The ‘Show Me’ State’s Black Heritage Trail
St. Louis, Missouri
From the Gateway Arch, the city’s signature attraction, to the Old Court House, St. Louis is showing off the contributions of African Americans. Most people are familiar with the city’s signature Gateway Arch, but did you know that it honors blacks who played significant roles in the founding of the American West? Located at the base of the arch is the Museum of Westward Expansion, where there is a tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers and other black pioneers who helped settle the western plain. And at the St. Louis Old Courthouse, where the historic Dred Scott freedom trial took place, there is an exhibition on Scott’s life and details on this historical trial. The Old Court House is where Scott sued for his freedom and won, bringing 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. Many stories and documented events of St Louis’ Underground Railroad have been noted and passed down through the years. 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. Even though Missouri was a slave state, the Black population built churches, organized Underground Railroad stops and provided relief efforts for the thousands of Blacks displaced by the Civil War. St. Louis had a large “free” Black population known as the “Colored Aristocracy” who owned their own homes and had their own businesses. Since early days, Blacks in St. Louis have continued to make their marks in all fields including politics, science, business, theater, music, sports and other areas.
When visiting St. Louis, aside from entertainment and fun, you must do The Black Heritage Trail. An important site on the trail is the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, in honor of those who risked their lives to help others escape to freedom. Named after a free black woman who helped slaves escape, the site is the first in Missouri added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a listing of 64 Underground Railroad sites in 20 states. A plaque on St. Louis Riverfront just North of Merchants Bridge marks the place where about nine slaves were caught and Meachum was charged with trying to help them escape. What happened to her has remained a mystery.
Another must visit black heritage site is the George Washington Carver Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Named for the great ‘plant doctor’, the inspirational garden is lined with paths containing inspirational inscriptions from Carver’s writings and speeches. The garden also features a reflecting pool, small amphitheatre and plantings including sweet potatoes, Carvers most noted experimental plant. As a very appropriate tribute to Carver, the garden also serves as a learning laboratory for students of all ages. Born a slave in Diamond Grove, Mo., near the end of the Civil War, Carver went on to become a scientist, educator and humanitarian. An exhibit that features more than 100 artifacts and tells the story of his life, discoveries and impact on current plant-based research is at the St. Louis Carver House.
George Washington Carver is also honored at the Black World History Museum, where there is documentation and exhibits on the contributions of African Americans from Missouri. A wax figure of Carver and other notables like Josephine Baker are located at this museum, which is one of only two of its kind in the country. Here you can also learn more about the history of slavery and view depictions of black life in Missouri during pre- and post- Civil War years. You can also learn about black life from colonial times to the present at the Missouri History Museum where there is the three-gallery exhibit, “Seeking St. Louis” that contains documents and exhibits of the lives of people who lived in the St. Louis area.
St. Louis pays tributes to black achievements throughout the city. At the St. Louis Walk of Fame, you will find stars and plaques honoring notables like Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Red Foxx and Tina Turner. The city honors the Negro Baseball League and black sport pioneers like Lou Brock and Bob Gibson with displays at the Cardinal Hall of Fame. The Lambert-St. Louis Airport sports a 51-foot mural that chronicles the achievements of blacks in aviation from 1917 to the present in the lower level of the main terminal. This “Black Americans in Flight” mural boasts portraits of three black Astronauts, Guion Bluford, Mae Jemison and Ronald McNair.
While enjoying St. Louis, you must catch a performance by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, the nation’s largest professional African American theatre company. Also, be sure to visit the majestically beautiful Calvary Cemetery, where upon entering you’ll understand why it is one of the most photographed cemeteries in the US and probably the world. Dred Scott and a few other notable blacks are buried here. St. Louis is known for Ragtime music, and you can learn more about the music at a historic second floor flat where ragtime composer Scott Joplin spent the most productive three years of his life.
You can’t leave without hearing something about its legendary locals and early street life here.You have probably never heard of a female entrepreneur named Pelagie (Wren) Rutgers who many claimed was the real first black female millionaire. She grew up in a low-life neighborhood, but went on to help shape the history of certain parts of the greater St. Louis community. You can also learn about the legendary song “Frankie and Johnny” and how it originated in a ‘red light’ section of St. Louis. Find out how bordello owner “Babe” Connors, who had a shady and controversial life, ended up popular and wealthy enough to earn a gravesite in the prestigious Calvary Cemetery. Her story is juicy! 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. Learn about these stories and more by doing the historic tour with National Black Tourism Network.
Kitty J. Pope
Photo Courtesy: Kitty Pope
For more information on visiting St. Louis and doing the black heritage tour,