Locust Street Expressive Arts.
During the 2018 board meeting to vote for the name change, community member Farrah Littlepage said “children need to learn about history and their possibilities for the future. That’s more important than preserving the legacy of white supremacy in our town.”
Examples of white supremacy are rooted in Columbia’s history. Just two miles east from where the board of education voted in 2018 was the site of the public lynching of George Bush (or Burke) in 1889. Members of the White Caps, a vigilante society at the time, hanged him in front of the Boone County Courthouse and under an engraved quote by former Columbia mayor William Jewell: “Oh justice, when expelled from other habitations, make this thy dwelling place.” While Jewell worked as a state legislator, where he helped outlaw whipping posts and pillories, he owned two slaves named Henry and Manly.
The fight to correct the injustices from Columbia’s history persists today. In June 2020, thousands of MU students signed a petition for the removal of the Thomas Jefferson statue on campus. The university stands on land that was acquired as a result of President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803, making it the first public university west of the Mississippi River.
Brittany Fatoma, an MU doctoral student, says the university should acknowledge the “whole truth” of its existence by recognizing the land it sits on.
“This campus was built on the blood of Native Americans and the backs of Black men,” she says.
Fatoma has just under a decade of teaching experience throughout the state, and she was a teacher at Columbia's Blue Ridge Elementary for the 2018-2019 school year. She used the classroom as a safe place for students to learn how to be socially aware. She says her fourth graders were initially unaware of their own cultural differences, so she taught them how to respond to social injustices and embrace their own diversity.
“When you say you can’t see color, you disregard someone’s racial background,” she says. “Diversity is what makes us great.”
Today, legislators, institutions and companies are affecting change, but in every community, change begins with one person. In Columbia, Fatoma is changing how local schools look and operate. She wanted to support Black and brown teachers in the ways she felt she needed support when she worked in the district, so earlier this year, she launched the “I See You!” Teacher of Color Support Network. This network works to empower and retain teachers of color in Columbia by providing community, educator resources and diverse book lists for the classroom.
“If something is happening,” she says, “I’m going to address it now.”