This is the second part of an unpublished essay on African American history in St. Louis that I wrote in the late 1990s. The third part will be published on The Write Fox Blog soon.
When Auguste Chouteau began building St. Louis in 1764 under orders from Pierre Laclède, the new town was part of French colonial Missouri. As such, it was subject to the Code Noir (Black Code), issued by King Louis XIV in 1685.
Under the Code, enslaved blacks were considered property, but they also enjoyed protection from unwarranted cruelty and disruption of their families. As historians Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary R. Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland point out in Missouri’s Black Heritage, these protections were more de jure than de facto under both French and Spanish colonial rule—“Ultimately,” they write, “the masters wielded the real power over how their slaves would be treated.”
As Spain began to exert more power over the colony of St. Louis, the everyday lives of slaves came under more rigid control. For example, on August 12, 1781, Spanish lieutenant governor Don Francisco Cruzat laid down the law concerning the “unruly conduct” of St. Louis slaves. Cruzat’s order forbade slaves from holding “any assembly at night, in the cabins or elsewhere,” under penalty of “fifty blows from the lash . . . [or] a more severe punishment according to the result of said assemblies.” Furthermore, Cruzat declared, slaves were not to dance, go out at night without their masters’ permission, or “receive in their cabins other slaves, except those who belong to their own masters.”
Three days later, he issued another order that forbade “negroes who belong to this post” from dressing “in barbarous fashion, adorning themselves with vermilion and many feathers, which render them unrecognizable, especially in the woods.” Though his rationale for this last order was to prevent blacks and “savages” from being accidentally shot, the law indicated that Spain was seeking more control over the colony and its black inhabitants, both free and slave.
African Americans had several avenues to freedom during the colonial period, but few of them involved personal choice. For example, slaves sometimes won freedom through their masters’ wills. This arrangement guaranteed the master a slave’s loyalty in life while it cost the slaveowner nothing in death. Black or mulatto mistresses of slaveholders might also be granted freedom, which could then extend to children of the union. However a black person attained freedom, he or she remained a threat to the institution of slavery and to the new colony’s power structure. The threat only grew as more settlers moved to the state, increasing the need for an efficient, controlled slave labor force.
By 1810, the Missouri Territory counted 607 free blacks and 3,011 slaves; when Missouri became a state in 1821, its slave population had increased to 9,797, while only 376 blacks were free. Of course, these figures should be considered in context. In the early nineteenth century, Missouri’s statehood became a bargaining chip in the war of words between antislavery Northerners and proslavery Southerners. Under the 1820 “Missouri Compromise” negotiated by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Missouri was to be admitted to the Union as a “slave state,” and Maine would be admitted as a “free state,” thus maintaining the balance between free and slave states. The compromise also prohibited slavery north of a line extended westward from Missouri’s southern border through the Louisiana Purchase territory. Thirty-six years later, the Supreme Court would declare the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in its Dred Scott vs. Sanford ruling.
In the meantime, David Barton, a conservative St. Louisan, led the group of lawyers, merchants, and gentleman farmers that drafted the state’s proposed constitution. Thirty-three of the forty-one delegates had been born in slave states, and their influence showed: the draft they presented to Congress not only limited the state legislature’s control over what slaveholders did with their slaves, but also enabled legislation that would forbid free blacks from entering the state. When Congress balked at limiting citizens’ movements across state lines, Clay drew up another compromise. Missouri’s constitution would stand as written, except for the provision that kept free blacks out of Missouri.
By 1860, Missouri’s African American population had swollen to 114,931 slaves and 3,572 free blacks. Such numbers seem staggering, but slavery was relatively uncommon in Missouri when compared to other slave states, and it was downright rare in St. Louis, where only 3 percent of the state’s slave population lived. The city, however, was not free of slavery or its side effects.
First, because many of the slaves who entered Missouri came through St. Louis, the city played a role in the slave trade, even if it didn’t rely on slave labor as much as rural parts of the state did. Second, even though large numbers of antislavery German immigrants in the 1850s had made St. Louis a Union stronghold, “antislavery” did not necessarily mean “pro-equality.” Finally, “3 percent of the state’s slave population” represents 3,447 slaves in the city. In other words, there were more slaves working in St. Louis 140 years ago than there are people living in the municipality of Frontenac today.
What would life have been like for a slave in St. Louis? After being bought at auction on the Old Court House steps or a slave pen on Fourth Street, a St. Louis slave could expect to be put to work in virtually any type of position, from the rough-and-tumble levee to the genteel mansions in the city’s West End.
Generally, slaves in St. Louis are thought to have led a better life than slaves in rural areas, especially in the Deep South, but some former slaves have taken issue with that perception. William Wells Brown, for example, who worked as a slave in both Kentucky and St. Louis, writes: “Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing States, yet no part of our slaveholding country, is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis.” The description of atrocities Brown witnessed while being “hired out” in St. Louis gives credence to his claim, though geography alone could save few slaves from beatings, rape, torture, family disruption, or humiliation at some point during their service.
Of course, in the nineteenth century as in the eighteenth, slavery was not a part of the life of every African American in the city. As Katharine Corbett writes in her 1983 Gateway Heritage article “Missouri’s Black History: From Colonial Times to 1970,” “The city of St. Louis had more free blacks than any county in the state of Missouri,” and those African Americans continued to enjoy the right to own property—including other slaves.
Like their enslaved counterparts, free blacks played key roles in building the city, but they could rarely escape the fact that they or their ancestors had once been enslaved. Many of the injustices, both major and minor, serve as reminders of this legacy. Slavery played a central role in establishing the black person’s lower status in society, and justifying behaviors and restrictions based on that status.
The reality that slavery would always be a part of life for blacks, even free blacks, became more painfully clear after the Missouri General Assembly freed the state’s slaves on January 11, 1865. African Americans streamed to the cities to find out what freedom would bring. Between 1860 and 1870, St. Louis’ black population increased by a factor of six. Statewide, by 1890, almost half of the black population lived in cities, a figure that jumped to 55 percent just ten years later. However, growing numbers of blacks and legalized freedom did not guarantee equal access in important areas such as education, housing, or health.
In Missouri, for example, the legislature ordered separate schools for African American children in 1889; sixty-five years would pass before Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s declaration that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Meanwhile, faced with the prospect of inadequate facilities, African Americans such as James Milton Turner worked to improve educational opportunities.
Turner, secretary of the Missouri Equal Rights League in St. Louis, worked for better education and the right to vote statewide, while in the city itself, parents of African American children successfully campaigned for a black high school. The result, Sumner High School (originally known as the High School for Colored Children), opened on Eleventh Street in 1875. The first African American high school west of the Mississippi, it stood as a monument to the persistence and foresight of the city’s burgeoning African American community.