Place of Pride

For a son of the Sandfield Community, home is where the heart is

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Mary Alice Truitt

Annette Savors and Martha Gordon, both in their late 60s, have been members of the Sandfield Horizon committee since its inception. The committee was formed in 2000 to preserve the history and promote the future growth of the area of Columbus known as Sandfield, the city’s first black neighborhood.

The needs of the community, which once thrived with its own businesses — shops and grocery stores, the Blue Goose Café and boarding house, even its own blacksmith shop — are many. But what the community may have needed most of all was someone to champion the neighborhood and rally support for the community.

That’s where Fredrick Sparks comes in.

“I’m kind of the liaison between the committee and the rest of the city and officials,” says Sparks, 43, who like Savors and Gordon, grew up in Sandfield, whose borders are loosely defined as the area between Highway 182 and 10th Avenue South from Martin Luther King Drive to 15th Street South.

In other words, Sparks is the Voice of Sandfield.

“Or, rather, the voice from Sandfield,” he suggests. “I grew up on the corner of Bell Avenue and 22nd Street. Sandfield will always be my home, even though I don’t live there any longer.”

A SPARK OF ENERGY
The Voice of Sandfield is a deep, resonant one. In fact, it may be the first thing you notice about Sparks when you meet him.

As a U.S. Postal Service employee for 24 years — he has been Postmaster in Caledonia for the past four years — and a recent appointee to the Columbus Municipal School Board, Sparks hopes to bring the message — and the needs — of Sandfield to the attention of those outside the community, which he describes as “economically challenged.”

For Gordon, Sparks’ arrival is a needed shot of young energy as the community grapples with its future.

“He’s one of the young ones,” says Gordon, 67, who has lived her entire life in the community. “Fredrick has such a positive attitude. He really believes in education for our young people, but he’s also very caring about the old people here in Sandfield. There are a lot of older people here, and sometimes old people feel like they are cast aside, that they don’t matter. It’s not that way with Fredrick.”

THE GLORY DAYS
“Does anything good ever come out of Sandfield?”

It is a question Sparks has heard often over the years.

The community has had its share of hard times. Poverty there is high. There are few businesses, especially compared to the neighborhood in its heyday. There are few recreation areas for children, and neighbors don’t seem to know each other as they did in the old days.

“When I was growing up in Sandfield, it was like family, not so much by blood, but by loyalty,” says Sparks, a husband and father of four. “When I was a kid and I left the house to go play basketball, my mom didn’t have to worry about where I was. The whole community was watching out for us.”

Older residents like Gordon and Savors also remember when Sandfield was filled with vigor and optimism. Business owners and professionals who worked on Catfish Alley or along Seventh Avenue North, returned home to Sandfield in the evenings.

“So many of our black leaders lived here back then,” Sparks says. “But as things changed, people moved in and people moved out. Somewhere along the way, those of us who really identify with Sandfield lost our pride and sense of doing better. I’d like to see the pride of the community return. Those of us who came from the community, who have made some impact through our careers and experiences, we need to get involved.”

Despite the decades of change, one neighborhood cornerstone has remained a constant in the community — Canaan Baptist Church. Established in 1870, Canaan serves as a rallying point in Sandfield with efforts like its Thanksgiving meal program for senior citizens and work with the Columbus Police Department on its annual Christmas Toy Drive.

TO SUCCEED, LOOK TO THE PAST
Sparks says part of the way to chart a future for Sandfield is to tell the story of its past. He champions the importance of younger Sandfield residents learning about the community’s rich history, which may fan the embers of pride that once fortified residents, even in the hard times.

That’s where Sparks’ enthusiasm for the annual Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration at Sandfield Cemetery comes into play.

In 2005, Renita Holmes, then-student-director of Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science’s (MSMS) Voices In Harmony choir, created a program of dramatic performances to tell the story of the Eighth of May at the suggestion of MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough.

Three years ago, Yarborough introduced a student research component modeled after his highly acclaimed Friendship Cemetery-based “Tales From the Crypt” program to the Celebration project.

“When I learned that (Chuck) was taking the ‘Tales From the Crypt’ to Sandfield Cemetery, it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of,” says Sparks. “He asked if I could help get the word out, to the churches and the community. I told him I could definitely do that. There’s a lot of our history right out here in this cemetery,” Sparks says. “Telling that story is a great way to connect the people who live here.”

Yarborough credits Sparks’ recruitment efforts with expanding interest in Sandfield and reports an increase in attendance for the Celebration since his participation.

It’s hard to imagine a better advocate than Sparks, whose love for the community he grew up in is immediately apparent.

“That’s a role I can accept,” Sparks says. “I truly am a product of the community. No matter where I go, what you see in me is Sandfield. It’s who I am and what I identify with.”

“Can anything good come out of Sandfield?” Sparks asks. “The answer is ‘Yes,’ if you make it the close-knit community it used to be. That’s our goal.”