Florissant’s History Of Slavery Gets A Close Look In ‘In The Walnut Grove’
Today, the name William Wells Brown is mostly remembered by historians studying slavery in pre-Civil War America. But the memoir Brown published in 1847, which detailed his 17 years of bondage before escaping to freedom, was widely read in his day. Like Frederick Douglass (whose own memoir beat Brown's to publication by just two years), he also became a popular lecturer.
But only recently did researchers with the Florissant Valley Historical Society realize that some of the most harrowing incidents in Brown’s memoir took place in north St. Louis County. Brown was forced to work for a slave trader who worked a circuit including Missouri, and he details both the horror of facilitating the trade of other people like himself and the stories of enslaved people in the area whose paths intersected with him.
For Andrew J. Theising, treasurer of the historical society and the editor of its new book on slavery, “In the Walnut Grove: A Consideration of the People Enslaved in and Around Florissant, Missouri,” connecting Brown to Florissant was a revelation.
“The William Wells Brown narrative is so interesting,” he explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “In reading Brown’s work, it was very clear that he was speaking about north county. … As I was reading these names I realized, ‘That’s a north county name’ and ‘That’s a north county road.’ With a little more research it was very clear that he really was enslaved right here not far from Florissant.”
Overall, Brown had nothing good to say about the people he interacted with locally.
“I cannot find a good master in the whole city of St. Louis, because there are no good masters in the state,” he wrote.
Theising explained that “In the Walnut Grove” was inspired by the 1619 Project at the New York Times, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its examination of slavery’s role in the nation’s history.
“I was thinking after reading that series that I knew a lot about the history of slavery in St. Louis generally, but I didn’t know a lot about it in places like Florissant and elsewhere in north county,” said Theising, who is also a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. “And so I started digging. It was one interesting story after another. A lot of pieces have done small pieces of work, and this book collects it into a single work.”
Theising said the Florissant Valley Historical Society was immediately on board for the project. He cited the Ferguson Report for pushing museums and cultural institutions to examine their own histories of racism. The 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson took place just a few miles from Florissant.
“This is our contribution, really, to implementing the Ferguson Report, to be a place that starts a very important conversation,” he said.
The historical society operates Taille de Noyer, the historic home on the property of McCluer High School. The oldest sections of the stately Florissant house have been standing since at least 1790, making it one of the oldest remaining homes in St. Louis County.
In the book, the historical society stresses the need to remember the enslaved people who made homes like Taille de Noyer function.
Describing the home today, the book explains: “The back stairs of the old house show the wear of two centuries. The old hardwood treads are worn smooth and dipped in the middle. Let us remember that some of the feet on those steps did not walk there by choice, that some of the hands on the handrail were being summoned for service. It is a magnificent old house that accommodated two very different realities.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.