African-American Experience Research Guide

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 these rich resources that document their lives as Missourians.

The resources on this page have been adapted from a chapter of the book Race and Meaning: The African American Experience in Missouri by Gary Kremer. If you have suggestions for other resources for African-American research in Missouri, please email them to us at research@shsmo.org.

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.

Articles in the Missouri Historical Review

Digital Collections

The African-American Experience in Missouri digital collection includes digitized manuscripts by or about African Americans, including personal papers, records of black organizations and churches, collections with significant information on African Americans, civil rights, slavery, and daily life.

View the African-American Experience Digital Collection

Manuscripts

The State Historical Society of Missouri manuscript collections include material by or about African-Americans, including personal papers, records of black organizations and churches, collections with significant information on African Americans, civil rights, slavery, and daily life.

View All African-American Manuscript Collections

Newspapers

SHSMO's newspaper collection contains about thirty African-American publications. The St. Louis Advance perhaps established as early as 1881, is one of the earliest known black newspapers published in Missouri. Most of the state's African-American newspapers have been published in Kansas City and St. Louis, but Caruthersville, Charleston, Hannibal, Jefferson City, Joplin, Sedalia and Sikeston have also served as the home of African American newspapers.

In these newspapers, researchers can find national and local news of interest to the African-American community and prominently featured ads for black businesses. The Kansas City Call, established in 1919, is one of several black newspapers currently being published. At a time when many local papers printed few items of interest to the black community or omitted such coverage altogether, The Call tried to fill the gap. News about small black Missouri communities often found a place in the pages of The Call. Today its coverage is more local, highlighting Kansas City and the surrounding area.

Religious African-American newspapers among SHSMO's holdings include The Western Messenger, later known as the Baptist Record, first published in Jefferson City, then in St. Louis and finally in Kansas City. The Western Christian Recorder established in 1891 as the official organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was published in Kansas City. Sedalia was the home of The Searchlight, published for the members of the United Brothers of Friendship and Sisters of Mysterious Ten Lodge.

African-American Newspapers in SHSMO Holdings

County City Title Also Available On Date Range
Boone Columbia Blackout Microfilm Nov 20, 1969
Boone Columbia Professional World Microfilm 1901-1903; 1909 (incomplete)
Cole Jefferson City The Lincoln Clarion Microfilm 1935-1975
Cole Jefferson City Western Messenger Microfilm 1914-1916
Greene Springfield The American Negro Hard Copy Only Oct 25, 1890
Jackson Kansas City American Microfilm 1928-1933
Jackson Kansas City Baptist Record Microfilm 1921 (incomplete)
Jackson Kansas City Call Microfilm 1922-Present
Jackson Kansas City Globe Microfilm 1994-Present (some earlier)
Jackson Kansas City Inter-State Herald Microfilm 1903-1904 (incomplete)
Jackson Kansas City Liberator Microfilm 1903
Jackson Kansas City Missouri State Post Microfilm 1987-1988; 1990-1992 (incomplete)
Jackson Kansas City Rising Son Microfilm 1903-1907
Jackson Kansas City Son Microfilm Dec 7, 1912
Jackson Kansas City Sun Microfilm 1914-1924
Jackson Kansas City Western Christian Recorder Microfilm 1911-1915
Jackson Kansas City Western Messenger Microfilm 1918-1920 (incomplete)
Jasper Jopin Uplift Hard Copy Only May 24, 1928
Jasper Jopin The Joplin-Springfield Uplift Hard Copy Only Apr 11, 1930
Marion Hannibal Home Protective Record Microfilm 1914 (some single issues)
Mississippi Charleston Spokesman Microfilm Aug 1934 (incomplete)
Pemiscot Caruthersville The Anchor Microfilm Jul-Aug 1921 (incomplete)
Pettis Sedalia Weekly Conservator Microfilm 1905-1908 (incomplete)
Pettis Sedalia U.B.F. and S.M.T. Searchlight Hard Copy Only Oct 8, 1910
Pettis Sedalia The Searchlight Hard Copy Only Feb 28, 1914
Pettis Sedalia Times Microfilm 1901-1903; 1905 (incomplete)
Scott Sikeston Southeast Missouri World Microfilm Nov 25, 1939
Scott Sikeston Southern Sun Hard Copy Only 1954 (some single issues)
  St. Louis American Microfilm 1949-Present
  St. Louis The American Eagle Hard Copy Only Dec 17, 1905; Aug 11, 1906
  St. Louis Argus Microfilm 1915-1997 (incomplete)
  St. Louis St. Louis Evening Whirl Hard Copy Only 2013-Present (some earlier)
  St. Louis St. Louis Advance Hard Copy Only Jun 13, 1908
  St. Louis Sentinel Microfilm 1968-2002
  St. Louis Western Messenger Microfilm 1916-1917 (incomplete)

Oral Histories

  • Politics in Missouri Oral History Project, Records, 1996-, (C3929)

    Contains scores of interviews that date to the mid-1990s. In many instances, these interviews deal with topics of racial history, including struggles over civil rights legislation. Many of these interviews have been transcribed and can be accessed online.

    Among the interviews in this collection is one with State Representative Elbert Walton Jr. from St. Louis. The collection also includes interviews with brothers Roy Cooper Jr. and Alex Cooper, two members of one of the most prominent and well-known African-American families of the southeastern Missouri delta.

  • Kansas City Monarchs Oral History Collection, 1978-1981, (K0047)

    This collection contains oral history interviews and related correspondence with eighteen individuals who played with or were associated with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League.

  • Kansas City Jazz Oral History Collection, 1977-1980, (K0012)

    Contains audio recordings and transcriptions of interviews with jazz musicians who played in Kansas City during the "Golden Age of Jazz," roughly the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s.

  • Missouri Desegregation and Civil Rights Oral History Project, Records, 2013, (C4116)

    The collection consists of interviews with people who attended Douglass and/or Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri. The collection consists of digitally recorded interviews, audio logs, and photographs. The collection is ongoing and open to interviews concerning any school and/or civil rights topic in Missouri.

Outside Resources

An abundance of relatively new and often easily accessible sources are available to twenty-first-century scholars of the African-American experience in Missouri.

Government

Missouri State Archives

  • Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Records

    Access to the Dred Scott opinion rendered by the Missouri Supreme Court, along with many other race-related Missouri Supreme Court cases.

  • Freedom Suits Case Files, 1814-1860
    St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project

    One of the resulting collections from a joint project by the Missouri State Archives and the St. Louis Circuit Court. These case files include, not surprisingly, the most famous freedom suit of all, that of the slave Dred Scott, but they also include more than three hundred others, among them the case of Winny v. Phebe Whitesides, an early nineteenth-century case begun in 1819, two years before Missouri statehood.

  • Coroner's Inquest Database

    Records as obscure as "Coroners' Inquests," likewise, can provide insight into important historical events. Using the name William Lyons, a researcher can find information that will take him or her to Case No. 738, a case in which William Shelton (aka Stagger Lee) killed Billie Lyons in December 1895. The coroner's report of this case closely parallels the narrative that formed the foundation for the American classic, the "Ballad of Stagger Lee."

  • Goverment Documents Collection

    There are a number of state records groups available in their original hard-copy format in the collection. These include the reports to the legislature of the Missouri Negro Industrial Commission, a state agency created in February 1918 by Governor Frederick D. Gardner. The commission originally came into being at the request of African-American leaders in Missouri who wanted to empower the state's black population to contribute to the war effort by buying and selling war bonds. They also wanted to improve agricultural production and food conservation among African-American farmers and consumers.

Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative

A number of federal records have become available recently that provide exciting possibilities for adding to our understanding of the African-American experience in Missouri. In particular, these records provide glimpses into such topics as the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, the treatment of "Contrabands" (that is, slaves captured by Union soldiers), the theft and confiscation of slaves, and the physical treatment (or mistreatment) of slaves.

State Historic Preservation Office (DNR)

County Courthouses and City Halls

  • Probate court records

    It is very common to find posters in these records advertising the sale of slaves, including in some cases children as young as one and two years old. The May 1861 case of Benjamin W. Smithson of Cedar County, for example, lists two African-American girls on the estate inventory and documents that Mr. Smithson's widow gave Colonel James Johnson power of attorney to hire out a slave named Mariah. Likewise, Franklin County Probate Court Records document what happened to the thirteen slaves of Valentine Hunter, who died in 1850.

  • Circuit court records

    The vast majority of circuit court case records remain undigitized and are housed in courthouses in the counties in which the cases originally occurred. These cases are as diverse as they are fascinating; they provide a great deal of insight into every era of Missouri history.

    The Callaway County case of State of Missouri v. Celia is an exception. This case, which documents the circumstances surrounding the 1850s instance of a young slave woman (Celia) who killed her master after being sexually abused by him for years, was recently digitized and can be found online here (UMKC) and here (Missouri State Archives). Ultimately Celia was executed, after a judge refused to accept her attorney's effort at a self-defense plea and after an all-white jury, half of whose members were slave owners, found her guilty of capital murder. This circuit court case served as the foundation and principal source of Melton A. McLaurin's highly acclaimed 1991 book, Celia: A Slave.

  • Local public records

    Arguably, the most significant "new" research materials available to scholars of African-American history in Missouri are the countless local public records housed in the state's courthouses and city halls. Always present but not widely accessible until the emergence of the Missouri State Archives' Local Records Program during the early 1990s, this material has been unearthed, rescued, and made available by local records archivists who work in this program.

Federal Government

  • Post-Civil War pension records

    Another federal record group that holds great promise for scholars of Missouri's black history, especially African-American women's history, is the collection of pension records compiled by the federal government in the wake of post–Civil War congressional action aimed at ensuring "that the widows and children of colored soldiers" receive pensions earned by the roughly hundred thousand African-American soldiers who served in the Union cause during the Civil War. As historian Noralee Frankel pointed out in a 1997 article in Prologue, "It was the complicated procedures involved in documenting nonlegal slave marriages that make these pension records so rich for women's and family history". Historian Dianne Mutti Burke pointed the way for Missouri scholars in the use of these records in her book, On Slavery's Border.

  • Federal census

    Federal census returns are extremely helpful in documenting black life, especially the 1940 federal census, which lists, among other things, the occupations of individuals, as well as the amount of money they had earned over the previous twelve months. This census also indicates whether individuals listed had changed residences over the previous five years.

Archives, Libraries, and Museums

Missouri History Museum

  • Slaves and Slavery Collection

    This collection contains nearly a hundred items, including receipts for sales of slaves, deeds of emancipation, personal correspondence, and broadsides advertising rewards for the capture and return of runaway slaves.

  • Guide to Civil War Manuscripts in the Missouri Historical Society Archives

    This guide evidences the presence of a number of documents pertaining to African-American soldiers from Missouri during the Civil War.

  • Charles Turner Scrapbooks (1886–1918)

    Contains newspaper clippings, political flyers and handbills, business cards, and photographs of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American life in St. Louis. This collection is especially strong in materials pertaining to what was known as the Market Street Black Business District.

National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis

  • African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804–1865

    Bob Moore at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, in conjunction with Missouri State Archives local records archivist Mike Everman and a bevy of interns, has developed this site. Among the items on this site are lists of the freedom suits, lists of emancipations through the circuit courts, lists/database of free Negro licenses through the county court, and lists/database of slave auctions through the St. Louis Probate Court.

St. Louis County Libraries

Kansas City Public Library

  • Black Archives Oral History Collection

    The material in this collection was produced through a grant-funded collaboration between the Kansas City Public Library and the Black Archives of Mid-America. It features oral histories with fifty-six individuals, primarily African Americans, whose stories shed light on the black experience in Kansas City during the mid-twentieth century. The interviews were conducted in 1975 and 1976.

  • John Ramos Collection
    Missouri Valley Special Collections

    The origins of this collection date to 1926 when W. R. Howell, a history teacher at the all-black Lincoln High School in Kansas City, and Priscilla Hurd, a librarian at the Kansas City Library's Lincoln Branch, began to assemble material by and about Kansas City African Americans. The Lincoln Branch closed in 1971 and the collection moved to the Kansas City Public Library. Subsequently, the collection was named in honor of Dr. John Ramos Jr., the first African American elected (1961) to serve on the Kansas City Board of Education.

Black Archives of Mid-America

Located in Kansas City, Missouri, the Black Archives has a number of collections that document that city's rich African-American heritage. With the exception of some photographs, the bulk of these materials are not available online, however. One of the largest of the collections housed at the Black Archives—and arguably, one of the most important—is the one that contains the papers of Chester A. and Ada Crogman Franklin, longtime owners and publishers of The Call, Kansas City's important African-American newspaper. The Franklins published this newspaper from 1919 until Ada Franklin died in 1983.