Thinking Out Loud: Remembering Rose Nolen

Jul 23, 2015

Rose Nolen passed away this past January. I got to meet her only a few times and was impressed with her candor and wit. In this week's Thinking Out Loud, Rose Nolen's son and friends discuss her life in Sedalia before, during and after the desegregation era.

Friends of Rose Nolen gather to discuss her memory and legacy. From left: Madelyn Simpson, Marge Harlan, Sybil Gosset, Lauretta Emerson and Doris Thurston.
Credit Trevor Harris / KBIA

While the writings of Rose Nolen were familiar to many in Mid-Missouri, the woman behind the columns and books was not as widely known. For many years she lived in Sedalia's north side with her son, Mark. As her writing career took off, she continued to work side jobs to make ends meet.

"She was very complicated. She had lived a lot of life I think that was hard. And I think she learned to protect herself and keep herself safe," noted retired Sedalia psychologist Marge Harlan. The house that Rose lived in for many years was purchased by Harlan and her late husband Jim before Nolen's death this past January. "We couldn't save it [the house] because - like houses were built back then - it didn't have a foundation." The house was torn down and on the site Harlan built the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library. Harlan runs the library with the help of volunteers and students. The library features displays of Nolen's work, black history and shelves of books that cover a wide range of topics of interest to African-Americans and their allies.

The library is located at 109 Lima Alley on the north side of Sedalia. The north side was historically the neighborhood in Sedalia where blacks were required to live. After segregation many blacks remained in the neighborhood while others left town or moved into parts of the community that were formerly unavailable to them.

Elaine Ray is a Sedalia native who moved away of the north side yet maintains close ties to the area through her pastorship of Taylor Chapel Methodist Church. Ray recalled that even after segregation was deemed illegal, the 1960s and 1970s were a period when blacks had to work to gain equality.

Thinking back, you know, all of these things have happened [that] influenced Rose because I know things that happened to me. I can remember going to Woolworth's. I was a young child and I wanted something at the lunch counter and my mother said 'We can't sit down there.' And then going to the dentist. You had to go out of town. I think it was Tipton. There wasn't any black dentist in Sedalia that would take you. You had to go to the optomitrist after hours if you were black. All of those things growing up affects you.

Mark Nolen recalled growing up in the house with his mother, Rose who eventualy worked as a columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune and - at the time of her death - the Columbia Missourian and Sedalia Democrat. Nolen published several books on African-American history including Hoecakes, Hambone and All That Jazz: African American Traditions in Missouri. "She was actually writing even before I was born. There's a couple of manuscripts here that have the address of the house in which I was born," said Mark Nolen, 50. "It never got serious until I got out of high school."

Mark Nolen recalled memories of his mother protecting him from the inevitable racism that influenced their years in Sedalia. Rose Nolen's friend Marge Harlan recalled stories of Rose sitting in her house with a shotgun across her lap guarding against threats to her and her son.

From my ninth grade to my twelfth grade years me and my mom used to walk to work and walk to school every day. Rain, snow, sleet or ice and we would stop at Papa Jake's Donut Shop and I'd get a doughnut and hot chocolate maybe. And then I would drop her off at the Southwestern Bell Phone Company and I would just continue on to Smith-Cotton... We always walked to work, but we never got to walk home. For the funeral I walked the urn from Papa Jake's Donut Shop where it was located in Sedalia. That was me finally getting to walk my mother home.

In a collection of Rose Nolen's papers located at the State Historical Society of Missouri is an undated and unpublished manuscript called 'Grace'. Here is an excerpt from that manuscript:

I know for example that I have a great capacity for anger and very little to control it. Over the years , like good whiskey I have mellowed somewhat. I have noticed that there are fewer occasions when I allow other people to control my anger…

I am more likely now to smile than to bristle as I once did at the outrageous statements of bigots based on their personal prejudices rather than scientific facts…but I have not lost my anger. It is still with me, and every day of my life I know it’s there, and given the right time, the right situation and I fully expect that I will vent it with all the fervor that is within me… I have learned to accept that fact that anger is part of who I am.

Listen for new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday evening at 6:30 on 91.3FM KBIA.