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Kimberly "Kenya" Kimbrough

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TRIBUNE COLUMN
Jewel in our midst brings Black History Month to life
Published Wednesday, February 4, 2004

On her way out of town, Kenya Kimbrough gave me a gift.

It was a couple of days before January ended and one of Kimbrough’s favorite months of the year - February - was about to arrive. She likes February not for the bitter cold and freezing rain but because it is Black History Month, and nothing lights Kimbrough on fire like talking about black history.

I know this because she sends me volumes on the subject every time she sees something in the Tribune that bothers her. Kimbrough is, by her own admission, a little radical, though she believes that many blacks of the younger generations share her views. She home-schools her daughter because she doesn’t think the public schools will teach her enough of black history and culture. She belongs to the National Black United Front because she believes it does a much better job speaking for blacks and their issues than the more established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which doesn’t care about anything but its own survival, Kimbrough says.

My friend, who’s moving to Kansas City, chides me sometimes for "tearing down" University of Missouri President Elson Floyd - not because the reporting is inaccurate, but because her daughter has few male, black role models, and he is one. Leave her daughter’s hero alone, Kimbrough tells me.

It’s with this kind of unswerving passion that she lives her life. It’s why she took me to Jewell Cemetery last Friday afternoon. The cemetery is an unpolished and not very well-known jewel of local history, though Kimbrough values it for reasons different than most folks who visit it. The irony of our Friday visit is that I had driven by the cemetery just the day before, though I had no idea it was there. Jewell Cemetery is a state park, and it’s located just west of Providence Road, north of Green Meadows Road. It’s surrounded by development, most notably the new Stoney Creek Lodge just north of the cemetery.

The Jewell Cemetery is on the former estate of George Jewell, though the more famous relatives buried there are William Jewell and Charles Hardin. William Jewell is, of course, founder of the Baptist college in Liberty, but also a former Columbia mayor, physician, educator and state legislator. On his large and impressive tombstone is printed a fine epitath: "His work is done, he did it well and faithfully."

Hardin was Missouri’s 22nd governor, and it’s because of him that the Jewell Cemetery is a state park. In 1967, the General Assembly passed a law calling for the state to establish all former governors’ gravesites as part of the state park system. The Jewell Cemetery is an impressive place, with grave markers dating to 1822, and a stone wall and iron gates that stand in contrast to the bustle and boom of south Columbia.

Kimbrough’s interest in the cemetery isn’t the sturdy stone wall or the ornate grave stones of former leading citizens. She marches right past the century old masonry and takes me to the back of the cemetery. There, behind the massive memorials, are about 20 small stones in two rows.

The stones have no markings on them and they are but a few inches above the ground. The limestone rectangles are believed to be the markers of gravesites for slaves of the Jewell family. To Kimbrough, this is reason alone to make the Jewell Cemetery a more favored state park than just the anonymous stop at the side of the road it seems to be. She’s taken her daughter there. She’s led tours with other black children, showing them their history, bringing attention to the stark contrast in stones between the cemetery’s namesake and the ones marking black men and women who worked for him.

The reality is, the markers would probably never have been saved at all if they hadn’t been connected to the Jewell and Hardin names. Many cemeteries of mostly black Mid-Missourians were wiped out over the years as highway maps were drawn without reference to them, mostly because the land became overgrown with weeds, the stones were too small, the history not thought of as important enough to preserve.

But here in Columbia, the history is there in black and white.

To Kimbrough, the stones serve as a reminder of the many differences we still have in a society in which blacks still struggle for the equality they’ve been fighting for throughout most of our country’s history. As William Jewell gets the credit for building Columbia’s streets, descendants of the poor blacks who did the work are still stuck in the First Ward, unable to cross the street to prosperity, Kimbrough says - this is our city’s history.

While some will focus this month on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "dream," Kimbrough chooses to focus on the reality that she says is the real basis for King’s famous speech. That reality, she says, is still the standard today, with black and white not being treated the same, with true equality still being but a distant goal.

Kimbrough’s reality is that she’s fighting for a better future for her daughter. She went back to school and earned her college degree last spring. Now she’s headed to the big city with her eyes on law school. She’s celebrating what she expects to be a string of successes.

To Kimbrough, though, Black History Month isn’t about celebration.

It’s about Jewell Cemetery and little stones lost in the shadows.

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My mother was the greatest influence in my life.  She was also the same person that I promised myself I would never become.  I used to say that I would never be like her.  But as I am now 37, I realize that for all of the avoidance and denial, I am more like her than ever before.  When her obituary ran in the paper, it only spoke of her employment.  If I had written her obituary, it would have at least said:  "the bravest woman that ever lived."  Obituary

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