By ROse Nolen Contributing Columnist
June 6, 2014
During the 1890s when Scott Joplin was an itinerant musician, Sedalia provided the kind of setting where imagination and creativity could take wings and fly.
To begin with, the population was escalating toward 15,000 residents. Two major railroads were bringing people and freight into the community at all times of the day. The Missouri Pacific and the MKT had both located sizable shops in the community, employing hundreds of people.
At that time Sedalia, unlike some surrounding towns, had become a center of multiculturalism. Sprinkled into the social order were now German, Irish and Scandinavians. African-Americans, many of whose ancestors were Pettis County slaves, now had their own homes, businesses, a newspaper and a college. These new cultures now added their own customs and traditions into the mix, creating a vibrant and robust energy that gave the town a distinct flair and made it seem like the kind of place where something was always happening.
There was music everywhere and like railroad towns all over, Sedalia had a lusty night life. When the sun went down, there were gambling halls, and houses of prostitution and more than 30 saloons that flourished along Main Street. In addition, the town had all kinds of bands. There was a Ladies Music Club and a Men’s Choral Society. Wood’s Opera House and Smith’s Hall provided stages where musicians could perform.
Furthermore the African-American community of Lincolnville, which the community had been renamed, provided a man like Joplin a comfortable place to live. This was a youthful community of about 1,500 residents with a majority of its citizens between 18 and 40 years old. And unlike the Kansas City area it was made up of family residences.
A number of blacks also owned businesses during this period, such as the Maple Leaf Club and the Black 400 Club. Among the town’s youthful population were a number of other talented musicians like Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden with whom Joplin could find companionship. And Sedalia had a black college. At George R. Smith, Joplin had the opportunity to enhance his considerable skills.
The Sedalia of the 1890s had something for everyone. Sicher Park offered a variety of entertainment and activities throughout the year. There were parades, concerts, baseball games, horse races and school exhibitions. Forest Park offered a lake for swimming, a shooting gallery, a beer garden and other amusements. Similar activities were on hand at Brown Springs.
For a young black man of the period, Sedalia had a lot to offer Scott Joplin. And you can hear it all in the Maple Leaf Rag.