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Authors of 'Extraordinary Black Missourians' share well-knowns and unknowns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2013 - John and Sylvia Wright’s new book, “Extraordinary Black Missourians: Pioneers, Leaders, Performers, Athletes and Other Notables Who’ve Made History,” tells the stories behind the lives of more than 100 influential black Missourians.

There are the icons, such asLangston Hughes, Dred Scott and Josephine Baker, but there are also quieter, less-known people who faced tough times and still made their mark.

Henry Armstrong, a railroad worker, quit his job and took up wrestling when he saw the kind of money wrestler Kid Chocolate was making. 

“He told his friends, I’m going to be a champion,” says John Wright. 

Armstrong went on to win three heavyweight titles, and he’s the only person in history to do so, Wright says.

Actor Red Foxx, who was born in St. Louis, was a well-known comedian and the star of the '70s show “Sanford and Son,” but most people don’t know he left home at 13 and lived on the streets while trying to make it.

The book features notable people who are still living, says Charles Brown, assistant director of the Mercantile Library. They include people like Cedric the Entertainer, who was born in Jefferson City, and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who was born in St. Louis.

The book also offers a walking tour through St. Louis, highlighting the neighborhoods and areas where many in the book lived. 

With their books, the Wrights connect the places and people who’ve mattered in Missouri, both past and present, Brown says.

Those featured helped lead the civil rights movements, won awards, made their marks in sports and entertainment and helped chip away at racial barriers.

“I think it’s important that each story has a story behind it,” Wright says.

Knowing those stories and what’s behind Missouri’s most extraordinary black citizens isn’t just a lesson in history, he says, but a way for young people and their parents to see what’s possible, despite hardships.

“We have to teach young people to be proud of the past,” Wright says.

Black Missourians have done a lot, he says, and their lives and accomplishments are something to be proud of.

John and Sylvia Wright will be at several book events this month, including a book signing at 4 p.m., Friday, June 14 at the Mercantile Library and a lecture and book signing at the Missouri History Museum at 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 25.

Kristen Hare