The Legacy of Black Literature in Missouri

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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Storytellers have always held a place of honor in society. Through their words they create new worlds, share lessons they’ve learned and help us understand ourselves and those around us.

Missouri has been home to masterful Black writers who used their talents to entertain, record their unique perspectives and usher social change. Their works give us intimate insight into the writer’s thoughts, feelings, struggles and hopes.

Maya Angelou

Born in St. Louis in 1928, Maya Angelou broke into the public zeitgeist in 1969 when she released her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – a raw recounting of her early life in St. Louis and Arkansas. Angelou is best known for her writing style and boldness when addressing issues such as childhood abuse, trauma and racism. A prolific writer, Angelou authored volumes of poetry, essay collections and seven autobiographies. She won Grammy awards in 1993, 1995 and 2002 in the Best Spoken Word Album category.

In addition to writing, Angelou also had a successful career as an actor, director and producer. She became the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced as a film when Georgia, Georgia was released in 1972.

Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama.

Langston Hughes

Raised in Joplin, Langston Hughes discovered his love for writing at a young age. He began establishing a name for himself when one of his poems was published shortly after his high school graduation. However, the positive reviews and localized buzz would pale in comparison to his future as one of the trailblazers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hughes moved to Harlem in the early 1920s – though he continued to travel extensively – where he made connections with well-known Black artists, including Zora Neale Hurston. The friendships he forged helped him to further develop his writing and use his work to bring about social change.

Today, Langston Hughes is known for promoting racial justice and sharing a deeply dimensional look into the lives of Black Americans in the 1930s to the 1960s.

Lucille Bluford

A promising young writer, Lucille Bluford earned a journalism degree at the University of Kansas because Missouri’s only Black university at the time, Lincoln University, did not offer a journalism program. In 1939, she applied to the University of Missouri to pursue a graduate degree. Initially she was accepted, but ultimately she was denied admission due to her race.

With the support of the NAACP, Bluford filed several lawsuits against the university as she tried many times to enroll but was continuously denied. In 1941, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in her favor, but shortly after the ruling, the university discontinued its graduate degree program in journalism.

Though she never attended the University of Missouri, Bluford wrote for the Kansas City Call, a popular Black newspaper, where she documented her legal journey. During her 71 years at The Call, she condemned discrimination in education, housing and employment and became known as the “Conscience of Kansas City.”

The Kansas City Call and The St. Louis American

In both Kansas City and St. Louis, newspapers were created for the specific purpose of amplifying the voices of Black residents.

Chester Arthur Franklin, founder of the Kansas City Call, moved to Kansas City in 1913. His parents had established several newspapers in nearby states, so Franklin was well-prepared to start his own newspaper to represent Kansas City’s Black community.

The first edition of the paper, often referred to as The Call, was published on May 6, 1919. As the newspaper’s reputation grew over time, it became known as one of the most successful Black newspapers in the nation. Articles in The Call advocated for Black citizens and brought attention to pressing civil rights issues.

After Franklin’s death in 1955, his wife Ada and Lucille Bluford became co-owners of the paper, which is still in operation today.

On the other side of the state, Judge Nathan B. Young and local Black businessmen founded The St. Louis American in 1928. It was created to focus on issues important to Black citizens in St. Louis and the country as a whole.

The newspaper was housed in one of the city’s Black business hubs, the People’s Finance Building. From its headquarters, the publication covered the civil rights movement and its leaders. Prominent figures like A. Phillip Randolph and Malcolm X visited the paper and contributed stories.

Today, The St. Louis American is the largest weekly newspaper in Missouri.

Jim – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

While the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is fictional, there is no denying that he has had an impact on society. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – one Mark Twain‘s most celebrated works – is a social commentary that tells the story of Huck, a poor white boy, and Jim, a Black slave on the run, as they journey down the Mississippi River on a raft.

Portrayed as a caring and loyal friend, Jim educates Huck about the harsh realities of slavery and opens his eyes to the humanity of enslaved people. The story explores multiple themes, including compassion for others regardless of race or social class.

The novel generated debate about whether the portrayal of Jim is stereotypically racist, or if Jim, through his positive character traits, helps Huck mature. Ultimately, the controversy surrounding Jim opened up important conversations about race and humanity.

Twain famously spent his boyhood years in Hannibal where Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center, the town’s first African American history museum, stands as a memorial to Daniel Quarles, the real man behind the character of Jim.