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With this collection of stories, curated from hours of on-air conversations from St. Louis on the Air, we present an oral history of civil rights, the Black experience, and race relations in St. Louis from 1847 to 2010.


Missouri, in general, and St. Louis, in particular, show an almost tortured indecisiveness on the issue of race relations. Two centuries ago, although Missouri was a slave state, there was no unanimity on the question of abolishing slavery or maintaining it. Tension was often evidenced by violence and vitriol, but there were distinct points of view and champions of both. Slavery in the state had been legitimized by practice, precedent, and politics. But there were also challengers: those of both races who refused to accept the status quo.

“Negro Exodusters en route to Kansas, fleeing from the yellow fever” 1870. Credit: Library of Congress

Slavery was being debated all over United States during the mid-19th century.  Abolitionists were active, actively countered by the proponents of slavery. In the years leading to the Civil War, St. Louis and Missouri found themselves in the middle of the discussion because of the Dred Scott case. While the Supreme Court case may have been a significant contributor to the war between the states, it may also have given less publicized evidence to a less well-publicized version of history, that Whites here were active in the cause of Dred and Harriet Scott and their two children.

The Civil War led to an attempt to shift the paradigm of race relations. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were designed to do just that.

They did not. Reconstruction followed, then Jim Crow, then the modern era. This collection is an attempt to bring that history forward from the Dred and Harriet Scott case, through the war and its aftermath, and to explore how it all affected race relations in St. Louis, then and now. Tension between the races continued through the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, it remains today in the 21st century.

NAACP parade protesting the East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917, New York City.

NAACP parade protesting the East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917, New York City. Credit: Library of Congress

For Whites in this area there is much to be both ashamed of and proud of in the region’s history of race relations. For Blacks, there is much of which to be proud…and embittered.

What follows is not intended to be a complete and detailed history of the period from 1847 to 2010. Rather, those years are covered through conversations on St. Louis Public Radio between 2005 and 2010 with historians, authors, and first-person interviews with people who lived some of that history. For the most part, the focus is not on well-known “celebrities” of the civil rights movement, but rather on average people, Black and White, who worked hard to eradicate the formal and informal barriers to integration. The intention is to enlighten Blacks and Whites on histories with which they may not be familiar, and which will inspire greater understanding and harmony between the races in our community today. Hopefully, these stories will also encourage a more detailed look at the events included here.


Don Marsh, St. Louis on the Air host; author, narrator, and producer; and the impetus behind this project

Audio producers: Libby Franklin, Mary Edwards, and Aaron Doerr

Web editor and producer: Madalyn Painter

Logo designer: Rachel Augustine

Additional educational resources and photos for each episode contributed by Todd Swanstrom, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.