Tag Archives: st louis history

St. Louis: #1 in Civil Rights?

The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has a new exhibit: #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis. I grew up in St. Louis and the title sounded ridiculous. #1? Every school in the state of Missouri requires students to learn about Missouri history in 4th grade. We learned about Daniel Boone and the Pony Express and the Dred Scott case. We didn’t learn about protests or sit-ins or bus boycotts. My school district was desegregated with busing in 1983. The events in Ferguson in 2014 don’t exactly suggest a racially-progressive St. Louis.

So how could the History Museum argue that St. Louis was #1 in civil rights?

It’s a quote. For the 1964 bicentennial of St. Louis, Nathan B. Young wrote an article calling St. Louis the #1 city in civil rights. He was the editor of the St. Louis American, a black newspaper. He argued that the civil rights Supreme Court cases that originated from the city and the civil rights actions in the city made St. Louis a prominent city in the movement. The argument is summarized in the 8 minute video from the History Museum below.

The history of civil rights in St. Louis

The exhibit covers all kinds of history I never learned. Missouri was a slave state. But there were protests seeking its admission as a free state in 1819.

St. Louis spawned four major Supreme Court cases.

St. Louis also had sit-ins starting in the 40s, was active in the 1940s March on Washington movement, and had very active NAACP and CORE chapters.

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I feel cheated that we learned so little of this rich history in school. Fortunately, that deficit is being recognized today.

If you have a chance to visit the exhibit, I highly recommend it. There are several actors playing period activists (ACTivists, get it?), and the woman who played Margaret Bush Wilson was amazing. Stylized portraits of the subjects were commissioned for the exhibit, which was really cool, and necessary in the case of some of the 19th century people with limited period imagery.

The exhibit is really upbeat and focuses on the fight for equality in St. Louis. The negative parts of history–the white flight and the reactionary racism–that’s not a part of this exhibit. It’s part of the story too, but they chose to portray a history that the city can rally around. So little of this history was in my curriculum; I hope that this exhibit and the work supporting it improves that deficit.

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Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.