One brisk Tuesday, I climbed the stairs of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, following the path of Missouri's most famous slave. Past the towering pillars hung portraits of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, looking at once stern and refined. A plaque offered details of their famous saga: the 1847 legal battle for freedom that was launched on this site; the 1857 Supreme Court appeal; the verdict denying the Scotts' request and stripping them--and all black Americans--of their rights.
The following Saturday found me nearby at the Black Repertory Theater for a staging of "Seven Guitars," the latest work by August Wilson. A poignant look at a black neighborhood in postwar Pittsburgh, it was written with the fiery pen of a black playwright and performed by an all-star black cast, in one of the country's leading showcases for ethnic drama.During the journey in between--past the corn and tobacco fields sprawled across Missouri, through a town named after a freed slave and another with an antebellum school for blacks--I ventured deep into the roots of African-American culture. In Lexington, the scene of a fierce Civil War clash, bullet-ridden antebellum mansions and abandoned slave cabins marked the spot where a story ended. In Kansas City, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum documented the lives of Satchel Paige and other baseball icons. Just across the state border in Leavenworth, Kan., a bronze horseman memorialized the Buffalo Soldiers, an elite group of African-American cavalrymen deployed in battles between the late 1860s and the 1950s.
Missouri, whose population of 5.5 million is about 12 percent African-American, isn't the first place you'd think to go looking for black culture. But the road from St. Louis to Kansas City offered the chance for me to learn about the heroes and other characters of my grandfather's generation.
In St. Louis' Chestnut Valley, for example, a spurned Frankie Baker in 1899 gunned down Albert "Johnnie" Britt, her 16-year-old lover, inspiring one of the most famous blues songs of the 20th century, "Frankie and Johnnie."
The tiny village of Mexico, Mo., is where a former slave named Tom Bass learned the horse trade and eventually became one of the world's best-known trainers.
In Saline County, Mo., Joseph Penny, another emancipated slave, bought 16 acres from his former master and turned it into the country's first incorporated black town.
Before taking to the road, I visited venues featuring some of St. Louis' best-known African-Americans. After touring the Dred Scott exhibition, I headed to the small apartment where ragtime composer Scott Joplin lived around the turn of the century. Here I saw the small, modestly furnished rooms where he wrote and entertained guests.
The heavy oak door to Pleasant Green, a restored antebellum mansion in the tiny town of Boonville, took us a century and a half into the past. After sherry and homemade desserts with Florence "Winky" Friedrichs, whose family has owned the mansion for five generations, we were offered a tour of the place, which is open to the public by appointment. Built in 1818, the Federal-style manse has 11 rooms, complete with a parlor, den and bedrooms with wood-beamed ceilings.
Out back was a tiny log structure, the last remaining dwelling of five cabins where the slaves once lived. In 1863, the family owned 17 slaves, according to a document Winky showed us. It listed the net value of each--$250 for a 39-year-old named Tom, $150 for 17-year-old William, $0 for a 6-year-old child. In all they were valued at $9,009.
This was "Little Dixie," seven counties stretched across northern Missouri. They got the name because of the heavy ownership of slaves by locals during the 1800s. Before the Civil War, the three major cash crops in the region were hemp, tobacco and slave breeding, according to historical records. In 1860, census reports show, the area slave population ranged from 24 to 52 percent.
Violence against slaves was apparently commonplace. A plaque in the visitors center in Lexington detailed one such case: In 1856, Josephus Hicklin lashed one of his slaves, then beat him with clubs, and rubbed cayenne pepper and tobacco in his eyes until he died.
Such incidents transformed Lexington County into an early battleground between slaveholders and abolitionists. Da Silva explained how antislave activists developed an underground railroad to sneak slaves across the border into anti-slavery Kansas.
The corner of 18th and Vine Streets in Kansas City, the scene of many a Saturday night hoe-down and impromptu street soirees in the 1930s and '40s, is now little more than a scattering of low-rise buildings. In the midst of it all, however, are the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, both moving reminders of the day when this was a lively stronghold of black culture.
The plaques, videos and memorabilia in the baseball museum take you through one of the most remarkable chapters of American sports history: from the banning of blacks in white-owned teams in the 1920s, through the creation of an all-black league and the rise of all-black teams like the Kansas City Monarchs and players such as Jackie Robinson to the heights of American sports stardom. There's a statue of Rube Foster, the league's burly founder, balls pitched by Satchel Paige and a bat wielded by Jack "Buck" O'Neil. But the highlight is the "Field of Legends," a lifesize re-creation of a ballpark with bronze statues of the league's first 10 players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Upstate New York.
The American Jazz Museum, across the hallway in the same building, is a tribute to the characters who strummed their fingers weary and puffed their lungs dry until jazz became America's classical music. Here are interactive exhibits about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz giants, as well as recordings of everyone from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
After nourishing myself for three hours with sports and music history, I was hungry for real food. Gates Barbecue, one of the city's oldest black-owned restaurants, was the perfect response. A platter of ribs and chicken, hickory-smoked and drenched in sauce, and my day felt complete.
Back in St. Louis, I went to the Calvary Cemetery, an expanse of green dotted with towering ornate headstones. I stopped at one with a simple cross at the top and these words underneath: "Dred Scott, born about 1799, died September 17, 1858. Freed from slavery by his friend Taylor Blow." The other side noted how Scott's legal battle for freedom had helped precipitate the Civil War.
From the sorrowful scenes of slavery to the sites where sports and music stars made their euphoric rise, I had taken in about as broad a swath of history as any trip could offer. It's a journey every traveler should make.
Black history in Missouri
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