MARSHFIELD – Two young boys, aglow with Friday afternoon freedom, play in Massey Park as if they own the place. And, even though these youngsters likely don’t realize it, they do.
Because when Del Massey, a longtime local resident died in 1959, he willed most of estate to the town’s children. That donation eventually became a park: But before that, it was national news, garnering attention in newspapers across the country.
“Folks in Marshfield, Mo., a little town in the heart of Missouri’s south-central Ozarks, weren’t much surprised with Del Massey willed pretty much all he had to the town’s children,” reported the Chicago Daily News in 1959. But while the newspaper stated that few locals were shocked, it also noted that outsiders might have been.
That’s because in a town of approximately 2,000 people, he was the only black resident: As Massey used to put it, he was “the only black horse left in the patch.”
But the town loved him, and he loved them — especially the children. “He was very much a part of our community,” says Lib Sims, who grew up knowing Massey.
While Massey was loved by many, his life took place in a different time. And although perhaps even he didn’t think negatively of the way things were — his entire life had been that way — Marshfield wasn’t a colorblind utopia.
“I think he was a great man,” recalls Judy Flacke, who also grew up in Marshfield. “I think he put up with an awful lot. I do think people were kind to him, and good to him, but not as good as they could’ve been.”
Massey the child
Del Massey’s talent with horses was well known. Here he’s shown with other Marshfield children around 1910. (Courtesy of the WCHS)
Little is known about Massey’s own childhood. He was born in Marshfield around 1901, a time when blacks accounted for approximately 13 percent of the town’s population. Many of those residents were the descendants of former slaves, just as Massey was.
According to “The History of Webster County,” there were 120 slaves in the county in 1860, and many of them stayed after emancipation. The occupations of those residents were varied: Some cooked for families, others did washing and ironing, and several worked as shoe-shiners at local barber shops.
From left: Flora Smith and Betty Shieley in 1936; Mrs. Wm. H. James and Ellen Goodall Family in 1900; Ellen Goodall (Courtesy WCHS)
There were two black churches — A.M.E. and African Presbyterian — and a school, which operated through 1918. But by all accounts, Massey couldn’t read or write, so perhaps time in the classroom wasn’t something he did much of.
As time passed, the majority of that minority group moved away.
“After World War I, people started leaving because there weren’t jobs,” says Sims. “There wasn’t a lot of work that paid well.” Numbers dwindled until only two black residents — Massey and his mother, Rosie Mosby — remained.
But still Massey didn’t leave. “When others would ask why he didn’t move to Springfield or elsewhere like the other colored folks, he would tell them Marshfield was his home, and start telling them how good his white folks were,” reported The Marshfield Mail in October 1959. “They would leave him alone because they couldn’t tell him theirs were better.”
In the 1920s, Massey did have an opportunity to leave town when he embarked on a short-lived, yet promising, career as a boxer. “The Black Cyclone,” as he was called, even fought in front of 3,500 people at Springfield’s White City Park in 1930.
Massey was pitted against Tiger Fox in a fight at White City Park on July 8, 1930.
“One of the outstanding attractions on the card is the five-rounder between Tiger Jack Fox of Wichita, holder of the negro heavyweight championship of the southwest, and Del Massey of Marshfield for the title now held by Fox,” reported The Springfield Leader on July 8 of the fight. “Massey, a ponderous slugger, won the right to meet Fox by knocking out “Goat Starks” of Springfield two weeks ago but in the Wichita veteran he meets one of the smartest men in the business.”
Fox was also a good boxer — too good for Massey, who lost the fight and gave up the sport. Besides, “his food habits of candy bars and soda pop contributed little to his training schedule,” recorded an article from a WCHS journal.
Massey and Marshfield’s children
Rosie Mosby and Del Massey circa 1955 (Courtesy of the WCHS)
Despite the generation gap, Sims grew up with both Massey and Mosby, the latter who washed dishes for her parents. “Rosie and Del were the only blacks I grew up knowing,” says Sims. The connection was a warm one, proven by a coffee grinder that was willed to Sims upon Massey’s death. “And it’s still (displayed) in a place of prominence,” she says.
While Sims notes that Mosby “was just wonderful to me,” she also benefited from knowing Massey. Now a gardening enthusiast, she recalls times as a child when he shared his extensive knowledge about plants. “He really knew a lot about growing things,” says Sims. “He really talked about the soil and the importance of earthworms.
“He many never have been educated that much, but he was really good at knowing about the world around him,” says Sims.
But there were cultural differences. Sim recalls that Mosby wouldn’t have lunch with the family, and instead ate alone after the others were done. Looking back, Sims believes that was because it’s what Mosby was comfortable with. “That’s the way (Massey and Mosby) felt they should be behaving,” she says.
That “expected” behavior was also obvious on a walk around Marshfield’s square, when Massey would step aside to let people pass. “He maintained a place, whether it was expected of him or not,” says Neva Schroder, who grew up in Webster County and has researched Massey’s life. “But he was good friends with everybody.”
And he was loved, especially by the children. “He always spoke to all the children and smiled at (them),” says Flacke. The youngsters noticed him, too, perhaps because he looked “different.”
“I’m not sure, maybe his big smile was enough,” she says. “But they noticed him. And he would always be very friendly to them, talk to them, tease with them.”
Massey was revered as an animal trainer, especially for horses and dogs — and goats. He proved the latter when, one day, he went through town with a goat following at his heels. “The goat heeled, sat down, got up and did everything else Del told him on command,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
A different time
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there were two things that Massey always liked: children and animals. “There wasn’t a kid in town that didn’t know him,” reported the paper. “There wasn’t a kid who wouldn’t yell ‘Hi Del’ clear across the public square.”
And he was frequently on the square, oftentimes waiting for work. “People would come by and if they needed work done, they would ask him if he would do it,” says Flacke. “And they would pick him up and take him to their house to work for the day.”
But if he was there at lunchtime, it wasn’t unusual for a group of businessmen to take him to eat. “Just about every day, if they saw Del standing on the square, they would motion to him,” recalls Flacke. “And he would come down to the cafe. And when they went in, one of them would offer to pay for his meal.”
But he didn’t actually eat with them. “Somebody always got the blue plate special for him,” says Flacke. “But it was served to him in the alley.”
Flacke specifically recalls another day when Massey was on the square: A day when her mother left her in the car while she ran in to pay a bill. “He came up to the car and knocked on the window, and waved at me,” says Flacke. “And, you know, was talking to me.”
But when her mother came out and saw the scene, she “yelled at him for doing that,” says Flacke. “Told him to get away from me.”
Flacke doesn’t know if those works were spoken because of racism; she doesn’t recall any other time when she suspected her mother to believe that way. Perhaps the attitude was linked toward what was “proper” in that day and time, evidenced by another encounter Flacke recounts involving Massey and her mother:
“When he came to your house to work for the day, the tradition was that you generally served him lunch. I don’t think he usually brought his own.
And I do distinctly remember a day when my mother was making the sandwiches for lunch, and it was basically bologna and cheese. And she was making my sandwich to come and sit at the kitchen table and eat, and she brought Del’s to the back door. And he took it and sat down on our steps.
And I said to her, ‘Mom, why doesn’t Del come in and eat with me?” And she said, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. He prefers to eat outside.’ And I said, “Then can I take my sandwich and go eat with him?’ And I did that.
And those things made such an impression on me.”
Flacke wasn’t the only child who questioned Massey’s lunchtime habits. Ed Fillmer was around 8 years old when he would peek into the neighboring yard and see Massey: Hard at work, the man was always dressed in the same “drab, brownish clothing” and a flop hat. “It was like a fedora, but the brim was turned down all the way around,” says Fillmer.
Like Flacke, Fillmer recalls that at lunchtime — when Marshfield’s noon whistle would sound — Massey walked to the house’s back door, took off his hat when the screen door opened, and the woman inside would hand him something to eat. “And he’d turn around and back off and go sit in the shade someplace and eat the plate of food,” says Fillmer.
Fillmer says he never spoke to Massey, but such encounters still made an impact.
“In retrospect, I wish I’d talked to him,” says Fillmer. “I was too shy. He was too mysterious. I think for the children of Marshfield, at least in my circle of friends, he was an object of fascination. ‘Who is he? Why do the adults treat him this way?'”
The end of an era
1959 was a year of great change. Mosby died in January, leaving Massey as Marshfield’s only black resident. And just a few months later, his health was failing.
Schroder was working as a clerk in the Webster County Recorder’s office when she met Massey for the first time. He came in and asked for a description of his land: Although she didn’t know it then, his intent was to create a will. It would be the document that ultimately gave his land to Marshfield’s children.
“He knew he was going to die, and that’s when he did this,” says Schroder. “The amazing thing is that they were all white children. There were no black children.”
By October 1959, Massey was dying: He was admitted to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, but he wasn’t alone.
“His greatest pleasure is for his many friends to come to see him,” reported The Marshfield Mail on Oct. 29, 1959. “It has been a constant amazement to the Hospital staff, Sisters of Mercy, Nurses, aides, the other employees and relatives of other patients as to who Mr. Massey was to have so many distinguished looking white visitors from Marshfield, Springfield and other neighboring towns to come to see him.”
Massey died the next month. “His funeral was huge,” recalls Sims of the crowd, which numbered approximately 600 people. It was so big that people stood outside the funeral home and speakers were brought in so everyone could hear the service.
“Only at Del’s funeral did many people realize how much he was respected and loved by the people of Marshfield and surrounding communities,” wrote Earl Shields, a longtime local pharmacist, years later. “It was one of the largest crowds ever to attend a funeral in Marshfield. The many flowers sent by friends showed the love and admiration they had for Del.”
Massey’s donation made headlines nationwide, such as this article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Dec. 26, 1959. (Courtesy of the WCHS)
A world of difference
Soon after Massey’s death, the Civil Rights Movement ushered in a new era — and even in the small Missouri town, perspectives began to alter. “People’s ability to look at things changed,” says Sims.
One of those enlightened people was Fillmer, who as a child had felt discomfort regarding the way Massey was treated. “I felt that there was something wrong,” he says. “And it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement that I realized what it was. It was intrenched racism and much of the Ozarks and much of the South and much of America was in the same boat…”
Fillmer remembers the day when his father heard of Massey’s donation. “He appeared to be dumbfounded,” says Fillmer. “(Massey) surprised him with his grace and his generosity to the children of Marshfield, who looked at him with curiosity and not prejudice.”
Another pair of “opened eyes” belonged to Flacke’s mother. In the early ’60s, she brought up the time when she yelled at Massey — and confessed to her daughter how embarrassed she was by her actions.
“I think she realized what was going on in the world,” says Flacke. “That was the time when people were making noise all over the country about the way black people were being treated. And she knew that. She saw that, and she read it. She realized that was how she felt about it, too.”
The development of Massey Park
A marker commemorates Del Massey’s story at his namesake park, which is located on Buffalo Street in Marshfield.
Just as it took time to change attitudes, transforming Massey’s land was a challenge. There were the legal ramifications of his bequest, although it was eventually decided that the land would be used as a park. Several adjoining lots were purchased to enlarge the space, and local civic organizations collaborated to bring the park to reality. “It was an instance where the community totally worked together to develop every inch of the park,” recalls Schroder.
The park was dedicated in June 1974. More than 500 people attended the ceremony, which was highlighted by a speech from Dr. Arthur Mallory, who was state commissioner of education at the time. He spoke of men like Massey; ordinary people who lived their lives in extraordinary ways.
After years of vandalism, Massey Park saw major updates in recent years due to the work of Neva Schroder. “I saw the park as Del’s legacy, and was determined to restore the park to include everyone, handicapped and whomever, just as Del included everyone,” says Schroder. It is now handicap accessible, and features a basketball court, playground equipment, a large pavilion, picnic tables, a grill and additional trees.
Today, Flacke still thinks of Massey. “When I see other things going on, I remember how things were back then, and I always think of him,” she says. “And I guess it’s obvious because he was my first encounter with a black person.
“Although (those recollections) were tinged with the scars of racism in those days, they were still beautiful memories because I saw him as strong and friendly and, you know, somebody who didn’t deserve the way his life turned out,” she says. “But he was happy. He was always very content.”
Just as those kids playing in the park are today. Every time they run, jump, scream and giggle, they benefit from Massey’s love of the town’s children — even ones he never knew.
Want to learn more?
The Webster County Historical Museum (219 S. Clay St., Marshfield) has information about Massey’s life. It is open Monday – Friday from 1 – 4 p.m. For more information, call 417-468-7407.