African American History

Early St. Louis

The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis is one of America’s most important historic sites. It was here that slave Dred Scott and his wife, Harriett, sued for their freedom in 1847. Scott won his case in St. Louis, but remained a slave for 10 years as appeals eventually took the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled Scott was not a citizen and could not sue, and the outcome helped move the country toward the Civil War. Scott was freed by a new owner after the Court decision, but died in 1858. The Old Courthouse features an exhibition on this pivotal event, called “Dred Scott: A Legacy of Courage.” Re-creations of the trial are conducted throughout the year at the Old Courthouse, and 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 tried it again 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 and Culture and the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

People of African descent have played a large role in St. Louis since the city’s founding 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 one-fifth of the state’s population. 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 minister, the Rev. John Berry Meachum, established the 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 Black World History Museum, and his gravesite can be visited at Bellefontaine Cemetery. One of the Freedom School teachers, Elizabeth Keckley, purchased her freedom in 1854 and later became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress in Washington, D.C. 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 black West Indian fur trader who became a prominent St. Louisan. His home was at 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 and founder of Chicago, Jean-Baptist Point Du Sable, can be viewed nearby at St. Charles Borromeo Church Cemetery in St. Charles, Missouri.

At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, the fourth-largest cemetery in the country, visitors can pay their 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. In nearby Alton, Illinois, the grave of Elijah Parrish Lovejoy, a prominent abolitionist newspaper editor, is capped by a soaring monument. 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 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. It is Missouri’s first Underground Railroad historic site.

Modern Achievements

St. Louis has a long history of artistic excellence 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,” at the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park. Visitors can visit 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. Ragtime performances and events are held at the site throughout the year.

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, such as the tales of murder “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stagger Lee,” were written about the wild life in St. Louis’ sporting districts. Joplin’s contemporary, W. C. Handy, wrote “St. Louis Blues” while standing on the banks of the Mississippi River here, and blues musicians followed the Great Migration upriver from the Mississippi Delta to help establish a unique St. Louis sound.

Modern African-American performers have continued the tradition, finding eager audiences in St. Louis and success around the world. Ike and Tina Turner, opera’s Grace Bumbry and Robert McFerrin, jazz great Miles Davis, rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry and many other legends spent the formative days of their careers here. St. Louis became known as the birthplace of rhythm and 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. The St. Louis Black Repertory Company has been performing in St. Louis for more than 40 seasons and has been called the nation’s top black theater.

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, held in St. Louis in 1904, and 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 Leagues and was considered the fastest man in the game. 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 in downtown honors St. Louisans who have been trailblazers in the community.