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Missouri Became A Slave State 200 Years Ago, With Grave Consequences For Black Residents

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Screenshot from the 2021 Mary Meachum Celebration
Angela da Silva is a local historian, preservationist and teacher. She was born and raised on a farm in northwest O’Fallon, Missouri, on land where her ancestors were enslaved.

It’s gone down in history books as the Missouri Compromise. In Thomas Jefferson’s letter to a friend in April 1820, the bitter debate leading up to it is remembered as “this momentous question” — the question of whether the United States would admit Missouri into the union as a slave state.

Missouri Became A Slave State 200 Years Ago, With Grave Consequences For Black Residents
Listen as two historians discuss Missouri's bicentennial.

The aging former president (and slaveholder) compared it to “a fire bell in the night [that] awakened and filled me with terror.”

“I considered it at once as the knell of the Union,” Jefferson wrote. “It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence."

By January 1818, Missouri had met the population threshold and other requirements for statehood, and territory leaders petitioned Congress accordingly. But lawmakers in Washington objected to the idea of establishing a new state if Black people could not live freely within its borders.

Three and a half years later, though, on Aug. 10, 1821, Missouri would become the 24th state — the first located west of the Mississippi River and the 12th to allow slavery.

“What happened was that the South got another slave state, but what the North got was a series of laws and protections as an avenue for Blacks to work their way into the court system,” explained St. Louis-based historian and teacher Angela da Silva.

The complicated outcome also involved the Mason-Dixon Line, which delineated the nation’s slave states from its free ones. The U.S. outlawed slavery anywhere above the line — except in Missouri.

“When we talk about a state depending upon the question of slavery, this is immense,” da Silva said of this moment in history. “This is not some concept that sits on a shelf somewhere. This affected people’s lives and who would move here.”

Those real-world consequences are the focus of the 2021 Mary Meachum Celebration, the latest iteration of an annual effort spearheaded by da Silva. In a virtual presentation available on the Great Rivers Greenway website and on YouTube, da Silva and a cast of characters detail and reenact the lives of several people of color whose journeys intersected with the Missouri’s statehood and legalization of slavery.

2021 Mary Meachum Celebration - Missouri: Slave or Free?

On Tuesday’s show, da Silva joined host Sarah Fenske in observation of the state’s bicentennial and shed more light on its early history.

Steve Belko also joined the program, ahead of da Silva, to shed light on some points of pride for the state, and to commemorate the events around the region in honor of the bicentennial. He is the executive director of Missouri Humanities Council and a member of the Missouri Bicentennial Alliance.

“Our wealth of people that have contributed to not just the state, but the national history, and I mean, literature and music and art to the military, its defense, agriculture, commerce — I put it up against any other state. It gives new meaning to ‘Show Me.’ … Missouri is just not a flyover state,” he said.

“I think the founding generation, between point A and point B would say, ‘Well, we've come a long way.’”

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.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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