Jun. 18—Many historical Black figures in the Joplin community who helped pave the way for diversity and inclusion on a local level were remembered for their influence during the Joplin NAACP "Breaking Boundaries" program on Friday night at Missouri Southern State University.
Friday's event kicked off the three-day Juneteenth Heritage Festival put on this year by the EastTown Dreams District, the Emancipation Celebration Committee and the Joplin NAACP.
"Breaking Boundaries," presented by the Joplin NAACP, highlighted over a dozen local movers and shakers who were the first African Americans in the Joplin community to become doctors, teachers, police officers, athletes and civic leaders.
Many surviving family members and friends shared stories of the people they described as heroes, trailblazers and role models. Certificates were also presented to honor those featured in the program.
Joplin Mayor Pro Tem Keenan Cortez, who has been on Joplin City Council since 2019, gave a presentation on the first Black male and female city leaders in the community.
"We stand on the shoulders of giants," he said. "The only reason that we're able to do the things that we're doing here today is because of the people who came before us and sacrificed blood, sweat and tears. I find it a great honor to be able to be a part of things such as this to continue that legacy."
Marion William Dial, a longtime educator in Joplin, was born June 27, 1903, in Chetopa, Kansas. He was elected to the Joplin City Council in 1954, making him the first black person to be elected to public office in Joplin. Dial was a member of the executive committee of the Joplin Teachers' Association and was on the advisory committee for the study of Black education in the state of Missouri. He was one of the organizers and the first president of the Southwest Missouri Negro Teachers' Association and also was on the executive board of the state association.
Melodee Colbert-Kean, organizer and treasurer of the EastTown Dreams District Committee, was also recognized during the program as Joplin's first Black mayor. She had served on Joplin City Council for over 14 years and was mayor from 2012 to 2014. She has been operating her restaurant, MEs Place Soul Food Kitchen at 1203 E. Langston Hughes-Broadway, for over a decade.
Tracey Thompson, of Joplin, said his parents, Leonard and Cozetta Thompson, were greatly admired in the community. Leonard J. Thompson was the first Black president of the Missouri Electronic Service Association in the late 1960s. Tracey said although his father died when Tracey was only 7, his father taught him to be honest and true to himself.
Cozetta Thompson was the first African American to serve on the Joplin School Board, and Tracey said she had a passion for all students. His mother was also on the Missouri State Human Rights Commission.
"The dreams I had learned and the education that I got from them are priceless," said Tracey Thompson. "My mom always said, 'Be fair to your fellow man, and don't take the wrong answer over the easy right.' She said, 'Do the right thing all the time.'"
Dr. John Thomas Williams, 30, was the first Black physician in Joplin in 1908. He graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and was also listed as a physician on his World War I draft card.
Doris Carson, a mother of three, gave over 50 years of service to the Joplin area. She first started as a volunteer with the Joplin Community Clinic, and she later returned to serve as a nurse practitioner for 12 years where she cared for low-income residents without health insurance. In 1961, Carson became the first African American to graduate from St. John's School of Nursing. For several years, she was proclaimed as the only African American registered nurse practicing in Joplin.
Ernestine Carr, born in 1925, advocated for civil rights and education where she was active in her church and several area organizations. She went to nursing school and became Joplin's first African American surgical nurse in 1966. She was honored on her 90th birthday with a proclamation from the mayor declaring March 13th as Ernestine Carr Day.
Other local notable figures who were recognized include:
—Dean of the School of Education at MSSU, Dr. Al Cade.
—Teacher at Lincoln and Washington schools, Thelma Meeks.
—Teacher at Lincoln and several other schools, Bernice Smith.
—First Black officer with the Joplin Police Department, Lewis Bryant.
—First and only Black teacher to win the Golden Apple teaching award in the Joplin School District, Patsy Robinson.
—Nominated twice for the Golden Apple teaching award, Betty Robinson Gray.
—First Black coroner in Joplin and Jasper County, J.D. Love, also known as "Champ."
—First Black sergeant and lieutenant with the Joplin Police Department, Lamonte Ratcliff.
—Baseball players George Powell and Alton Clay.
—Professional basketball player Gary "Cat" Johnson.
—Professional football player Gary Anderson.
—Professional athlete Red Davis.
—First Black head football coach at MSSU, Atiba Bradley.
Victor R. Sly, president of the Joplin NAACP, said they aim to make the inaugural Breaking Boundaries program an annual tradition that not only highlights local Black figures who have died but also those who are still alive today.