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 Warrensburgs
historic West Side another group arrives.
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 Warrensburgs 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.
like every community, has its separations, Sandy says. We
have Whiteman (Air Force Base) and theyre 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
citys parks department. Youve got incredibly poor
people and the wealthiest people in town involved in it. Youve
got every race under the sun involved.
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 Warrensburgs 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 towns other, better-equipped
parks. Soon Willie Blind Boone Park fell into disrepair.
gradually stopped maintaining it over time, Sandy says. It
was so grown up you couldnt 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 parks history and told
her Boones 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.
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 Sandys 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.
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.
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
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 dont remember the past well never
learn from it.
Still, Sandy says,
the park should serve to unite people and not to divide them.
necessarily see it as an African-American thing, she says. I
dont 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.
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.
mean everyone shared Sandys 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.
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.
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 weve
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.