How To Connect with Black Culture in St. Louis
By Rachel Huffman
Historic sites and museums dot the local landscape, telling stories of the past and celebrating the achievements of Black Americans with St. Louis connections. Today, Black-owned restaurants and shops also emphasize the vibrancy of Black culture throughout the region.
If you want to delve into Black history and connect with Black culture in the Gateway City, add these spots to your itinerary.
Historic Sites and Museums
Dred and Harriet Scott, who filed separate petitions in suits against Irene Emerson to obtain their freedom from slavery in 1846, are featured prominently in the Field House Museum. Roswell Field – who lived in the red-brick row house with his son, Eugene Field, an American writer best known for his children’s poetry and humorous essays today – took the couple’s case to the U.S. District Court in St. Louis and prepared their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He then persuaded Montgomery Blair, a high-profile lawyer from St. Louis who was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, to argue the case before the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Field House Museum was designated a National Historic Landmark; it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been named a St. Louis Landmark.
Consisting of more than 310 acres, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery was officially established in 1866. The cemetery, which overlooks the Mississippi River, contains burials from all major U.S. conflicts, beginning with the Revolutionary War. Here, visitors can pay their respects to 1,068 members of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry, which was organized in St. Louis in 1863 and served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Utilizing thousands of artifacts, including documents and weapons, the Missouri Civil War Museum does a commendable job of explaining Missouri’s complicated role in the American Civil War. Located within Jefferson Barracks Park, the nonprofit educational organization boasts one of the largest Civil War research libraries in the country.
During the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970, more than 6 million Black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West. Blues musicians followed the movement upriver from the Mississippi Delta, and in time, they established a unique St. Louis sound. The National Blues Museum explores the history of the blues and celebrates the genre as the foundation of all modern American music. Featuring artifact-driven exhibits and high-impact, technology-driven experiences, the museum has a cool factor for kids. During your visit, you’ll even have the opportunity to write your own blues song and add a guitar track – no strumming skills required.
One of the most important historic sites in the U.S., the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis is where the notable Dred and Harriet Scott cases were first heard in 1847. The last slave sale in St. Louis also took place on the steps of the courthouse in 1861 as part of a property settlement. The Old Courthouse is temporarily closed amid a $24.5 million renovation led by St. Louis-based Tarlton Corporation, which will focus on increasing accessibility for all visitors, structural improvements and new exhibitory. The reopening will include an exhibition called Dred Scott: A Legacy of Courage.
Famed for his ragtime compositions, Scott Joplin knew how to entertain. During your visit to the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, his famous melodies – think “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” and “Elite Syncopations” – will set the mood. Joplin lived here with his first wife, Belle Jones. Today, the modest flat on Delmar Boulevard is still lit by gas lamps and furnished as if it were 1902, when Joplin was poised at the piano, composing his timeless tunes.
The Griot Museum of Black History, located in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, reveals the broad scope of Black history and culture. Its mission is to collect, preserve, interpret and share the stories of Black people, highlighting their regional connection to American history and their contributions to the country’s development. The core galleries of The Griot Museum include artifacts, memorabilia and life-size wax figures. Journey inside to “meet” Josephine Baker, Dred and Harriet Scott, James Milton Turner, Miles Davis and more historical figures with ties to St. Louis.
Other Attractions and Activities
Lined with an eclectic mix of establishments, the Delmar Loop was named One of 10 Great Streets in America by the American Planning Association. The exhilarating entertainment district also features the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which honors notable people from St. Louis and their contributions to the culture of the U.S. Look for stars dedicated to Black icons such as Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry, Lou Brock, Katherine Dunham, Cedric the Entertainer, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Nelly, Ozzie Smith and Tina Turner. All the inductees were either born in the St. Louis area or spent their formative or creative years here.
In St. Louis, the Missouri Botanical Garden has long been a place of beauty, serenity and discovery, as well as an institution of scientific research and education. As you stroll through the exquisite setting, take note of the 1.5-acre George Washington Carver Garden. The inspirational garden honors the life and accomplishments of Dr. George Washington Carver, an extraordinary scientist who greatly influenced 19th- and 20th-century agriculture and education. Born into slavery in Diamond Grove, Missouri, Carver was the first African American to study at the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm and later serve on its botany faculty. By the end of his life, he was internationally recognized as one of America’s greatest scientists, teachers, humanitarians and advocates for sustainable agriculture. A life-size bronze statue of Carver, created by acclaimed sculptor Tina Allen, stands among inscriptions from Carver’s writings and speeches. The garden is landscaped with fragrant viburnums, hydrangeas and holly trees for a secluded, intimate feeling.
Located in the southwest plaza of CITYPARK, where St. Louis CITY SC plays, Pillars of the Valley is a permanent public art exhibit that recognizes and honors the 20,000 predominantly Black residents of the once-thriving Mill Creek Valley neighborhood who were displaced in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s. Of the 5,000 homes, schools, churches and businesses in the neighborhood, the Harris-Stowe State University campus is the only surviving building. The powerful work – the vision of nationally acclaimed post-disciplinary artist and East St. Louis native Damon Davis – aims to build connections and drive discussions around a more inclusive future for all. The tribute also includes landscaping matching the plot lines of the buildings that once stood in the same spot and plaques displaying the addresses of the former homes. Pillars of the Valley is part of a larger installation along a planned 1-mile stretch of the Brickline Greenway.
Completed in 2011, the St. Louis Wall of Fame is one of many murals that you can find along Manchester Avenue in The Grove neighborhood. Painted by Grace McCammond, who has completed multiple murals throughout the area, along with youth from the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club – Adams Park Unit, the St. Louis Wall of Fame pays homage to some of St. Louis’ greatest actors, athletes, musicians and writers, including Henry Armstrong, Cool Papa Bell, Redd Foxx and Johnnie Johnson. The mural is located on the side of The Gramophone, where we suggest stopping for sandwiches during your visit.
Founded in 1976, the St. Louis Black Repertory Company is committed to producing, reimagining and commissioning work written by Black playwrights, creating opportunities for new voices. “We aim to heighten the social, cultural and educational awareness of our community,” Ron Himes, founder and producing director of The Black Rep, says. “Everything we do is grounded in that goal. With every season, with every lineup, we look for work that speaks to contemporary issues; we look for new ways to learn about history and celebrate our rich culture. That’s the driving force, which allows The Black Rep to lift up new voices and give young actors a stage to showcase their talents.” The Black Rep offers some of the best theater in the country, and a lot of its productions can’t be seen anywhere else. Previous productions include The African Company Presents Richard III; Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea; The Light; Behind the Sheet; and Eubie!. Its season runs from September through May.
Grab your glitter and head to The Boom Boom Room, where friends and lovers of all shapes and sizes are welcome. Located in downtown St. Louis, The Boom Boom Room is the largest burlesque club in the country. Owners Jim Callahan and Brandy Dunn Callahan have created a sparkling fantasy with the vibe of a vintage Las Vegas show, and guests can expect choreographed dances, spectacular aerial acts and dazzling fire shows. You might also see Brandy perform as Boom Boom LeCoeur. “Channeling Josephine Baker, who is also from St. Louis, Boom Boom LeCoeur is fun and flirty,” Brandy says. “She has flair and class, and she likes to interact with the audience. I just love putting on my costume, starting my performance and seeing how the audience reacts. Their energy is invigorating, and performing makes me feel empowered.”
Street art has become a source of civic pride and outdoor engagement in cities such as St. Louis, and The Walls Off Washington, an art initiative by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, is a recent example. Providing an inspirational backdrop for the Grand Center Arts District, The Walls Off Washington encompasses 20 murals, all within a walkable space. Enter The Walls through Sophie’s Artist Lounge at 3333 Washington Avenue, and don’t miss J’Ai Deux Amours by C215, in which Josephine Baker wears beads and an endearing smile. When choosing artists to include in the project, Gina Grafos, director and chief curator of visual and literal arts at Kranzberg Arts Foundation, says that legendary local artists, including Cbabi Bayoc and Simiya Sudduth, were obvious choices. “It was also important to recognize the regional, national and international artists who continue to push the boundaries of public art,” she says.
The Food Hall at City Foundry spans a wide range of cuisines, including West African fare from Chez Ali and Creole food with a modern twist from 4 Hens Creole Kitchen. At the former, chef-owner Alioun “Ali” Thiam’s spicy, citrusy and sweet yassa chicken is braised with onion, lemon and mild spices in a Dijon mustard sauce for a truly addictive dish. Chez Ali’s menu changes daily, but anything you order will be delicious. At the latter, chef-owner Brandi Artis specializes in hearty dishes packed with traditional Creole flavors – think fried green tomatoes, succotash soup, po’ boys and shrimp and grits. Searching for sweets? Stop by Patty’s Cheesecakes, where family is the foundation. Owner Pat Upchurch learned to cook from her dad – a professional chef – and she started the business with her grandma’s best cheesecake recipe. Today, she spreads joy throughout the community with traditional and petite cheesecakes in signature flavors such as blueberry-basil-bourbon, strawberry-balsamic and Mexican chocolate. Her cheesecake creations – think original cheesecake sandwiched between two scratch-made brownies – are also delightful.
Named after the first month of the Ethiopian calendar, which symbolizes new beginnings, Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant is known for its traditional – and tasty – Ethiopian cuisine. As Ethiopian cuisine represents a type of food as well as a way to eat, owners Henok Gerbi and Atsede Wondem do not provide guests with forks, spoons or knives; instead, you eat with your fingers. Each dish is plated on top of injera, a spongy and sour fermented flatbread, which you can use to scoop up the tender meats and vegetables. Popular dishes include the doro wat (chicken sautéed with onion, garlic, ginger, butter and red wine and finished with berbere) and the kitfo (chopped prime rib served raw, rare or well-done with butter and mitmita). If you want to try a variety of flavors, order one of the platters (with or without meat), which comes with seven or eight authentic Ethiopian offerings. Just remember – Ethiopian food tastes better when you share it with family and friends!
Striving to keep it real, Prime 55 blends tradition, quality and elegance at its two St. Louis locations: Prime 55 Delmar and Prime 55 Downtown. With a touch of pizzazz, it creates mouthwatering dishes such as the sought-after sweet glazed lamb chops served with garlic mashed potatoes and a seasonal vegetable medley. The Cajun shrimp and grits with smoked butter and micro basil is also a crowd-pleaser, while the STL Prime Burger layered with white Cheddar, whiskey-braised onions, chipotle mayonnaise, heirloom tomatoes and artisan lettuce will certainly satisfy your red-meat cravings – plus, it’s only $13 during happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m.
What began as a humble hot dog stand that helped satisfy the late-night cravings of concertgoers has grown into a successful restaurant known for its flavor combinations and creative collaborations. In September 2021, Steve Ewing, founder and co-owner of Steve’s Hot Dogs and frontman for alternative rock band The Urge, moved the brick-and-mortar location to South Grand Boulevard, where fans flock for smoked all-beef Nathan’s Famous hot dogs smothered in toppings such as chili, creamy mac ‘n’ cheese, tangy baked beans and burger crumbles. Vegan? Steve’s Hot Dogs has an entire menu of grain-based dogs with plant-based toppings. Chef Joseph Zeable has also created the St. Louis Dog, which some claim is the official hot dog of St. Louis. The classic choice features a smoked and grilled all-beef hot dog tucked into an Italian-style roll from Vitale’s Bakery, lined with Provolone and piled with grilled onions, grilled green peppers, banana peppers, bacon and housemade smoked pepper mustard.
Famous for its banana split pudding, Sugar Momma’s Traditional Treats boasts a variety of homestyle goodies on Delmar Boulevard. You can also indulge in a piece of caramel cake or a scoop of black walnut ice cream before exploring everything that The Loop has to offer.
Refresh your wardrobe at Backing Blacks. Located in Ferguson, the St. Louis apparel store features the hottest global streetwear brands for men, women and children.
St. Louis-based Six.Twenty Four Candle Co. offers a line of luxury candles in aromas such as coconut-lime-verbena, strawberry-guava, pineapple-sage and beach linen – the last two being owner Candice Pinkins’ personal favorites. Trained as a mental health specialist, Pinkins promotes more than fragrances. Her mission is to inspire people to live – whatever living looks like for them. “Whether they want to enjoy the peace and comfort of their home or quit their job and travel the world, I want people to do what makes them happy,” she says. “I think something as simple as lighting a candle can encourage a person to relax, reset and reconsider all the reasons that they have to live.” It’s as simple as a click of a button to take home her hand-poured, coconut-wax, wood-wick candles.
By connecting with Black culture in St. Louis, you can make your trip – whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure – more meaningful. For even more things to do while you’re here, check our events calendar.