From Emancipation to Equality – Civil Rights in Missouri

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Visit the Dred and Harriet Scott statue in front of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Soldiers Memorial Plaza at Lincoln University of Missouri
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum located in Kansas City
American Jazz Museum located in Kansas City

Sunday, June 19 is Juneteenth – also known as Emancipation Day. For the unaware, Juneteenth dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, stating that all enslaved people in the state were free. This was two and half years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.

While Juneteenth is indeed a celebration, the occasion also provides an opportunity to learn more about the path from freedom to equality. You can experience many parts of that journey at various sites around Missouri. Three of those sites are part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.  While some of the stories commemorated at these sites do not chronologically fall within what we think of as the modern civil rights era, they helped to lay the foundation for what was to come.

Launched in January 2018, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail tells stories of the struggle for equality and justice in America. One of the earliest is the story of Dred and Harriet Scott. Enslaved in St. Louis, the Scotts had traveled with the family that owned them to Wisconsin, a free territory. Eventually the Scotts returned to St. Louis.

Some versions of the story say Scott wanted to buy his freedom and was refused; other versions say he was worried the widow of the man who had owned him would sell him. The outcome was that Scott sued for his freedom.

Multiple trials in St. Louis eventually ended up at the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled that Scott had no legal standing to sue, as he was considered property. This finding in 1857 inflamed tensions, and is considered to be one of the triggers of the Civil War.

The Old Courthouse in St. Louis is currently undergoing renovations, but when it is complete guests can learn about the Dred Scott case and its relevance today in the Northeast Gallery. The Old Courthouse itself is listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The Dred Scott lawsuits were the first in a long line of legal actions that helped advance civil rights.  Several other Missouri lawsuits addressing education helped pave the way for the historic Kansas case, Brown v Board of Education, which finally ended segregation in schools.

Missouri had previously outlawed teaching Black individuals how to read and write. During the Civil War, many of the Black men who escaped enslavement joined the army where they learned to read and write while serving. A group of those men wanted to ensure that other newly freed Black people got the same opportunity. In 1866, the men of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries pooled their money to start the school that would become Lincoln University of Missouri. They raised more than $5,000; some pledged a year’s salary. A bronze statue on Soldiers Memorial Plaza commemorates the men’s dedication to education.

Lincoln University empowered generations, including one man who helped advance the cause of civil rights by taking on the systems that were determined to deny him access to pursuing his dreams past his undergraduate degree.

In 1938, Lloyd Gaines, a graduate of Lincoln University of Missouri, the state’s Black university, filed suit because he had been denied admission to the law school at the University of Missouri. Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 had established the practice of “separate but equal,” and the state’s practice was to pay for students to attend law school out of state rather than integrate. Gaines sued, claiming a violation of the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection for all.

Gaines’ lawsuit was the first to begin chipping away at legal segregation. The Supreme Court ruled in Gaines’ favor, but he mysteriously disappeared one night and was never seen again. The Lincoln University Archives and Ethnic Studies Center, which are located in the Inman Page Library, has curated an exhibit on his life. The University of Missouri renamed the Black culture center on the Columbia campus the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after him and another pioneer, Marian Oldham, in 2000. In 2006, the law school awarded Gaines an honorary law degree.

Yet another lawsuit would be filed in 1939 against the University of Missouri. Having received a degree from the University of Kansas, Lucille Bluford applied and was accepted to attend the University of Missouri School of Journalism to pursue a master’s degree. When she arrived, she was turned away due to her race. After several suits, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1941. The university then closed its graduate program.

After a successful career at the Kansas City Call, Bluford was presented with an Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism in 1984 and an honorary doctorate in 1989 by the School of Journalism.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is another of Missouri’s stops on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. Once World War II ended, many Black soldiers who returned from serving found that little had changed in the South. Isaac Woodward, Jr., a decorated, honorably discharged soldier was traveling home when a verbal exchange occurred at a rest stop. The bus driver complained to police, who pulled Woodward from the vehicle, beat him and jailed him. Woodward was blinded in the attack. The police chief later testified that Woodward was beaten for saying “yes,” instead of “yes sir.” The chief was acquitted by an all-white jury.

News of this attack and others, including one that resulted in a soldier and his pregnant wife being killed, moved President Truman to take action. In 1948, after much debate and discussion, the president issued Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the armed forces. The order is on display at the museum.

But there’s one more story that should be shared when looking at civil rights history and Missouri: Negro Leagues Baseball. Many may not realize that integrated teams in baseball existed until around 1900 when “Jim Crow,” the name for the laws that created and enforced legal segregation, forced players to separate by race.

Black players formed their own teams and traveled the country until 1920, when Andrew “Rube” Foster convened a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. Foster and a few other Midwestern team owners formed the National Negro Leagues. The league grew and became a source for economic development in Black communities. Because legal segregation meant Black people and white people could not eat in the same places or stay in the same lodging, many businesses grew – along with the league –to provide services for the Black players and fans.

When Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers drafted Jackie Robinson, a promising young player with the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs, it was an advancement in civil rights, but it marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

Take in all of this history at Missouri’s third stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail – the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
in Kansas City, in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District, around the corner from the YMCA where it all began. The museum shares space with the American Jazz Museum.  While jazz may have been born in New Orleans, it grew up in Kansas City. But that’s a story for another day.

Written by Lori Simms