Black History | St. Louis Public Radio

Black History

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove. She married at 14, then came to St. Louis at 20, after her first husband died, to join her brothers who worked as barbers.
Madam Walker Family Archives/A'Lelia Bundles

In 1888, a young, African-American woman left Louisiana to join her brothers in St. Louis.

The future Madam C.J. Walker earned a living by doing laundry, then began selling beauty products. Eventually she founded her own company and went on to become one of the nation’s first black, female millionaires. Warner Brothers is producing a TV series for Netflix about her life.

Walker’s time in St. Louis was transformational, according to her great-great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, who wrote the book on which the series is based.

Coffee Wright founded the St. Louis Inner City Cultural Center Enterprise 20 years ago. This year, the organization is partnering with the Missouri History Museum for a Friday night Juneteenth event. This photo is from her group's second annual Juneteenth
Derrick Phillips

St. Louis is known for its elaborate Fourth of July events, with fireworks bursting in dozens of municipalities and most famously, over the Arch.

But many St. Louisans want that kind of attention also focused on a significant day for African-Americans and the nation: Juneteenth. It commemorates a June 19, 1865, Texas order that freed all enslaved Americans, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Several local events mark the occasion. Many take place this weekend, including one organized by Tracy Johnson of south St. Louis, who said he can’t overemphasize the day’s importance.

“Besides an African-American’s birthday, that should be the next day they celebrate,” Johnson said.

Kelsey Thomas started the #314DayAccentChallenge to celebrate and highlight the St. Louis accent. 2018.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Kelsey Thomas celebrates 314 Day the way many St. Louisans do: she puts on a Cardinals shirt and orders some Imo’s Pizza. If she’s feeling nostalgic, she’ll tune in to Hot 104.1.

But a few years ago, she started a new tradition for March 14. To show off her city’s accent, she curated a list of words that end with an “R” sound — chair, hair, millionaire — and posted them on Twitter with the hashtag #314DayAccentChallenge. The words highlight a unique feature of a local accent that has been celebrated by St. Louis rappers and studied by linguists.

Storyteller Bobby Norfolk once worked as a park ranger at The Arch. The lack of represenation of York in the Museum of Westward Expansion helped inspire his current performance.
File photo | Provided | Bobby Norfolk

Who were the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition across the Western United States? The obvious answer is Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But many likely don't know that an enslaved African played a crucial third role.

Lewis and Clark are famous for undertaking the “Corps of Discovery” in the early 1800s. But another man, York, typically only receives a footnote in history books.

St. Louis storyteller Bobby Norfolk wants the change that. In our latest Cut & Paste arts and culture podcast, we talk with Norfolk, whose Sept. 15 storytelling event at The Link Auditorium in the Central West End focuses on York’s experience, which included adventure, hardship and terrible mistreatment.

Donna Rogers-Beard, Emma Riley and Rev. Doris Graham joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the history Clayton's historical, displaced African-American neighborhood.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Picture the affluent St. Louis suburb of Clayton. Great schools. Flourishing businesses. A lively restaurant scene.

But how Clayton came to be synonymous with such commercial affluence is entwined with a little-known part of the suburb’s history.

From the 1800s to the 1950s, Clayton was home to a flourishing African-American community. The area’s black residents were pushed out of the area through rigorous “urban renewal” zoning policy to make room construction of the vaunted commercial center of the suburb. The black community in Clayton all but disappeared.

Overgrown greenery almost entirely obscures a gravestone at which a giant white paper mache heart is positioned.
Provided by Jennifer Colten

When Terri Williams’ daughters brought home their Black History Month assignment from school, she noticed most of the historical figures were entertainers or athletes. 

This contrasted with the uniquely heroic lives she saw represented by the figures interred at Washington Park Cemetery — people like Ira Cooper, the first black police lieutenant in St. Louis, George L. Vaughn, the attorney who fought for J.D. Shelley in the Shelley vs. Kraemer court case that eliminated courts’ abilities to enforce housing segregation.

William’s learned about such figures while researching the cemetery for the new exhibit “Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery Its People and Place,” which opens at The Sheldon this weekend.

St. Louis/East St. Louis native Harry Edwards is a renowned sociologist, specializing in sports protest.
Wikimedia Commons

No one who speaks out has ever been welcomed with open arms, for the most part, even when people say things like ‘I understand the message.’ The reality is that silence has been evil’s greatest and most consistently dependable ally.

So said Dr. Harry Edwards, a prominent sociologist who specialized his research and activism in the areas of sport, race and protest, on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. He has also written several books, including “Revolt of the Black Athlete” and “The Struggle that Must Be.”

Edwards also happens to be a St. Louis native.

A traveling museum in St. Louis highlights the achievements of black inventors. From left, across: Granville T. Woods, Lonnie Johnson, Sarah Boone, George Washington Carver, Bessie Blount, Elijah McCoy, Madam CJ Walker, Marjorie Joyner, Philip Emeagwali.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1996, Loretta Ford founded the Museum of Black Inventors with the idea of highlighting the achievements of often unsung African Americans who contributed greatly to the fields of science, household goods, engineering and technology.

Housed for a while in the Central West End, the organization eventually outgrew its location and in 1998 the museum reemerged as a traveling museum and now visits schools, workplaces, and community organizations across the Midwest.

This photo of the Griot Museum of Black History at 2505 St Louis Ave. is from February 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The Urban League of St. Louis and the Griot Museum of Black History are forming an alliance that the museum’s founder hopes will keep the museum going for generations.

University of Texas Press

Aunt Jemima is a contentious figure in African-American history. She is the namesake of the famous Missouri-born pancake mix and, also, a racial epithet akin to the similarly contentious "Uncle Tom." So why did author Toni Tipton-Martin, renowned culinary writer, name her anthologized collection of African-American cookbooks after her?

Courtesy of the Hands On Black History Museum

The recent $5 million gift tech company Emerson made to the Missouri History Museum will fund the museum’s first exhibit from its initiative to improve the representation of African-American history in museum programing. The exhibit will attempt to show St. Louis' position as a leading city of the civil rights movement.

Students from the Science Center's YES program examine the slave hold at the Griot Museum of Black History. Notice the rat near the baby on the upper right-hand side.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

Fifteen-year-old Chassidy Buckner thought she had already learned all about slavery from school and her mother. But at the Griot Museum of Black History, the lesson became personal.

"Because it is my ancestors,” Buckner said.

Looking at the life-sized figures chained together in the hold beneath a slave ship is different than seeing pictures in a book.

"I didn’t know it was that cramped and with, like, blood everywhere," Buckner said.

An exhibition at the Griot Museum of Black History shows a mutiny on the deck of a slave ship.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

A new $5 million donation will help the Missouri History Museum collect and exhibit St. Louis’ African-American history. But not everyone trusts a large, mainstream institution to tell these stories.

While the History Museum thrives through such contributions and with Zoo-Museum District funding, the Griot Museum of Black History struggles to even pay its utility bills. In the weeks ahead, we’ll have a detailed report of this languishing establishment.