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Rural Missouri Magazine
A Park for All
Once the tool of segregation, today
Warrensburg's Blind Boone Park
brings people together

by Bob McEowen

Sandy Irle, at right, directs volunteers from Central Missouri State University during a clean-up day at Blind Boone Park in Warrensburg. For three years Sandy has led an effort to restore the park which once was mandated by city ordinance as the only park black residents of Warrensburg could visit.

As one group of volunteers finishes raking, clearing debris and spreading mulch on a small parcel of ground along the railroad tracks in Warrensburg’s historic West Side another group arrives.

Like clockwork, a parade of cars pulls into the long-forgotten park and dozens of eager college students pile out, ready to work. Even before all the cars have parked Sandy Irle has taken control of her troops, passing out work gloves and divvying up assignments.

The students, sorority and fraternity members from Central Missouri State University, will fulfill a community service requirement by lending a hand at Blind Boone Park, a 3-acre lot once set aside for use by Warrensburg’s black residents during the segregationist days of the 1950s.

For three years, Irle has led an effort to restore the park. More than just providing another place to picnic, the West Central Electric Cooperative member says she wanted to break down divisions between people.

“Our community, like every community, has its separations,” Sandy says. “We have Whiteman (Air Force Base) and they’re kind of naturally segregated from us. We have CMSU and they have kind of their own community there. There are color barriers in Warrensburg just like there are everywhere and age barriers.

“That has always driven me crazy and I wanted to find a way that we could bring people together,” she says. “This has been a really interesting way to do that.”

Since Sandy first proposed cleaning up and restoring the old Blind Boone Park some 800 volunteers have pitched in to help. Local residents say the project has brought people together like nothing before.

“At no time in my 25 years in Warrensburg have I seen the diversity of people who have worked on this project,” says David Curtis, director of the city’s parks department. “You’ve got incredibly poor people and the wealthiest people in town involved in it. You’ve got every race under the sun involved.”

College student volunteers work to remove old roots from the park grounds. The 3-acre site in Warrensburg's "historic district" has sat unattended for more than 30 years.

Named for ragtime pianist and Warrensburg native John William “Blind” Boone, the park was created in 1954 as “separate but equal” accommodations for Warrensburg’s black population. Hardly equal, the tiny park on West Pine Street offered little more than a few barbeque grills and space to toss a ball.

In time, segregation was overturned and blacks began using the town’s other, better-equipped parks. Soon Willie “Blind Boone” Park fell into disrepair.

“They just gradually stopped maintaining it over time,” Sandy says. “It was so grown up you couldn’t step into it. It was full of brambles and brush and poison ivy and all that kind of stuff.”

Although she grew up in Warrensburg Sandy never heard of the park until her husband mentioned it. Mark Irle wanted to do something to honor his father and grandfather and said that if the city ever decided to restore the park he would like to volunteer and, perhaps, ask to have the park renamed for them.

When Sandy approached the city with the idea Curtis recalled the park’s history and told her Boone’s story.

The son of a runaway slave and a white Army bugler, Boone was born in Miami, Mo., in 1864 but his mother soon moved to Warrensburg. At 6 months the child developed “brain fever” and doctors removed his eyes in an effort to reduce the swelling.

What “Little Willie” lacked in vision he made up for in hearing. He demonstrated remarkable musical ability, tapping out rhythms at age 3 and imitating birdcalls and other sounds on a tin whistle by the time he was 5. At age 8 he could hear a piece of music once and reproduce it on piano.

Educated at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis and later Columbia College, Boone went on to a successful career performing both Ragtime and classical music. Regarded as one of the most talented musicians in Missouri history he broke racial barriers, performing at black venues one night and white theaters the next.

The more she learned about Boone, the greater was Sandy’s determination to reclaim his legacy. Although the city did not have money to help it gave Sandy permission to do what she could. She organized a community meeting and formed a board of directors. In June 2000 the Blind Boone Park Renovation Group began clearing the park.

This statue of Blind Boone will soon be moved from downtown Warrensburg to the park.

At the heart of the park will be a sculpture of Blind Boone, his hands pounding an undulating keyboard. Also planned is a large gazebo, a wildflower area and a sensory garden for the visually impaired.
While the sensory garden is an obvious nod to Blind Boone, as much as possible the entire park — from the gazebo down to the picnic tables — is designed to accomodate people with disabilities.
More than simply good public policy, the effort to make the park accessible honors Boone, whose motto, “Merit, not sympathy, wins,” reflected a determination to overcome any disadvantage.

“Blind Boone’s life was a series of barriers that he either had to climb over or go around and he did every time until he became so famous and wealthy that it was obvious he could do anything he wanted,” Sandy says. “We hope to inspire other people to do the same thing.”

Although the park is not scheduled to open until later this summer already the project is attracting attention. In April the Volvo Corporation named Sandy as a top-10 finalist in its Volvo for Life Awards, which recognizes “ordinary people who act with conscience, care and character to help others in need.” The award carries a $10,000 cash prize that Sandy turned over to the park board.

The park also recently qualified for a $57,000 grant from the U.S. Park Service. Additional money has come from local fund-raising events, including an annual Blind Boone Music Festival in Warrensburg's historic district.

While Sandy says the project is intended primarily to honor Blind Boone, it also serves as a reminder of the segregation that created the original park nearly 50 years ago. “If we don’t remember the past we’ll never learn from it.”

Still, Sandy says, the park should serve to unite people and not to divide them.

“I don’t necessarily see it as an African-American thing,” she says. “I don’t want this to become segregated again, either way. I want everyone to feel comfortable here and everyone to have this safe haven where they can come to be together.”

Morris Collins, assistant pastor at the Jesus Saves Pentecostal Church, located across West Pine from Blind Boone Park agrees that the project has brought people together.

That doesn’t mean everyone shared Sandy’s vision when she first began. Morris Collins is assistant pastor of the Jesus Saves Pentecostal Church of the Apostolic Faith, located across West Pine from Blind Boone Park on the grounds of the Howard School, one of the first segregated schools in Missouri. He recalls some questions about the project within the black community when it was first proposed.

“There were people who had some reservations about it. They knew why the park was put there and it took them back to a time when they realized they were being segregated,” says Collins, who has faced similar questions about his efforts to restore the Howard School.

“It’s a part of the past that we can not deny. It happened,” Collins, also a West Central Electric member, says. “But both of these institutions, that park and this building here, stand as landmarks to how far we’ve come. Even though they started off to separate us, years later what do they do? They bring us together.”

For more information call (660) 747-3268; write the Blind Boone Park Renovation Group at 131 S.W. 300, Warrensburg, MO 64093 or log onto www.blindboonepark.org.

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