Guide to African American Experience in Missouri

Resources for African American History Research

The story of the African American experience in Missouri is told through the personal papers of individuals and families as well as the records of black organizations and churches. Civil War pensions shed light on the aftermath of the war, while photographs, letters, scrapbooks, writings, and newspapers provide insight into the daily life of African Americans living in the state. The State Historical Society of Missouri is pleased to make available online these rich resources that document their lives as Missourians.

A Brief History

Since the first French settlers came to the region we know now as Missouri in the 1700s, African Americans have played a substantial role in the state's history. Initially brought here as slaves to work in the mines of southeast Missouri, they also served as farm laborers, servants, seamstresses, nursemaids, cooks, and common laborers. A small number of free blacks also lived in Missouri during the antebellum period, concentrated primarily in St. Louis. During the latter years of the Civil War, thousands of African Americans joined the Union war effort as a way of gaining their own personal freedom, but also as a way of ending slavery in the state and nation.

With freedom came new struggles. As a border state settled largely by emigrants from the South, Missouri remained very racially divided in the Post-Civil War era, well into the twentieth century. Civil rights leaders such as James Milton Turner fought for educational opportunity as well as full rights of citizenship for freedmen, while black residents of communities such as Pennytown, Morocco, and Eldridge sought to escape oppression and seek economic opportunity through the solidarity of numbers.  African Americans created their own schools, churches and fraternal and sisterhood organizations as a way of taking control of their lives and their futures.

Missouri's two major cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, attracted large numbers of Great Migration migrants during the era of World War I through World War II.  Black suburbs such as Kinloch in St. Louis and Leeds in Kansas City emerged as important transitional communities that helped rural African Americans adjust to urban life. Thanks to educational opportunities offered by all-black Lincoln Institute (later Lincoln University), African Americans began entering a variety of professions as scientists, businesspeople, educators, musicians, entertainers, writers, and athletes. They also founded their own newspapers such as the Kansas City Call, the St. Louis American, the Weekly Conservator (Sedalia), and the Professional World (Columbia). Lawsuits brought by students such as Lloyd Gaines and Lucile Bluford paved the way for African Americans to attend the University of Missouri, while the St. Louis-based Shelley v. Kraemer case (1948) challenged racial segregation in neighborhoods throughout the state and nation.

During the Civil Rights Era, African Americans intensified their fight for the same rights held by whites. Civil Rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, and, later, the Congress on Racial Equality led the way as African Americans and their supporters sought to integrate schools, restaurants, hotels, restrooms, and other public spaces.