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Missouri History Museum exhibit traces early history of African American community in Kirkwood

The exhibit "Kirkwood Roots" on display at the Missouri History Museum traces the early history of the African American community in Kirkwood from before the Civil War to after World War II.
Courtesy of Auvelia Arnold
The exhibit "Kirkwood Roots" on display at the Missouri History Museum traces the early history of the African American community in Kirkwood from before the Civil War to after World War II.

An exhibit now on display at the Missouri History Museum takes a look at the early history of the African American community in Kirkwood.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach spoke with Curator David Lobbig about the multimedia project that traces the first settlement before the Civil War to suburban development after World War II.

When you and your colleagues came up with the idea for “Kirkwood Roots,” what did you envision?

We really wanted to be honest and true to the people in Kirkwood, the African American community in Kirkwood. We wanted to give a feeling and a sense of what peoples’ lives were like in that period that we’re representing here before Kirkwood was founded in 1853.

Before the Civil War, there were African American communities or settlements within this region. And the period ends in that time of intensive suburbanization after the Second World War. We were looking at that period when there were a lot of people who had a really rural, sometimes agricultural background in living in this area. And they went on, many of them, to live in this community as it suburbanized and know it in an intimate way.

When you walk into the exhibit, the first thing that you’re greeted by is this massive screen with historical images. And you hear stories from people sharing their memories of living in Kirkwood. What are some of those stories?

There are stories about how people would rely on one another if they were ill and needed care in the community. Everyone knew one another across boundaries, across lines.

One thing that I think is important to draw out is that this community was brought together in part because of the opportunity that they had with relatively unregulated places to live. It was relatively easy to purchase land and it was relatively cheap compared to the urban area of St. Louis. This was out in the country.

How long did it take for you and your colleagues to compose this exhibit?

This exhibit took about two years to bring about. It really came out of the impetus provided by one of our staff members who is a creative artist in his own right. He has roots in Kirkwood.

We have a very esthetic approach; it’s a very artful, creative exhibit. When you come in you don’t see labels, you see objects, and you see things put together to help you think about how it might have felt. There are objects from the railroad industry because a lot of people moved to the community as laborers. Kirkwood was started in 1853 in part because of rail lines coming through. Pacific Railroad was chartered there by Mr. Kirkwood. Some of the people who moved to this area were working for the rail lines that were established there. This is an opportunity for people who may not be able to get jobs because of discrimination in the rail industry. So, much of the work was very hard and very difficult and tedious.

When people leave Kirkwood Roots, what do you hope they take away?

I hope they take away an understanding that this is their history too. I happen to be a white person, and this is something that I’ve come to understand and appreciate that this is our history.

The special pressures that were put on this community to make it come together and be unique and have identity, were also pressures that were negative in that they took away freedoms and possibilities for people. That’s something that I think we need to recognize as we go forward, that this is all part of our history together.

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