Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations

By Nina Mjagkij | Go to book overview

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St. Louis: Civic, Literary, and Mutual Aid Associations

Civic, mutual aid, and literary associations are an integral aspect of St. Louis's African American history. While these associations provided an opportunity for social interaction, they also served as benevolent organizations, facilitated civic involvement, and stimulated intellectual development. Denied access to white-only charitable, social, and political institutions, African Americans created their own associations to meet the needs of their community.

One of St. Louis's earliest African American organizations that offered mutual aid services was the First African Baptist Church. Established in 1822, it was the city's first all-black church. In 1825, John Berry Meachum, a former slave, became the congregation's first minister. Under his leadership the church expanded its services to the community and launched a Sabbath school, a temperance society, and a school. By 1860, there were five black congregations in St. Louis with a membership of approximately 1,500 African Americans. While meager financial resources and a restricted legal status created obstacles to social interactions between slaves and free African Americans, these churches became important social institutions. They not only offered spiritual comfort to their members, but also became centers for leadership and educational training. Moreover, they assumed the responsibility of taking care of the old, the poor, the orphaned, and the infirm.

On January 11, 1865, the Missouri General Assembly granted freedom to all slaves but made no concessions to racial equality and denied African Americans the right to vote or hold public office. In October of that year, concerned citizens responded and established the Missouri Equal Rights League, the first African American political organization in the state. Members of the league appointed a committee to tour the state to present lectures on the unequal treatment facing African Americans. James Milton Turner, the leagues secretary, became one of its best-known lecturers. Four thousand African Americans and whites petitioned the Missouri General Assembly to extend full rights of citizenship to African Americans. Despite these efforts, black men in Missouri did not receive the right to vote until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

The end of the Civil War saw a surge in the development of social and mutual aid organizations in the city's African American community. In 1866, Prince Lodge, the first African American Ancient Free and Accepted Masons lodge, opened in St. Louis. In 1872, Reverend Moses Dickson founded another social and benevolent organization, the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor. This society was an offshoot of the Knights of Liberty, a secret society Dickson had organized in St. Louis in August 1846 in hopes of abolishing slavery through an armed insurrection. However, by 1857 when a civil war and the end of slavery appeared imminent, Dickson concentrated his efforts on assisting fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Following the Civil War the St. Louis black population continued to assist African Americans on the run. In the 1870s, the city's black residents launched a unique charitable effort when southern blacks who were fleeing oppression and Jim Crow laws passed through St. Louis on their way to Kansas, Poverty stricken, many of these socalled “exodusters” became stranded in the city without

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