Missouri's Little Dixie African American History Tour

Pennytown, Missouri

Pennytown was established as an autonomous township and historic Black hamlet located southeast of Marshall, Missouri in Saline County. This hamlet was extremely unique for the time period. Most of its residents were previously enslaved, and its Black residents owned their own property and home, which was rare directly following the Civil War. This allowed Pennytown residents to have the ability to establish wealth for themselves and their families instead of entering the exploitative sharecropping system that replaced chattel slavery.

Pennytown found its beginnings in 1871 when Joe Penny, a former slave, bought eight acres of land for $160 -- much to the amusement of the white folks in the area. Other formerly enslaved families in the area continued to buy small parcels of land surrounding Penny's, and began selling portions of those parcels to other Blacks. Pennytown thrived and functioned in a communal manner through a mixed economy utilizing hunting and gathering, wage-earning jobs, and agricultural work. Most women worked for farmers' wives in the area. Much of the produce coming from Pennytown was sold in Marshall at the local grocery stores. 'Pennytown corners' emerged in the city of Marshall near the square where Black Pennytown residents stood waiting in the mornings for whites to pick them up for work and in the evenings to get a ride home.

Pennytown residents lived communally in many cases. Each household was responsible for killing a hog at a certain time throughout the year. Women gathered to make quilts and pies that they could raffle or sell at the church to create a community fund for those who were sick or in need. The community ice house was filled each winter from the Blackwater River. Residents hauled water from the river into town, as only a small spring was nearby. Most homes in Pennytown were consistent with those in rural communities in Missouri; they were either single- or double-rooms with tin roofs.

The church was the center of community, not just for religious needs, but also for much more. The original Freewill Baptist Church was constructed in 1886 from dismantled vacant buildings in the surrounding area. The current church structure was rebuilt in 1925-6 following a fire. This Black hamlet provided previously enslaved Blacks a place outside of white society to take care of one another and to gain agency to chart their community's path in a time when Jim Crow laws and discrimination were abundant. Unfortunately, in the decades following the Great Depression, many residents were forced to move to bigger cities to find work, as there were few jobs in the area due to agricultural machinery making its way in. Only a few residents remained into the 1960s. Former resident and historian, Josephine Robinson Lawrence, worked tirelessly to preserve the legacy and structure of the church of Pennytown, which still stands today and hosts gatherings several times a year.