Show me St. Louis! Missouri’s ‘Gateway to the West’ reveals its black heritage trail and celebrates a long tradition of African American culture.
From the Gateway Arch to the Old Courthouse, thriving St. Louis can’t seem to stop showing off the contributions of people of African descent.
I recently visited the city to do the black heritage trail there, and I got more than what I bargained for when I learned some interesting historical facts along with some of its best kept little secrets regarding black contributions.
For instance, most people know that the city’s signature attraction, the Gateway Arch was built to honor those who made the westward journey possible, including blacks who played significant roles in the founding of the American West. But did you know that St. Louis has progressed along its ‘black heritage trail’ with a special tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers (original enlisted black cavalry regiments) and other black pioneers who helped settle the western plain? A display honoring them is located in the Museum of Westward Expansion at the base of the arch.
One of St. Louis’ other most famous attractions, the Old Courthouse, where the historic Dred Scott freedom trial took place is one of the foremost historical black heritage sites in the nation. This is where Scott, who had lived for a time in free territory, sued for his freedom and won. Even though that decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court, Scott still gained his freedom before he died when he was purchased and freed by a fellow St. Louisan named Taylor Blow.
During our tour with the National Black Tourism Network, led by Angela De Silva, one little secret revealed to us is that the Dred Scott law suit was originally against his mistress for assault. This is actually how Scott really started his law suit for freedom which went on to bring national attention to the slavery debate.
A town that started as a French fur-trading post in 1764, St. Louis grew into a thriving city in a slave state that was just across the Mississippi River from the free state of Illinois. This made it an important pivotal point in the Underground Railroad network. Even though Missouri was a slave state, Blacks in St. Louis built churches, organized Underground Railroad stops, provided relief efforts for the thousands of Blacks displaced by the Civil War, and made other great strides. The oldest building in St. Louis, the Collins Building was built by slaves, and even the cobblestone that much of the city sits on was made by slaves.
St. Louis had a large “free” Black population known as the “Colored Aristocracy” that were sophisticated and quite well-off. Some free Blacks once owned a coffee house on the Levee, as early as 1840’s and there were others able to purchase property and businesses. The names and accomplishments of some even appear on the city’s original charter.
St. Louis has continuously established various black heritage sites throughout the city to honor those who struggled to gain freedom and make great strides. One such site is the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, in honor of those who risked their lives to help others gain freedom. Named after a free black woman who helped slaves escape, the site was the first in Missouri to be added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a listing of 64 Underground Railroad sites in 20 states.
The community has erected a plaque at the St. Louis Riverfront just north of Merchants Bridge to mark the place where about eight or nine slaves were caught before boarding a boat to escape to freedom. Meachum was charged in criminal court for trying to help them escape. What happened to her as a result has remained a secret mystery.
One world famous black that St. Louis is particularly proud to honor is George Washington Carver. You will find a garden named for the great scientist and ‘plant doctor’ at the Missouri Botanical Garden. St. Louis is also home to the George Washington Carver House where there is an exhibit that features more than 1oo artifacts of the story of his life and many of his discoveries that have an impact on current plant-based research still today. Carver is also honored at the Black World History Museum, where there is also documentations and exhibits on the contributions of other African Americans from Missouri. Life -size wax figures of Carver and other noted achievers like Josephine Baker, Dred Scott and Madame CJ Walker found here makes the museum one of only two of its kind in the country. At the Black World History Museum you can also learn more about the history of slavery and observe depictions of black life in Missouri during pre- and post Civil War years.
Other tourist attractions to visit with tributes to notable blacks include the St. Louis Walk of Fame where you will find stars and plaques honoring notables like Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Red Foxx and Tina Turner. For tributes to great blacks in baseball, visit the Cardinal Hall of Fame where there are displays honoring the Negro Baseball League and other black sport pioneers like Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Also worth a visit is the Lambert-St. Louis Airport where a 51-foot mural chronicling the achievements of blacks in aviation from 1917 to the present is displayed in the lower level of the main terminal. This “Black Americans in Flight” mural also shows off portraits of three black Astronauts, Guion Bluford, Mae Jemison and Ronald McNair.
At my visit, I celebrated the 100th birthday of the legendary choreographer Katherine Dunham at The Missouri History Museum. Historians salute Dunham as the “Queen Mother of Black Dance” due to her many contributions to modern dance. She died in 2006 at the age of 96, but her legacy is celebrated.
Other stops on your tour should include the St. Louis Grand Center in the arts and entertainment district where you can catch a performance by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, the largest professional African American theatre company in the country. If you visit the majestically beautiful Calvary Cemetery, where Dred Scott and a few other notable blacks are buried, you’ll understand why it is one of the most photographed cemeteries in the country and probably the world.
Another interesting aspect of St. Louis’ black heritage trail is the Scott Joplin State Historic Site, where the ragtime composer spent the most productive three years of his life in the second floor flat. A stop that would be well-worth your time is the St. Louis Art Museum where you can see impressive works of African Art.
You can’t leave the Gateway city without learning about some other tidbits of St. Louis’ little secrets in black history. Though some of it may be legendary and not so flattering, other parts just verify the real story. Angela, our tour guide, whom we dubbed a great narrator/storyteller, really gave us the ‘scoop’. Did you know that St. Louis is where Arthur Ashe first learned to play tennis? And you probably never heard of a female entrepreneur named Pelagie (Wren) Rutgers. A relentless heroine who may or may not have been the nation’s real first black female millionaire along with Madame CJ Walker, Pelagie made interesting contributions that helped to shape the history of the St. Louis communities. Her rags-to-riches story has many not-so-flattering twists.
The juicy stories and secrets don’t stop here. You’d be surprised to learn that Missourians Frank and Jesse James were raised with two black siblings, which is why the legendary outlaw brothers later helped to support a black school. Interesting? You’ll have to do the tour with Angie to find out more about the diverse communities of St. Louis and Missouri.
Speaking of communities, the Chestnut Community, once a ‘red-light’ district in St. Louis contains some most interesting best kept secrets. This is where the legendary song “Frankie and Johnny” originated. Most people don’t know that the song is based on a true story about feuding black lovers. Frankie ended up killing Johnny, leading poet Carl Sandberg to write “that if America had a national gutter song, Frankie and Johnny was it”.
We got to visit the Chestnut Valley neighborhood where this happened. The Library of Congress wrote that 80% of what passes for pure American Folklore, comes out the just 17 square blocks of the black Chestnut Valley community, where ragtime dance music was also born.
Another curious story from the Chestnut Valley area is of bordello owner “Babe” Connors, who had a shady, controversial life, but ended up popular and wealthy enough to earn a gravesite in the prestigious Calvary Cemetery. It has been said that Babe’s night spot was where the song “Ta Ra Ra Boom-De-Ay” was first heard, instead of having French origin as believed. Allegedly famed composer Theodore Metz first heard “There’ll be a Hot Time in The Old Town Tonight” at Babe’s brothel also.
If you want to learn more about these stories and the St. Louis African Diaspora Heritage Trail, you must do the tour with the National Black Tourism Network. Visitors will find lots of interesting facts at the Explore St. Louis site and can get more information on St. Louis and its black heritage.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.