Two new exterior murals at the Garrison School Cultural Center in Liberty point to the expansion of offerings at what volunteers hope will become an educational and historical destination in the Northland.
The building, which is on the National and Local Register of Historic Sites, has been operated since 2003 by Clay County African American Legacy Inc.
It originally was constructed as a school for black children in 1911 and took its name in honor of William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist who served in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. After desegregation in the mid-1950s, the Liberty school district used the building for a variety of purposes, including a kindergarten center, for all children.
The new exterior murals tell both stories — one about the time when the Garrison School, located at 800 S. Water St. in Liberty, was a part of “separate but equal” and the other about a time when the school served children of all races.
AJ Byrd, who is the president of the Clay County African American Legacy, said their mission is to help people ask questions and build their “cultural competency.”
“The idea is that we can all become better at understanding each other, when there are cultural differences there because of historical circumstances,” Byrd said.
In order to break down barriers, the group is dedicated to telling the story of African Americans and their contributions to Clay County, in particular.
New galleries in the school offer the opportunity for visitors to experience private art collections, historical artifacts, and portrait galleries that help explain the nuanced history of African Americans, including local families who can trace their existence in Clay County to before Missouri statehood.
Byrd believes the arts help people to not be intimidated by what can be a difficult story.
“I have observed people responding differently, in a much more comfortable way, through the arts,” Byrd said. “Our history is an ugly history in a lot of ways. People are able to really open up and listen and see the beauty that comes out of some of those struggles. There is always beauty that comes out of those struggles. The mural is another step forward. People do not even have to come inside to see them. We do hope that they will want to come inside, and that it will encourage people to come inside and learn more about the African American culture.”
Dr. Cecelia Robinson serves as the historian and gallery curator for Clay County African American Legacy.
Robinson says the school is the last standing black institution in Clay County. She explains the mural on the east of the building depicts another school, a house which stood on Mill Street which opened shortly after it became legal for black people to be taught to read and write.
“The painting is a picture of the actual house where the school was,” Robinson said.
The murals are meant to tell the story of transition from segregation to integration, and will soon have words painted above them reading, “Stony the road we trod” over the mural depicting moments from segregation and important figures in the Garrison school history from that time; and “Sing a song of hope the present has brought us” over the south facing mural depicting children of all races playing together.
“We are hoping that this building will become a tourist attraction,” Robinson said. “We want the building to get people to come up and learn. Our mission is to preserve the history and celebrate the culture.”
Among the art and historic artifacts on display inside the building are wrist and ankle shackles, which were used to bring slaves over on ships from Africa between 1525 and 1866; quilted textile works by Sherry Whetstone-McCall, whose work has also been shown by Smithsonian; and the story of the African American half-brother of Jesse James.
Garrison school volunteers are hoping to soon be able to have enough manpower to have the facility open for regular visitor hours.
The art gallery, special collections, and exhibit rooms will be open next during an open house Saturday, November 11, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.