Famous Faces From Missouri

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum
The John William "Blind" Boone Home
Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site

Many notable people from the past once lived in the Show-Me State. Some stayed a short time; others spent most of their years here. Explore the lives of an artist, an author, an activist, a scientist, a musician, a U.S. president and so many more in the place they called home.

Josephine Baker

Born into poverty in early-20th-century St. Louis, Josephine Baker escaped segregation to reach international stardom. Recently inducted into the French Pantheon – the first Black woman to receive the honor – Baker lived her life on her own terms as an entertainer, a spy and an activist.

Josephine Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis. From a young age, she took odd jobs to help support her mother and siblings. When she was 13, she began performing around St. Louis and touring with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. She moved to New York to pursue her dancing career in earnest and eventually made her way to Paris.

In 1925, she exploded onto the scene in La Revue Nègre, becoming a star on opening night. Her vibrant dancing and shocking costumes appealed to the French, who were obsessed with American jazz culture. Baker became one of the highest paid entertainers in Europe and went on to star in two movies in the early ’30s. She visited the United States, but despite her success in Europe, American audiences wouldn’t accept her, and reviewers were exceptionally cruel. She returned to France and moved her family from St. Louis with her.

When World War II broke out, Baker worked as a spy for the French Resistance. A French spy master recruited Baker because of her fame, believing she could charm secrets out of diplomats at embassy parties. After the Nazis invaded France, Baker continued to perform in Paris and helped smuggle documents to the Free French government in London.

Baker returned to the U.S. once again in the ’50s and ’60s to support the civil rights movement. She joined Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington and spoke just before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Learn more about Baker and her extraordinary journey from St. Louis to the world at The Griot Museum of Black History where her story is included in the permanent gallery.

Buck O’Neil

Long denied their rightful place in the major leagues, Buck O’Neil and his fellow Black baseball players created their own leagues where they could showcase their talents. After the desegregation of baseball, Buck O’Neil continued to uphold the legacy of the Negro Leagues and successfully worked to get Black players from the leagues inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Born in Florida in 1911, John Jordon “Buck” O’Neil dreamed of playing baseball when he was a child. His father encouraged him to work hard and achieve his dreams. O’Neil began his baseball career in Jacksonville, Florida, at Edward Waters College. After he graduated, he played on several professional teams before joining the Kansas City Monarchs in 1938.

O’Neil was a star first baseman for the Monarchs and played on the team throughout their four-year-long winning streak in the Negro American League. He temporarily left the game to serve in the Navy during World War II, but he took his place on the field once again in 1945. After his final season, O’Neil became a manager for the Monarchs.

When the Negro Leagues disbanded and the game of baseball was desegregated, O’Neil joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout before becoming the first Black coach in Major League Baseball in 1962.

He remained passionate about telling the story of the Negro Leagues and was featured in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball.” He spearheaded efforts to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and in 2006, at 94 years old, O’Neil made a cross-country road trip to shine a spotlight on Negro Leagues baseball. Sports writer Joe Posnanski tagged along and turned his stories into a book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”

In 2021, Buck O’Neil was, at long last, elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Learn more about O’Neil and the other stars of the Negro Leagues at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museumin Kansas City.

Thomas Hart Benton

Everyday people living their lives inspired the work of Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton who became a leader in the Regionalist art movement.

Benton was born in Neosho in 1889. From the time he was a young child, he loved to draw, and the years his family spent in Washington D.C. – after his father was elected to Congress – gave him access to the city’s art. He particularly liked the murals at the Library of Congress.

Benton went on to study art in Chicago and Paris. He was living in New York City when a trip to visit his father sparked a change in the way he viewed Missouri and the Midwest. Benton painted ordinary people – working in steel mills, coal mines and cotton fields. His work also called attention to problems he saw in America, and he spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and fascism.

One of his most famous pieces is the mural, A Social History of Missouri, which wraps around the walls of the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. The mural sparked controversy because it included negative images from the state’s history including slavery, the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in 1838 and notorious political boss Tom Pendergast. You can also see Benton murals at the Inman E. Page Library on the campus of Lincoln University in Jefferson City and at Joplin City Hall.

The artist moved to Kansas City in 1935 where he lived and painted until his death 40 years later. Learn more about his life at the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

An 1894 advertisement describing Missouri as “The Land of Big Red Apples,” lured Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband Almanzo to Rocky Ridge Farm long before Wilder wrote her first book.

Generations of children grew up reading Wilder’s “Little House” books and watching Little House on the Prairie, the television show inspired by her family’s adventures.

Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1867. When she was still a baby, the family lived on a farm in north central Missouri before a series of moves to homestead in other states.

She met and married her husband Almanzo in De Smet, South Dakota, where they lived for several years before moving to Minnesota, Florida and back to De Smet. That’s when that “Big Apple” advertisement caught their attention.

Missouri was the right fit for the family, and they settled into their life at a place they named Rocky Ridge Farm. Their success at farming led Wilder to her start as a writer – she penned several articles about their farm for the Missouri Ruralist.

After many years in Mansfield, she began chronicling her life on the frontier. Those stories became the books that paint a picture of how many pioneer families lived as the country began its westward expansion.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum transports visitors into the world of the Little House books. Artifacts include tools, needlework and Pa’s fiddle. Every fan should visit at least once.

Scott Joplin

Smoothly combining African American and European influences, ragtime music paved the way for future genres of music, specifically jazz. Today, ragtime is synonymous with Scott Joplin, whose achievements left a lasting effect on American music.

Scott Joplin was born in the late 1860s in Texas. With Joplin having two musically talented parents, it came as no surprise when he began showing talent as well. As a child, he took classes with a local teacher who helped him refine his skills by emphasizing classical styles.

After playing in several bands in Texas and Chicago, he moved to Sedalia. Though he still traveled widely to perform across the country, he made time to play in local venues. He also attended George R. Smith College to continue his music education and taught up-and-coming musicians in the area.

Joplin also began publishing sheet music while in Sedalia. His most popular piano composition, the “Maple Leaf Rag,” was published at this time. More than one million copies were sold, solidifying his position as the King of Ragtime.

In 1901, Joplin moved to St. Louis where he composed ragtime productions and an opera and ballet. His works earned him acclaim from fellow musicians and critics alike. After six years in St. Louis, Joplin moved to New York in an effort to pursue more classical endeavors, including his opera Treemonisha.

Unfortunately, Treemonisha was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime – it did make it to Broadway in 1975. However, his other works inspired a revival of ragtime music in the 1940s and 1970s after interest in the genre had started to wane. In 1976, Joplin was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to American music.

Each year, Sedalia hosts the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival to celebrate the life and legacy of the King of Ragtime.

George Washington Carver

Renowned scientist, educator and humanitarian, George Washington Carver was born enslaved but rose from humble beginnings to revolutionize agriculture.

Carver was born in 1864 on a farm near Diamond that belonged to a man named Moses Carver. As an infant, George was kidnapped, along with his mother and sister (his father had died before George was born). Moses hired a neighbor to retrieve them, but only George was found. Moses and his wife raised the young boy – who eventually took the last name of Carver – and taught him to read and write.

Frail and sickly as a child, George could not do much physical labor on the farm, so he learned to cook, garden and perform other household chores. He was especially interested in plants.

He studied botany at the Iowa State Agricultural School, where he earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Agriculture degrees. He quickly received an offer from Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Carver established the agricultural curriculum at Tuskegee and conducted research that dramatically changed farming. His ideas for improving soil, including crop rotation, were especially beneficial to poor farmers who couldn’t afford to purchase fertilizer. His best known work was developing many products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1943 creating a monument to George Washington Carver – up to that time an honor reserved for presidents Washington and Lincoln. Today, you can visit the George Washington Carver National Monument, a 210-acre complex that includes a museum, nature trail and the site of the cabin where Carver was born.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens

A lifelong admiration for the Mississippi River inspired Samuel Langhorne Clemens to write some of the United States’ most notable and beloved books.

Samuel Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835 and moved with his family to Hannibal in 1839. At the age of 11 he began working as an apprentice for a local newspaper, sparking a successful, lasting career.

When he was 18, he began work as a journeyman printer in New York and Philadelphia. He returned to Missouri in 1857 to become a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. However, his time on the river was short-lived due to the outbreak of the Civil War.

After a two-week stint in a volunteer Confederate unit, Clemens followed his brother – the recently appointed secretary of the Nevada territory – to the west. While working in Nevada he first used the pen name, Mark Twain – a name he created from jargon he learned as a riverboat pilot.

He was propelled into fame by his short stories and travel writing, which led to his first book, The Innocents Abroad. After marrying and having children, Clemens settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where he wrote some of his most famous works, including those inspired by his childhood in Missouri: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Though his later life was marked by tragedy, Samuel Clemens left an indelible mark on the world. To this day he is considered “the father of American literature.”

You can learn more about his life in Missouri at the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site and the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.

John William “Blind” Boone

Faced with blindness, poverty and discrimination, John William Boone overcame many challenges to become an accomplished pianist and composer of ragtime music.

Born in central Missouri in 1864 to a young enslaved woman, Boone lost his sight as an infant, following treatment for cerebral meningitis.

Boone’s talent for music emerged at an early age. When he was 9 years old, community members came together to send him to the Missouri School for the Blind. He traveled to St. Louis to begin his education – which included music. John played “by ear,” and could perform anything he heard. On school breaks he played at church and for gatherings to earn money to help his family.

A new superintendent arrived at the school and no longer allowed black students to play the piano. When John began skipping classes to perform in saloons, he was expelled from school. At the age of 15, he met John Lange Jr., who received permission from Boone’s parents to take over John’s career and ensure his training and care.

Boone initially performed as “Blind John” throughout the Midwest. He and Lange eventually formed the Blind Boone Touring Company and adopted the motto, “Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins.” Boone’s proficiency in combining many genres – classical, folk, Negro spirituals and popular music – contributed to a new sound that came to be known as ragtime.

He later married and eventually purchased a home in Columbia but continued to travel and perform. His retirement in 1927 capped nearly 50 seasons on tour.

Explore the musician’s rich history at The John William Blind Boone Home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stan Musial

It’s not often that a baseball player with the “wrong” stance, swing and follow through becomes one of the greatest players on a team. Stan Musial was the first Cardinal in the franchise to have his jersey retired and was the first National League player to sign a $100,000 contract.

Stanislaw Franciszek Musial was born in Pennsylvania in 1920. His father, a Polish immigrant, worked as a laborer and struggled to support the family during the Great Depression. Musial worked odd jobs to help his family while going to school, but he always made time to play baseball.

Musial’s natural skill did not go unnoticed. While he was in high school in 1938, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Musial began playing in the minor leagues as a left-handed pitcher, but an injury caused him to switch to the outfield, where he excelled. He moved to the major leagues in 1941. The next season, he helped lead the Cardinals to victory in the World Series, and they won again in 1944.

World War II caused Musial to miss the 1945 season – he was drafted into the Navy. He was discharged in time to play in the 1946 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, and the Cardinals prevailed. It was his last series as a player.

Musial appeared in 24 All-Star games, won three Most Valuable Player awards, hit 475 home runs and finished his career with 3,630 hits – despite his unusual, inside-out hitting technique. Exactly half of those hits occurred at home and the other half on the road. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.

Visitors to Busch Stadium are greeted by the Stan Musial statue – the meeting place for the stadium tour. Fans can learn more about Musial at the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum across the street at Ballpark Village.

Harry S. Truman

Less than three months after Harry S. Truman became vice president of the United States, he rose to the most powerful political office in the world.

Truman was born in Lamar in 1884. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Independence.

Truman was considered a good student, but couldn’t afford to attend college. Instead, he worked on the family’s farm in Grandview and joined the National Guard.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Truman served in an artillery unit in France. Upon returning home from the war, he married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace, and held several jobs before being elected to an administrative judgeship in Jackson County and eventually to the U.S. Senate.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to seek reelection for a fourth term, he replaced his current vice president with Truman. After FDR’s death, Truman was flummoxed. He had only met with the president sporadically. He knew little about the atomic bomb but was called upon to make the controversial decision to use it to end World War II.

Truman’s significant policies included the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to Europe after the war. He also issued an executive order that desegregated the United States Armed Forces.

Learn more about America’s 33rdpresident at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, which recently underwent a $33 million renovation. Visit additional sites significant to Truman’s life including the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site in Lamar and the Harry S Truman National Historic Site, which includes the Truman Home and Noland Home in Independence and the Truman Farm Home in Grandview.

Chuck Berry

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and many more performers were influenced by Chuck Berry. However, his music did more than grace the Billboard Hot 100 charts – it helped Americans come together in spite of the racial divide of the time.

Chuck Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis. He showed musical promise in his youth, singing in his church choir and performing in high school talent shows. When Berry decided to branch out beyond his vocal abilities and began guitar lessons, he quickly became proficient and learned techniques and styles that would shape his entire career.

The next milestone in Berry’s musical career came when he joined Sir John’s Trio, a band started by a local jazz pianist. During his tenure with the group, Berry began fusing music styles to create his own unique sound. The band played at the Cosmopolitan, a popular Black nightclub in St. Louis, and they were hugely successful with both Black and white audiences.

On a trip to Chicago, Berry met one of his heroes, Muddy Waters, who recommended he make a record with Chess Records. Berry took the advice to heart, and when he next visited Chicago he brought a tape of original songs – which included the hit “Maybellene” – for the label executives. Chess Records jumped to sign him, and before long, Berry reached a new level of fame with his revolutionary music style: rock n’ roll.

In 1986, Chuck Berry became the first artist to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He helped cement St. Louis as a nationally renowned music destination, radically changed the music industry and made massive strides toward breaking the color barriers in the United States.

Visit the Chuck Berry Statue in St. Louis to pay homage to this Missouri legend.

Walter Elias Disney

Some of the world’s most beloved films were born from the incredible imagination of Walt Disney, a pioneer in the entertainment industry.

Walt Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago, but spent most of his childhood in Missouri after his family moved to Marceline in 1906. Walt’s creativity became apparent when he started selling his drawings to neighbors.

The Disney family returned to Chicago during Walt’s high school years. He honed his craft by drawing cartoons for the school paper and taking night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Following a year of service in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in France, he returned to Missouri to pursue a career as an artist. After working several different jobs, he opened his first animation studio where he created cartoons that were shown in a local theater. Despite the success of the cartoons, the studio closed in 1923 due to bankruptcy.

Not to be deterred, Disney opened a new studio – which would eventually become Walt Disney Animation Studios – in Hollywood with his brother Roy and longtime cartoonist friend Ub Iwerks. This studio introduced Mickey Mouse, iconic feature films and television series to the world. From there, he went on to open one of the most famous theme parks ever created – Disneyland.

Disney’s childhood in Marceline played an important role in his life, and its impact can be seen in some of his work. Disneyland’s Main Street USA was inspired by his memories of Marceline, and the film “So Dear to My Heart” borrowed heavily from his personal experiences as a child in Missouri.

Go where the magic began and see if you can uncover some for yourself at Walt Disney Hometown Museum.

Molly Brown

A woman from Hannibal was among the 712 people who survived the Titanic disaster. Known as “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown,” she devoted much time to improving the life of others.

Brown was born in Hannibal in 1867 and attended her aunt’s private school until she was 13 and began working long days at a local factory. When her sister and brother moved to Colorado, she followed.

She married a man who was superintendent at a mining company that eventually discovered veins of gold and silver in its Little Johnny Mine. The Browns’ newfound wealth allowed them to move to Denver, where Molly became active in social causes, supported charities and worked to help women and children in need.

A love of travel undoubtedly led to her fame. Brown was in France in 1912 when she learned that her grandson was ill. She booked a trip home on the inaugural voyage of the RMS Titanic. When the ship hit an iceberg and began to sink, she helped other passengers into a lifeboat and worked to maintain their morale until they were rescued.

Brown continued to live a life filled with civic engagement. When the Colorado National Guard clashed with striking coal miners, she brought worldwide attention to the “Ludlow Massacre.” During WWI, she donated her summer home in Rhode Island to the Red Cross to support the war effort and later traveled to France to work on relief issues.

Accounts vary on whether or not she actually called herself “unsinkable,” but the term stuck and was used in a Broadway production, movie and many books about her life.

You can learn more about her life at the Molly Brown Birthplace & Museum.

Walter Cronkite

An article describing the life of a foreign news correspondent inspired a young Walter Cronkite to pursue a now-legendary career in journalism. His straightforward and sincere reporting of some of the biggest news stories of his time earned Cronkite the title of “The Most Trusted Man in America.”

Born in St. Joseph in 1916, Walter Cronkite spent much of his youth in Kansas City before his family moved to Houston in 1927. His first experience with journalism began when he joined the staff of his middle school newspaper.

In 1937, Cronkite was able to achieve his childhood dream of becoming a foreign correspondent when he was hired by the United Press. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was sent to Europe to cover the United States’ involvement in World War II. While in Europe, he went on bombing missions, reported on the Battle of the Bulge from behind enemy lines and covered the Nuremburg trials after the conclusion of the war.

Upon his return to the United States, Cronkite began working as a television reporter and accepted a position as a news anchor for CBS in 1950. It was in this position that he became a household name. Major elections, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Apollo Space Program were among the issues he covered on the CBS Evening News.

In 1972, an independent poll named Cronkite “The Most Trusted Man in America.” By the time of his retirement from CBS Evening News in 1981, Cronkite had cemented his place as one of the greatest and most reliable news anchors of all time. He received awards for journalistic excellence, won multiple Emmy awards, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.