Many St. Louis Sites Significant in Black History
St. Louis is steeped in American history. As the only major settlement on the Mississippi River outside of New Orleans in the mid-18th century, the town that started as a French fur trading post in 1764 was the “Gateway to the West” from the very beginning.
And St. Louis is rich with sites of significance in African-American history as well. From its beginnings, St. Louis’ population consisted of a mix of people – French, Spanish, Creole, Native American, free African descendants and slaves, all of whom contributed to the growth of the area.
As a major city in a slave state just across the Mississippi River from the free state of Illinois, St. Louis was at a pivotal point in the Underground Railroad, the fabled network that helped slaves cross into states that recognized them as free.
The trail of the Underground Railroad in St. Louis is not as well known as in many free states, but over the years, many stories of escaped slaves and those who helped them have passed from generation to generation. These stories, along with well-documented events, created the legacy of the Underground Railroad.
One of St. Louis’ newest attractions pays tribute to those who risked their own lives to help others escape to freedom. The Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, named after a free African-American St. Louisan who helped slaves flee to freedom, was dedicated by the National Park Service. The site was the first in Missouri added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a listing of more than 60 Underground Railroad sites in 20 states.
The plaque on St. Louis’ Riverfront Trail about 500 yards north of the Merchants Bridge marks the place where a drama unfolded in the early morning of May 21, 1855. That morning, authorities sighted eight or nine runaway slaves who had crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. Several of the slaves, including three owned by Missouri Botanical Garden founder Henry Shaw, were caught, and a man named Freeman, a black Illinois abolitionist who assisted with the escape, was wounded that morning. Mary Meachum was charged in St. Louis criminal court with assisting the escaped slaves as was a man identified only as Isaac. While the charges against Isaac were eventually dropped, it is not known what happened to Meachum.
The Missouri Botanical Garden honors renowned scientist and native Missourian Dr. George Washington Carver at the new garden named in his honor. The inspirational new garden, the first of its kind at a botanical garden, includes paths lined with inspirational inscriptions from Carver’s writings and speeches and features a reflecting pool, and a small amphitheatre. The focal point of the 1.5 acre George Washington Carver Garden is a life-sized bronze of the acclaimed “plant doctor” created by African-American sculptor Tina Allen. Plantings include sweet potato vines, hydrangeas, callery pears and fragrant viburnums. In a fitting tribute to educator Carver, the garden also serves as a learning laboratory for students of all ages with a kiosk for educational instruction and the availability of a school curriculum about Carver and his work that was developed by Missouri Botanical Garden educators.
Here are some other places to learn more about African-American heritage during a St. Louis visit:
The Old Courthouse
The courthouse was the scene of the historic Dred Scott case where Scott and his wife Harriet, two enslaved African Americans who had lived for a time in free territory, sued for their freedom. While the court in St. Louis ruled in their favor, the Scotts lost their case in an appeal that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case focused national attention on the slavery issue. Scott died a free man after being purchased and freed by St. Louisan Taylor Blow. Over 300 other enslaved persons sued for their freedom in the St. Louis courts. About half won their freedom. The Old Courthouse has many other ties to the story of slavery and civil rights in Missouri and the nation. Slaves were sold on the courthouse steps, mostly in estate settlements in connection with the Probate Court. Several cases involving underground railroad activity in St. Louis have been discovered in court documents. After the Civil War landmark cases like that of Caroline Williams, in 1867, abolished segregation on mass transportation in St. Louis.
Today visitors can see a restored courtroom similar to the one where the Dred Scott case was held and participate in a dramatization of the case which many say was a factor in the start of the Civil War. Scott’s grave can be visited at St. Louis’ historic Calvary Cemetery.
The Griot Museum of Black History
This museum documents the contributions of Missouri African-Americans with permanent and special exhibits. Exhibits feature the history of slavery and give vivid depictions of daily life of African-Americans from before the Civil War and into the years that followed. Wax figures of famous Missourians including George Washington Carver and Josephine Baker are highlights of the attraction, and The Griot Museum of Black History is one of only two of its kind in the country.
The Gateway Arch
African-Americans played significant roles in the founding of the American West, and the Gateway Arch is a tribute to all those who made the westward journey and helped create a nation from coast-to-coast. The Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch has a display on the Buffalo Soldiers and other black pioneers who settled the western plains.
Scott Joplin State Historic Site
This state historic site re-creates and preserves the second floor flat where ragtime composer Scott Joplin lived from 1900-1903. The time Joplin spent in St. Louis is said to be the most productive of his short life. The rest of the building contains exhibits on Joplin’s life and the St. Louis neighborhood where the house is located. While Joplin is now widely known as the “King of Ragtime,” few people understood the true significance of his work during his lifetime. Interest in Joplin was rekindled after some of his most popular pieces were used as theme music in the movie The Sting. And it wasn’t until decades after his death that Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha,” which brought him financial ruin at the end of his life, was finally staged. Visitors to the site can hear some of the famous rags by pumping a foot-powered player piano.
The Ville Neighborhood
St. Louis’ most historically significant African-American neighborhood produced many noted writers, entertainers, educators and politicians and was the center of black culture in the area. Located here are Sumner High School, the first school west of the Mississippi to provide secondary education for African-American students, and the former Homer G. Phillips Hospital which was one of the first medical institutions in the country to train African-American physicians. The Annie Malone Children’s Home, founded by one of the first African-American millionaires in the nation, is also located here. Handy Park at Euclid and Ashland avenues is named after W. C. Handy, the composer known as the “Father of the Blues.” He wrote his most famous piece, St. Louis Blues, while he lived in St. Louis.
Eugene Field House
Roswell Field, father of poet Eugene Field, was the attorney who represented Dred Scott in his celebrated court case. Today visitors can stop by the Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum to learn more about the elder Field’s connection to the case and tour the younger Field’s boyhood home. The house features special exhibits and a large display of toys. Eugene Field came to be known as the “Children’s Poet” for his stories and poems which include “Little Boy Blue” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”
James “Cool Papa” Bell Memorial, 2101 Lucas & Hunt Road
A 10-foot high memorial marks the gravesite of Negro National Major League baseball player James “Cool Papa” Bell. It is made of African granite and pays homage to Bell’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Bell, who was known for his great speed, stole more than 175 bases one year alone, and he batted over .400 several times during his 29-year career. But despite his outstanding abilities, Bell was barred from the major leagues because of his color.
This historic cemetery, incorporated in 1849, is the resting place of two prominent African-American ministers – the Reverend John Berry Meachum (1789-1854), founder and first pastor of the First African Baptist Church, and John Richard Anderson (1818-1863), a minister who worked for the martyred abolitionist Reverend Elijah Parish Lovejoy in Alton and was an eyewitness to Lovejoy’s murder. In neighboring Calvary, a Catholic cemetery established in 1857, lie the graves of Dred Scott (1799 -1858), the former slave whose suit for freedom at St. Louis’ Old Courthouse brought him national renown and was a crucial element in the beginning of the Civil War, and Madame Pelagie Rutgers, an African-American woman who became one of St. Louis’ wealthiest landholders in the mid-18th century.
Father Dickson Cemetery, 845 S. Sappington Road
Visitors to this cemetery can follow the trail of Moses Dickson, a free black man from Ohio who settled in St. Louis following a tour of the South during where he learned of the suffering slaves experienced. Dickson organized an army of sympathizers called the Knights of Liberty, which was instrumental in the St. Louis Underground Railroad. Subsequently, Dickson became an ordained minister of the African Methodist Church and worked for the education and suffrage of blacks in the St. Louis area.
The Saint Louis Art Museum African Arts Collection
Well-known for many collections including its impressive and extensive works of African and Oceanic Arts, the Saint Louis Art Museum has been called one of the top ten such museums in the nation.
The Museum’s Society of Africa, Oceania and the Americas promotes awareness and appreciation for the arts and cultures of these regions and supports the Museum’s collecting efforts. According to the Saint Louis Art Museum Magazine, “The Society serves to highlight the artistic achievements of peoples widely dispersed in place and time.” African works in the collection include sculpture, dress and articles of adornment.
This area, one of the oldest sections of St. Louis, is believed to have harbored fugitive slaves in the many caves under the cobblestone streets. Today the Landing is an entertainment district filled with restored river warehouses which offer clubs, restaurants and attractions to St. Louis visitors. Clamorgan Alley, one of the district’s streets, is named for Jacques Clamorgan, a free black man from the West Indies, who was one of St. Louis’ early founders. The district is also the site of the first land grant to a person of color in St. Louis, a woman named only as “Ester” in the original Spanish documents. The nearby bridge that spans the Mississippi River is named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre
The Black Rep provides a platform for African-American theatre, dance and creative expression. The company performs in the Grandel Theatre in the Grand Center arts and entertainment district from January through June. The Black Rep is the largest African-American performing arts company in the United States.
“Black Americans in Flight” Mural
This 51-foot mural by Spencer Taylor and Solomon Thurman chronicles the achievements of African Americans in aviation from 1917 to the present. The piece includes 75 portraits from Eugene Bullard, a black fighter pilot for the French Flying Corps in World War I, to America’s three black astronauts – Guion Bluford, Mae Jemison and Ronald McNair. The epic work is on display in the lower level of the main terminal at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Missouri History Museum
“Seeking St. Louis,” an exhibit in three galleries, documents through artifacts and stories the lives of the people who lived in the St. Louis area from prehistoric times to the present. As African Americans played an important role in St. Louis’ history, sections of the exhibit document the lives of black St. Louisans from colonial times to the present and the contributions they made.
Old Stone Meeting House
This structure, located at Geyer and Clayton roads, was built as the Old Des Peres Meeting House and Cemetery in 1833 when the famed abolitionist Reverend Elijah Parish Lovejoy was the church’s minister. Nicknamed Old Stone Meeting House by Yankee soldiers during the Civil War, the house was a well known stop along the Underground Railroad. Slaves were buried in the adjoining cemetery. A monument to Lovejoy, who was martyred while defending his printing press from a pro-slavery mob, can be visited in nearby Alton, Illinois.
Portfolio Gallery & Education Center
This Gallery and educational facility, located in the Grand Center arts and entertainment district, displays works by Missouri artists of African-American heritage. It also provides opportunities for children to express themselves artistically.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock) Church
This Roman Catholic Church has been part of St. Louis’ African-American Catholic community for 130 years. One of the first churches in St. Louis built of quarry stone, the congregation was originally Irish. It later became predominantly African-American. The church is a popular visitor attraction on Sundays because of its famous gospel choir.
Harriet Scott, wife of Dred Scott, is buried in this historic cemetery, which is also the site of a memorial pavilion in her honor. The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation recently provided a new headstone for Harriet Scott’s gravesite, and the foundation works to keep the memory of the Scotts’ historic slavery trial alive in the minds of the general public.
St. Charles Borromeo Church Cemetery
The grave of prominent African-American pioneer, Jean-Baptist Point Du Sable, can be viewed 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.
St. Louis Walk of Fame
This series of stars and plaques is set in the sidewalks along Delmar Boulevard in the dynamic Loop neighborhood to honor St. Louisans – past and present – who have made significant contributions to life in America. African Americans honored on the Walk of Fame include baseball stars Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and James “Cool Papa” Bell; writer Maya Angelou; entertainer Josephine Baker; musicians Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson, Nelly, and Ike & Tina Turner; gospel singer Willie Mae Ford Smith, jazz greats Miles Davis and Clark Terry; opera star Grace Bumbry; ragtime musician Scott Joplin; dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham; and actor/comedian Redd Foxx.
J.D. Shelley Home
This house, now a National Historic Landmark, was central to a case called Shelley vs. Kramer which ended real estate restrictive covenants based on race. In 1930, when the J.D. Shelley family migrated to St. Louis from Mississippi, they found the city had racially restrictive covenants limiting equal access to housing for people of color. The Shelleys directly challenged this discriminatory policy by purchasing the house at 4600 Labadie Avenue. Neighbors Louis and Ethel Kramer brought suit on behalf of the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association which had been established in 1910 to restrict blacks from moving into the area. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the restrictive housing code violated the Shelleys’ 14th Amendment freedoms and could not be enforced, opening the door to equal housing for everyone in America. The Shelley Home is a private residence.
Vaughn Cultural Center
Established in 1977 in honor of arts patron Ermalene Vaughn, the Vaughn Cultural Center sponsors events and activities which promote an understanding of African-American history and culture. Vaughn donated the seed money for the center to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis which operates the facility. Permanent and traveling art and historical exhibits are displayed in the Center’s galleries.
Julia Davis Branch Library
Dr. Julia Davis, former St. Louis educator and noted historian, established the Julia Davis Fund at the St. Louis Public Library in 1961 on the day she retired from teaching in the St. Louis public school system. The fund, designated for the purchase of literature by, for and about African-Americans, has provided for the acquisition of more than 2,000 volumes. The Julia Davis Collection is housed in the beautiful Great Hall of the Central Library at 13th and Olive Streets downtown. On April 21, 1974, the St. Louis Public Library made history by dedicating a branch to a living person – Dr. Julia Davis. This branch houses the same volumes found in the Central Library and is the site for many African-American cultural activities held throughout the year.
First Baptist Church, 3100 Bell Avenue
Originally known as First African Baptist Church, the congregation moved to its present site in 1917. It is said that all of St. Louis’ black Baptist churches developed from First African Baptist Church. The church grew out of Sunday school and religious services begun in 1818 by two Baptist ministers. One of its early organizers was former slave John Berry Meachum. In 1822, when Meachum was still a layman, black members of the congregation formed a separate branch of the church and after Meachum was ordained, he founded the First African Baptist Church and became its first pastor.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Statue, Fountain Park, Euclid and Fountain Avenues
This 11-foot bronze sculpture pays tribute to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. It is inscribed, “His Dream – Our Dream.”
The National Black Tourism Network
An American Pathways designed company offering complete convention, meeting, and family reunion planning from concept to finish, including graphics, travel arrangements and program themes with step-on guides available and more than 12 years incentive experience.
Updated June 14, 2010
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