FEW would disagree that African-Americans have played a
significant role in the community's history and culture since the
founding of St. Louis in 1764. Yet many African-Americans here have
long said that exhibits and books by so-called master historians
have downplayed the contributions of blacks.
If that sounds like carping and you fancy yourself
knowledgeable about local history, see how many of these important
benchmarks and names ring familiar:
1875: Sumner High becomes the first high school for black
Americans west of the Mississippi.
1890: Dr. W.P.T. Jones becomes St. Louis' first black physician.
1909: The St. Louis Giants are organized as the city's first
black professional baseball team. (They played in the Negro
National League befo re folding after the 1921 season.)
Throughout the 1900s, a host of African-American musicians made
notable contributions in ragtime, jazz, blues, gospel, classical
and rock 'n' roll. Most of us have a notion of that, but the
details remain a bit vague.
For almost two decades, the Missouri Historical Society has
been at work trying to remedy that. Exhibits were mounted, but more
importantly, people were included. The society's History Museum
established a partnership with the St. Louis Public School System,
hired more African-Americans staffers, appointed more
African-Americans to its board and awarded an increasing amount of
its construction work to African-American contractors.
Now the society plans to initiate two new projects: the "Core
Exhibit" and the "African-American Project," designed, in part, to
attract people of color to the museum.
This summer, the society hosted a forum to solicit suggestions
from an advisory committee of African-American staffers and board
members at cultural institutions, volunteers, collectors and
At the forum, participants criticized negative representation
of African-Americans in the current exhibits. Also, some complained
they were tired of seeing the same themes, such as civil rights,
slavery, Dred S cott, Scott Joplin, music and sports.
Suggestions for the African-American Project included
interactive exhibits and computers for children; more historical
material on each artifact; community participation in every
project; stronger connections to the St. Louis public schools; and
more exhibits that deal with neighborhoods, people and community
"Our goal is to have African-Americans come to see themselves
in the exhibits," said Katharine Corbett, the society's
interpretation director. With the Core Exihibit, the society hopes
to integrate the experiences of people of diverse cultures from the
13th century to the late 20th century.
Corbett acknowledges that the Missouri Historical Society
needed to upgrade its presentation of blacks.
"We had made an assumption that white history was history. We
also assumed that whites go to exhibits about whites and
African-Americans go to exhibits about African-Americans," she said.
Missouri Historical Society president Bob Archibald added:
"St. Louisans cannot understand the direction of St. Louis
history without knowing the influence of African-Americans in that
history. Their representation in the United States is essential to
explaining what America is."
While Archibald acknowledges that the society still has a long
way to go, he says he is proud of its efforts to promote cultural
For example, in 1980, only two of the society's 28 staffers
were African-Americans. Both were in housekeeping.
Today, 37 percent - or 41 - of the society's 111 full-time
staffers are African-American. Five are in senior level staff
In 1982, KMOV news anchor Julius Hunter was the first
African-American elected to the Missouri Historical Society's Board
of Trustees. …