Front page of the St. Louis American in 1964. (©Missouri History Museum)
The very title of the powerful exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, "#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis" (on view through April 2018), begs the question: St. Louis, really? Not Selma, not Montgomery, not Birmingham, not Greensboro? That’s right, St. Louis, and the exhibit presents a wealth of evidence, much of it not widely known, not only to make its case, but to celebrate a profound societal transformation that corrected centuries of oppressive norms—a transformation that continues today.
The Civil Rights Movement largely refers to events that took place between 1954 and 1968, but the civil rights struggle in St. Louis began much earlier. Civil War buffs will know the story of Dred and Harriet Scott, slaves who sued for their freedom and elicited the infamous Dred Scott Decision from the Supreme Court (the first of four Supreme Court civil rights cases emanating from St. Louis), declaring that slaves were property, not citizens, and therefore could not bring suit in the nation’s courts, a decision that helped foment the Civil War. The suit was originated at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis in a courtroom you can visit today, and one of the Scotts’ lawyers, Roswell Field, lived not far from the courthouse in a rowhouse that stands today as the Field House Museum.
After the Civil War, former slaves were still not allowed to vote in Missouri, and the Missouri Equal Rights League was established in St. Louis in 1865 to lobby for this basic right, which was granted to black men through the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The League’s secretary, James Milton Turner, became ambassador to Liberia in 1871, and was instrumental in the founding of Lincoln University.
Like the recent events in Ferguson, the East St. Louis riot of 1917 drew negative national attention to the region as white rioters burned 200 homes and killed between 40 and 200 blacks in an outburst sparked by concerns over jobs taken by African Americans migrating from the South.
World War II, in which many black Americans fought against totalitarian regimes, inspired renewed efforts on the civil rights front, and local protestors participated in some of the earliest lunch-counter sit-ins, far in advance of the more famous sit-ins of the 1960s.
The exhibit chronicles the desegregation of Saint Louis University (1944), Washington University (1947-1952) and parish schools of the entire St. Louis diocese (1947, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education), the latter on pain of excommunication.
The largest and most contentious civil rights struggle in St. Louis, the Jefferson Bank Protest, began in 1963 with a court-defying sit-in to protest the bank’s refusal to hire blacks for any other than menial jobs, claiming no African American in all of St. Louis was qualified to do clerical work. The protest ended after seven months and hundreds of arrests with the bank’s hiring of six black tellers.
Discrimination, of course, extended not just to voting and jobs, but to housing as well. The exhibit recounts the extraordinary case of Alfred H. Mayer, who secretly funded a successful lawsuit against himself so he could sell houses free of racial restrictions.
No exhibit of civil rights in St. Louis would be complete without a chapter on Ferguson, and this one examines the outburst of rage that followed the killing of unarmed Michael Brown by a white police officer and offers an opportunity to suggest ways to heal the racial divide that still plagues America half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964-65.
Punctuating the exhibit’s cavalcade of photographs, portraits, documents, newspaper accounts and videos are a remarkable collection of original art commissioned specifically for the exhibit, worth a visit entirely on their own. The exhibit will also feature professional actors trained to portray figures in the St. Louis Civil Rights struggle.