How an enslaved person become a prosperous
businessman … and helped others in the process.

This story originally appeared in our January/February 2022 edition.

The story is familiar, replicated by scores of people living and working in Missouri in the 1800s. It goes something like this: a person starts from humble beginnings, takes big risks in moving west to pursue new opportunities, starts simple and builds a trade or business, employs many people, offers essential products or services that make life possible, and in the end not only enjoys success but becomes a benefactor for the common good.

Hiram Young
Hiram Young
—The Jackson County Historical Society, Photography Collection, PHL5339

Those stories are common. What is rare is a person who was born into slavery and then did all those things, like Hiram Young.

The unavoidable beginning of Hiram Young’s story is slavery in the United States and particularly in Missouri. Homesteaders from the Upper South—Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee—migrated to the Missouri territory in droves and brought their slaves with them. Typically, Missouri slave holding was small-scale—ten slaves or less—but some larger agricultural farms had more.

In 1821, Missouri came into the Union under the Missouri Compromise as a slave state. High concentrations of slaves were settled along the Missouri River making up as much as 25 percent of the Missouri River valley population preceding emancipation. Hiram Young’s story begins there. He was one of those slaves.

“Slavery was very different in Missouri as compared to the Deep South—not nicer, but different,” says Leah Palmer, director of education at the National Frontier Museum in Independence. “There were many small slave-holding families whose slaves often came with a particular skill set that was hired out to others. All this provided more opportunity for slaves to make additional income and purchase their freedom and the freedom of others—something not customary in the Deep South.”

In addition, there was more fluidity of movement in the Black experience. Some were runaways and headed over the border to free states, some attached to entrepreneurs in the wagon trains, and others—like Hiram Young—worked within the system.

Born into slavery in 1812 in Hawkins County, Tennessee, Hiram Young was first named Hiram Walton after the man who owned him. Hiram’s parents are unknown. At an early age Hiram was trained in woodworking and the art of making ox yokes. The Walton family moved to Missouri in 1838, and by the early 1840s, Hiram was sold to George B. Young. His name changed to Hiram Young as was customary when ownership changed. By 1843, he had worked and saved enough money to purchase his freedom for $1,500 and that of his wife, Matilda, for $800.

A group of faculty at Young School in 1938.
A group of faculty stands on the steps at Young School in 1938. Tamar (Bell) Randall, front row second from left, attended Young School as a child and returned to teach.
—Tamar Randall collection from Ann E. Taylor


Between 1847 and 1850, Hiram and Matilda lived in Liberty, and in 1850, they moved with their infant daughter, Amanda, to Independence. There he established a thriving yoke and wagon business, manufacturing wagons under government contract for new settlers heading west. He not only aided the western movement but prospered as a result. He became one of the wealthiest businessmen in Jackson County.

By 1860 Hiram held a virtual monopoly on yoke and wagon manufacturing. At the height of his business, he was producing more than fifty thousand yokes and nine hundred wagons a year. His wagons were equipped to haul six thousand pounds pulled by six teams of oxen, and each wagon was marked with the Hiram Young and Company logo. Hiram Young yokes and wagons gained a robust reputation on the Santa Fe Trail. His factory and farm, located six miles east of Independence, provided immigrants with a wide variety of equipment and food supplies.

As a part of his business, Hiram himself leased and purchased slaves from the nearby farm of Jabez Smith (now Chrisman High School, 1223 N. Noland Road) and provided them with a pathway to freedom. He paid them the same wages as free men working in his shop, enabling them to save money and buy their freedom. In addition, his workers received valuable training in a trade that could secure their independence in the future. His factory was located on the east side of what is now US Highway 24 and Liberty Street.

Hiram also addressed racial prejudice through the way he provided hospitality in his own home for employees, regardless of race. This included poor White workers. Part of his mission was to equip people who, like himself, needed help to achieve greater autonomy and prosperity.

During the Civil War, Hiram fled with his family to Leavenworth, Kansas, but returned to Independence following the war. After rebuilding his plundered business, Hiram constructed the first school to educate African-American children in the area, Hiram Young School. He also had a central role in the formation of the St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. He reached out to the bishop and made the case for the need to establish the new congregation. In addition, he supported the effort financially.

Hiram Young died in 1882 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence. He shares the same plot and stone with his wife, Matilda, and daughter, Amanda. The epitaph on Hiram Young’s gravestone simply reads:

Hiram Young, after living a useful life.

A gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence marks Hiram Young’s final resting place.
—Timothy L. Carson photo


Before Hiram built a school, Black children in Independence attended school in the two churches, Second Baptist Church and St. Paul A.M.E. Church. In1874, Hiram raised four thousand dollars to build the Frederick Douglass School, which was located on the northwest corner of Noland Road and Farmer Street. He sent his daughter, Amanda, to Oberlin College in Ohio. Upon return, she became the school’s first principal.

Though the school was first named after the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, the name was changed to the Young School after Hiram’s death in honor of the contributions he made to education.

In 1934, a new school was constructed at 501 N. Dodgion Street. It enjoyed a panoramic view of the Independence Square courthouse and surrounding area. When it came time to furnish the school, however, it was equipped with the old desks and books previously used by the White schools. Following integration in 1956, the Young School became a Special Education building until its closing.

“Habitat provides a hand up, not a hand out—just what Hiram Young did. We think Hiram Young’s vision and Habitat’s vision are parallel and an excellent fit.

—Christina Leakey

After the Young School sat vacant for decades, a fundraising effort began in 2004 to help convert the building to a community center run by Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity. The vision of the center is to reach into the community with quality home buyer, home preservation, and financial planning education, as well as training in family life skills and for jobs. Current plans for the building include a renovation of the offices, a conference center, a commercial educational kitchen, and life skills center to increase services for the surrounding community.

“One of the most fantastic things about acquiring this property is our preserving it as a historic landmark in Independence,” says Christina Leakey, president and CEO of Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity. “The building tells the story of Hiram Young and the Young School, a fixture for the African-American community and later for the special education programs of the Independence public schools. Designating a classroom within the school that acts as an interpretive center is central to our concept.

“A big part of what Habitat does is to provide classroom outreach and education,” Christina says. “Volunteers may work on one of our construction projects, and at the same time other partners in our facility provide programming that builds up individuals and families in our community.”

Habitat Development Director Carla Simpson adds, “Habitat provides a hand up, not a hand out—just what Hiram Young did. We think Hiram Young’s vision and Habitat’s vision are parallel and an excellent fit. What inspires me is the way that the values of Hiram Young connected with the values of Habitat. In the same way that Hiram Young reached out to individuals and institutions in his community to provide opportunity and hope, so do we.”


A leader in the Independence African-American community, Alversia Pettigrew is a former student of the Hiram Young School. She graduated with the first integrated class in Independence. Today she provides leadership for projects involving the Hiram Young School and its successor organization in the building, Habitat for Humanity.

Alversia, who turns seventy-seven in February, has been active since her youth in the St. Paul AME Church. Her autobiography, Memories of a Neck Child, chronicles life in the “Neck,” the old Independence African-American neighborhood that was razed in an urban renewal incentive in the 1960s, around the time the Truman Library was built. McCoy Park now exists where the Neck once did.

For Alversia, the Hiram Young School was “like a family.” The school and church were the center of their community, the two primary institutions that provided both stability and identity. When the first Hiram Young School was finally demolished and the new one constructed, there was rejoicing.

“Except that the Hiram Young School was given the cast-off desks and books from the White school,” Alversia says. “Of course, that shaped the telling of history because the old Missouri history books mentioned nothing of slavery or the Black experience. Even though we did hear about George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, we never heard anything about Hiram Young. We had no idea why our school was called the Young School.”

Alversia Pettigrew, a former student of the Hiram Young School
Alversia Pettigrew
—Timothy L. Carson photo

“If you stand in the front doorway of the school and look back toward downtown, you’ll have a marvelous view. It was the view of town we had every day, a town where we didn’t belong, not totally. But today is different. Some of the old ways hang on, but mostly life is better.”

—Alversia Pettigrew

When integration did finally come to Independence in 1956, Alversia was one of the first students to attend Independence High School, as an integrated school. She was one of five Black students (three girls and two boys) in the entire school. Decades passed from that time until her own boys attended Independence High School.

She adds, “To my amazement, I watched them attend the school that I could not when I was their age. There were White friends of my boys playing in the basement. I was cooking mountains of pancakes for them all. Imagine.”

In the same way that the Hiram Young School was extended family, so was the church; her long-time membership in St. Paul’s AME Church provided a similar foundational community of belonging. St. Paul’s most likely would have never existed if it weren’t for the efforts of Hiram Young with the Bishop and Diocese to plant a church in Independence.

When Alversia was eighteen years old, she pledged to underwrite the cost of half a colorized-glass window with a friend. “I had to take out a loan to pay it off over time, but I did it. And there it is now, these many years later.”

Students at Young School often learned trades. These boys were in a construction class, just one example of Hiram Young's legacy of ensuring students had skills for employment.
Students at Young School often learned trades. These boys were in a construction class, just one example of Hiram Young’s legacy of ensuring students had skills for employment.
—Tamar Randall Collection from Ann E. Taylor


Just across the street from the church, parents play with their children and push strollers in Hiram Young Wagon Wheel Park. The Hiram Young School building is visible on the horizon.

“If you stand in the front doorway of the school and look back toward downtown, you’ll have a marvelous view. It was the view of town we had every day, a town where we didn’t belong, not totally,” Alversia says. “But today is different. Some of the old ways hang on, but mostly life is better.”

Hiram Young was extraordinary: an enslaved man who bought his freedom and created an opportunity for freedom for countless others, invested in his community’s education and religious life, sent his daughter to college within one generation of slavery so she could become a leader, and lived in such a way that his life had a lasting impact on the future. His business helped people fulfill their dreams to travel west even as he became prosperous doing so.

But the real legacy of Hiram Young was one of social and moral transformation, a legacy that is now integral to both Missouri’s history and the larger American story.