Multicultural St. Louis

In St. Louis-the heart of America-diversity is embraced and the joy of human experience is explored in visitor attractions and special events held throughout the year. Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and a host of other cultures have shaped St. Louis from its very beginnings. Their presence, and the arrival of new American immigrants today-including one of the largest Bosnian communities in the country-continues to enrich life at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

African Americans in St. Louis:

St. Louisans of African descent have played a large role in the area’s development since St. Louis was founded in 1764. Early census figures show blacks, both free and slave, lived in St. Louis from its earliest days under French and Spanish colonial rule. In fact, black settlers were listed among those killed defending St. Louis from the British in the Revolutionary War Battle of Fort San Carlos, which took place on what are now the Gateway Arch grounds.

By the 1820 census, 10,000 slaves lived in Missouri, about a fifth of the state’s population at the time. That same year, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state. Laws of the time forbade the education of black children, but an ingenious St. Louisan, the Rev. John Berry Meachum, established a “Freedom School” aboard a steamboat anchored in free territory in the middle of the Mississippi River. Meachum’s life is featured in exhibits at The Griot Museum of Black History and his gravesite can be visited at Bellefontaine Cemetery. One of Meachum’s Freedom School teachers, Elizabeth Keckley, purchased her freedom in 1854 and later became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress in Washington, DC. Keckley wrote a book titled, “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” about her experiences.

By the mid-1800s, many wealthy black residents owned land in what is now known as the Laclede’s Landing entertainment district along the Mississippi Riverfront. The first St. Louis land grant to a woman of color, named only as Ester in the Spanish documents, was located in this historic district just north of the Gateway Arch. The site of the 1793 grant is now 721-723 North Second Street in Laclede’s Landing. Clamorgan Alley, another Laclede’s Landing street, is named for Jacques Clamorgan, a West Indian fur trader who became a prominent St. Louisan. Clamorgan’s home was at what is now 701 North First Street. The gravesite of Madame Pelagie Rutgers, another of these prominent landholders and a member of what was called at the time St. Louis’ “colored aristocracy,” can be visited at Calvary Cemetery. The grave of another prominent pioneer, Jean-Baptist Point Du Sable, can be viewed in St. Charles Borromeo Church Cemetery in nearby St. Charles, Missouri. Du Sable was an affluent Haitian-born fur trader who was the first non-Native American settler in Chicago during the 1770s. The Griot Museum of Black History has added a display on another early St. Louisan, a man named York who was William Clark’s slave. York accompanied the Corps of Discovery to the west in 1804 and became the first black man to journey to the Pacific Ocean.

The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis is one of America’s most important historic sites. It was here that slave Dred Scott sued for his freedom and the freedom of his wife, Harriett, in 1847. Scott won his case in St. Louis, but 10 years later appeals brought the issue before the Supreme Court of the United States which ruled that Scott was not a citizen and could not sue. The outcome of this case, in 1857, helped move the country toward the Civil War. Scott was freed by a new owner after the Supreme Court decision and died in St. Louis in 1858. Recreations of the Dred Scott trial are conducted throughout the year at the Old Courthouse. Scott’s grave can be visited at Calvary Cemetery. The last known slave sale in St. Louis was held as part of a property settlement on the steps of the Old Courthouse in 1861. A large anti-slavery crowd refused to bid and slave traders never again tried to sell human beings in St. Louis. Information on Scott’s case and other African-American achievements are on display at the Old Courthouse, The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis and the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, the fourth-largest cemetery in the country, visitors can pay respects at the burial site of 1,068 members of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry, which was organized in St. Louis in 1863 during the Civil War.

The grave of Elijah Parrish Lovejoy, a prominent abolitionist newspaper editor from St. Louis, is capped by a soaring monument in nearby Alton, Illinois. Lovejoy was killed by a pro-slavery mob in Alton while defending the printing press of his anti-slavery newspaper. Lovejoy was also noted as the employer of the young William Wells Brown, a former slave who moved to St. Louis as a youth and eventually came to fame in Great Britain as an author and playwright. While in Alton, visitors can tour a variety of important historic sites associated with the Underground Railroad system which moved slaves to freedom before and during the Civil War. Back in St. Louis, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, located on the Riverfront Trail north of downtown, commemorates an incident where slaves were captured trying to escape to the free territory of Illinois in 1855.

From Chuck Berry to Nelly

St. Louis has a long history of artistic endeavors by African-American performers and composers. When Scott Joplin brought his ragtime music to St. Louis in the late 1800s, he found a ready audience in the river city’s saloons, brothels, restaurants and theaters. He played most often in the Chestnut Valley near Union Station and introduced one of his most popular compositions, “The Cascades,” in St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. Visitors can stop at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site for an in-depth look at the man, his music and African-American life in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century.

Josephine Baker began her long entertainment career in St. Louis before shooting to fame in the Revue Negre in Paris. Popular ballads of the Ragtime Era-like the tales of murder, “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stagger Lee” (also called Stagolee)-were written about the wild life in St. Louis’ sporting districts. Joplin’s contemporary, W.C. Handy, wrote the “St. Louis Blues” while standing on the Mississippi Riverfront here, and blues musicians followed the Great Migration upriver from the Mississippi Delta to establish a unique St. Louis sound.

Modern African-American performers continued the tradition, finding eager audiences in St. Louis and success around the world. Ike & Tina Turner, opera’s Grace Bumbry and Robert McFerrin, jazz great Miles Davis, rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry (who still plays regularly at Blueberry Hill in The Loop neighborhood) and many other legends spent the formative days of their careers here. St. Louis became known as the birthplace of rhythm & blues and the “City of Gabriels” because of the amazing horn players that came from its music scene. The tradition of musical innovation from St. Louis artists continues today with hip-hop stars Nelly, Chingy and Murphy Lee topping the charts. Visitors can learn more about St. Louis’ African-American entertainment icons-many of whom grew up in the historic Ville neighborhood-by strolling the St. Louis Walk of Fame along Delmar Boulevard in The Loop neighborhood or visiting the Ville Monument which pays tribute to the neighborhood’s famous sons and daughters. For contemporary entertainment, visitors can see “Theatre with Soul” presented by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company which has been performing in St. Louis for 27 seasons. Headquartered in the Grand Center arts and entertainment district of St. Louis, the Black Rep performs in the Grandel Theatre.

African Americans also have played an important role in St. Louis’ sports history. George Poage became the first African American to win a medal in the Olympic Games which were held in St. Louis-the first American city to host the games-in 1904. Tennis great Arthur Ashe graduated from high school in St. Louis. James “Cool Papa” Bell, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, played for St. Louis in the Negro National Leagues and was known as the fastest man in the game. More information on Bell and the Negro Leagues is available at the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum downtown. Displays also honor Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and other great African-American players who called St. Louis home. The world’s greatest female athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, lives and works in St. Louis today, building a better life for underserved children through the JJK Boys & Girls Club. The St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation Walk of Fame honors St. Louisans who have been trailblazers in the community.

The First St. Louisans:

The story of Native Americans in St. Louis begins before the arrival of explorers and pioneers when the region was home to an enormous city called Cahokia. The 20,000-person metropolis thrived from 700 A.D. until sometime after 1300 A.D. When European explorers first mapped the Mississippi River in the 1500s, the great society of Mound Builders had been abandoned.

Today at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Interpretive Center visitors can enter the world of the Mound Builders within sight of the Gateway Arch. Walk in their steps up Monk’s Mound, the largest of the area’s surviving earthen structures, and see the 2,200-acre United Nations World Heritage Site below. Special events are held to bring visitors closer to the lives of the early residents throughout the year. Another site, Mastodon State Historic Site in Imperial, Missouri, half an hour south of downtown St. Louis, explores the relationship between the Ice Age mammals and the Native American tribes that hunted them in prehistoric times. In the so-called Historic Period, after the arrival of the French, the Missouri and Osage tribes dominated the St. Louis region. By the 1820s, most tribes had headed west. The Trail of Tears, marking the forced march of the Cherokee nation from the East Coast to the established “Indian Territory” of the west, brought additional Native Americans through Missouri.

Today representatives from various tribes gather at Pow Wows, dances and other activities held in St. Louis throughout the year. About 3,500 Native Americans reside in the St. Louis area. The Museum of Westward Expansion at the Gateway Arch offers visitors a view of the Native American experience during the opening of the west. An animatronic figure of Chief Red Cloud and an exhibit of Indian Peace Medals are highlights of the museum.

Asian and Hispanic St. Louis:

St. Louis’ first Asian immigrants arrived in the 1850s and many early Chinese residents may have taken part in the 1904 World’s Fair, which was attended by China’s Prince Pu Lun. Japanese and Chinese heritage are honored at the Missouri Botanical Garden with the nation’s largest Japanese Garden and a peaceful Chinese garden built by St. Louis’ sister city of Nanjing. Many recent Asian immigrants have enlivened the Grand South Grand neighborhood where visitors can find restaurants, food stores and import shops that sell an exotic blend of tastes and products. Chinese New Year is celebrated in the neighborhood and Chinese and Japanese festivals are held annually at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

St. Louis was part of Spain’s New World territory when the city was founded by French fur traders in 1764, although the area’s first Spanish governor didn’t arrive in the settlement until 1770. Spain ceded its claim on the territory to France in 1800, but today St. Louisans from many nations claim Hispanic descent. Areas of south St. Louis, notably along Cherokee Street west of Jefferson Avenue, are bustling with new Americans of Hispanic heritage. Long-time residents join with new immigrants to remember their heritage at the annual Hispanic Festival at Soldiers’ Memorial in Downtown St. Louis. St. Louis’ immigrant communities – representing 70 cultures – gather yearly at the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park for a celebration featuring music, dance, food and arts. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities are held each October and Cinco de Mayo is celebrated throughout St. Louis in May.

For more information on St. Louis’ multicultural events, visitors can access the interactive events calendar at Explore St. Louis. For more information on new immigrant communities, contact the International Institute of St. Louis at (314) 773-9090.


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