200yr of Randolph Co. African American History on Display
Pocahontas is a small city with a population of just over 6,700 residents. In this small city is a small white building tucked in a small neighborhood on the other side of the Black River. Even though the small white building is in this small community, it has a big story to tell.
The best person to tell the story is Pat Johnson.
"As you can see, this part is older than that section over there," Johnson says as she points at the opposite section of the building.
Johnson is an African American woman who grew up in Pocahontas, a city where just about 1% of the population is Black. She remembers this white building so well because she went to school in this building from 1st to 8th grade in tie time of segregation.
The building, known as the “Pocahontas Colored School”, served as a school for Black children. The building was also St. Mary’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, a place of worship for the African Americans in the area since 1919.
While giving a tour of the building, Johnson points at the wooden floor with faded red numbers painted on it, she recounts an event that her class had with her teacher, Mrs. Eddie Mae Herron:
“This is how we know that this is the original floor," Johnson explains. "Mrs. Eddie Mae would have family gatherings, and she would have cake walks. She would have the children to paint numbers on the floor, and our families would bake cakes and then we would come here and we would have these cake walks and walk on these numbers.”
After the passing of Civil Rights legislation in 1960 and the desegregation of many schools across the nation, Johnson said the building underwent many transformations from a head start to a Senior Center.
The African American community in Pocahontas worked hard year after year to bring life to the old one-classroom building.
In 2000, the building was about to go out of operation again due to expensive maintenance costs, until one of Herron’s former students, Pat Johnson, decided to organize a board of community leaders to turn the building into the Eddie Mae Herron Center and Museum.
The Pocahontas City Council approved $35,000 to be used in helping to turn the school house into a historic museum. As they were working to turn the schoolhouse into a museum, Johnson recounts how she felt when she saw the numbers on the floor:
“When they turned this school into a head start, they put a sub-flooring over this floor and that preserved our numbers," Johnson said. "So when we took this sub-flooring up, there they were! That was very touching to me.”
The Eddie Mae Herron Museum holds over 200 years’ worth of artifacts reflecting African American history in Randolph County. Johnson says people will donate artifacts that may be of interest to the museum.
One artifact was an authentic “Coloreds Only” sign which hung over the museum’s public use bathrooms as a demonstration of how things were in the time of segregation.
“One of the students found it in St. Louis at a consignment Store," Johnson explains, "and she brought it the very first day we opened up. You'd be surprised of the many people won’t go in these bathrooms.”
Johnson says the museum gets visitors from both in and out of state who come for a tour and engage in the activities the center conducts. She says in 2015 the center had about 1,500 visitors.
“We get a lot of out of state visitors and we think that it's because of our website," Johnson said. "And then we have a lot of activities here. This past weekend, we had the Hog Butchering. We had people here from Illinois, St. Louis. Some of theme are people who lived her or families who used to lived here.”
The theme “Looking Back to See More Clearly” was mentioned many times during the tour. Johnson says Dr. Jan Zeigler, Professor at Black River Technical College, came up with the theme. Zeigler also serves on the museum’s board of directors.
Johnson also credits Black River Tech for their support of the museum:
“Black river tech is very, very instrumental in helping the Eddie Mae Herron Center. They really support us a lot.”
During the tour with Johnson, a group of women started coming into the building preparing for their monthly meeting. It was a local organization know as the Pocahontas Working Women's Club.
Johnson says the club is just one the various organizations who utilize the museum for meetings and other community activities. She says the museum also serves as a community center for the city.
After the Working Women had their meeting, they sat around playing a game of Bingo and drinking coffee Johnson prepared for them. Between rounds, I asked them about the impact the center had on the community.
“A lot of support from the community," said Working Women's Club member Barbra Grimsby. "They all appreciate what Pat's done. When you study this geographic area, you come to realize it's very much a part of the Civil War. So, there's quite a history here.”
Grimsby said the center has started a dialog which people could see a different side to historical events. She describe the experience her late 99-year-old father had when he first visited the museum:
“The first time he came here, he could look back and remember a lot of this stuff that happened in history. It's very educational and it opened his eyes up to a different side. It's very beneficial for everybody.”
Since the museum has been open, Johnson says the center has helped with bringing the community together.
“I think the one thing that’s made me the happiest is that people that did not even know that this building existed, and lived in this town, they have been here and come regularly now," Johnson said. "I think that's the most important part is communicating and just having fellowship.”
A full list of events and more information on the Eddie Mae Herron Center can be found on their website at herroncenter.org.