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Commentary: A look back: Early African-American education in St. Louis was hard won

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2009 - The French brought the first Africans to the Upper Louisiana territory in the 18th century to work in lead mines and later to provide labor in the growing settlement of St. Louis.

Through an African-French connection of cultural enrichment and intermarriage, a socially elite mixed-race group emerged. It was the French who first gave the heirs of transplanted Africans their freedom. Evidence of this inter-racial aristocracy can be found still in St. Louis street names such as Rutger (Pelagie Rutgers) and Clamorgan (Jacques Clamorgan) and Labadie (Antoine Labadie).

From the day Missouri joined the Union in the famous Compromise of 1820, public education was a matter of lingering controversy. Fearful of slave uprisings following the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, St. Louisans organized extralegal vigilante committees to monitor the activities of all blacks, slave and free.

On the other hand, as early as 1818, the Sisters of Carondelet and women from several Protestant denominations conducted schools for slaves.

In 1825, John Berry Meachum, a freed man out of Virginia who had been ordained into the ministry by a traveling Baptist missionary, organized a day school in the basement of the First African Baptist Church at Third and Almond streets near the riverfront.

There is also evidence that Meachum extended his activities into other parts of the city. These enclaves came to be known as "tallow candle schools."

However primitive these efforts may have been, by 1827, the rudiments of an educational system for blacks were in place in a community staunchly opposed to such endeavors.

In 1847, as racial tension intensified, the Missouri Legislature passed strict legislation mandating that "no person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of Negroes or mulattos in reading or writing in this state."

That same year, the General Assembly forbade "Negroes to hold meetings for the purpose of religious worship, or preaching unless some sheriff, constable, marshal, police officers or Justice of the Peace shall be present ... to prevent all seditious speeches (or) unlawful conduct of any kind."

Meachum's response to the law was swift and calculated. In one of the most ingenious acts of civil intransigence in the city's history, he outfitted a steamboat replete with library and classrooms. Christened "Freedom School," the boat on the Mississippi River became a floating academy for black children.

When Meachum died in 1854, Rev. John Richard Anderson assumed his educational commitments. He was born a slave but secured his freedom and moved to St. Louis where he became the minister of the Central Baptist Church. Harriet Scott was a member of Anderson's church. There is strong conjecture that it was Anderson who introduced Harriet and Dred Scott to the white lawyer, Francis Murdoch, who initiated the famous case law suit.

But it was John Richard Anderson's commitment to education for his people that distinguished his life. During the decade prior to the Civil War he and a white Baptist minister, Galusha Anderson, conspired to petition St. Louis school officials to provide relief for the plight of blacks who sorely needed education.

The Board of Education went on record as saying it couldn't remedy the situation but did promise to petition the Legislature to enact laws that would provide school facilities for Negro children of the city.

During the school year of 1864-65, the St. Louis Board of Education appropriated $500 for the operation of five schools for children of African descent.

These schools were hardly adequate, as black war refugees from the South crowded into St. Louis. It was apparent that more comprehensive measures had to be made. But, with the war raging, nothing more was done.

One of the most notable efforts to assist the black population was made by Gen. John C. Fremont, the Union commander of the Army of the West, headquartered in St. Louis.

Fremont established the Western Sanitary Commission to aid black and white refugees. He selected two prominent St. Louisans, William G. Eliot and James Yeatman, to oversee the feeding, health care, education and housing of the desperate poor pouring into the state.

These two men were diligent in their efforts to provide social services to the victims of the war. Later, Eliot, a Unitarian minister, founded Washington University and Yeatman, for whom a community center is named today, would be honored for his efforts to heal the wounds of slavery.

Shortly after the War, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, the first federal welfare agency empowered to provide medical aid, build hospitals and distribute food. The bureau established primary schools and Negro colleges such as Howard, Alcorn, Fisk and Morehouse.

Spurred on by St. Louis civil rights activists James Milton Turner and Moses Dickson, a contingent of former slaves who fought in the Civil War pooled their resources to build Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City for the education of "our people." The Lincoln Institute is now Lincoln University.

The new Missouri constitution of 1865 provided for free public schools with funds appropriated "without regard to color." But the same Constitution, which called for equal educational rights, also established literary tests for voting. Shortly thereafter, a law was passed that established segregated but so-called "equal schools for blacks."

Acting on these new laws, the St. Louis Board of Education opened three schools for African-Americans in 1866. Seven white teachers were hired to provide instruction for 437 students. In 1868, the number of schools for blacks rose to five with an enrollment of 928. By 1871, six such schools were in operation with 16 white teachers.

In reaction to the all-white supervision of the segregated schools, a committee of black citizens wrote to various colleges to try to find and hire competent black teachers. In 1877, a New Englander, Richard H. Cole, came to St Louis to accept a position in one of the schools. He was the first black man to enter the ranks of professional teachers in the city.

The first high school for blacks, Sumner High School, opened in 1875. Named for the white abolitionist, U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, it is the oldest high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi.

The first kindergarten programs for blacks opened in 1882. They were fashioned after the schools designed by Susan Blow, the St. Louisan credited with starting the American kindergarten movement.

In 1890, the Board of Education voted to give names to the black schools in the city. Black history is reflected in the naming of these institutions: Dumas, Dessalines, L'Ouverture, Bannaker, Delaney, Wheatley, Simmons, Garnett, Vashon, Aldridge and Attucks.

There is no question that these schools for black children were grossly inferior to the white school system. But, from all accounts, strong efforts led by black leaders such as Charlton Tandy, Turner (minister to Liberia in the Grant administration) and  Dickson were underway to stabilize and enhance "the education of Negroes in the city."

New, dynamic leadership in the black community was emerging. A young lawyer from Sedalia, Mo., a graduate of Howard University, moved to St. Louis in 1903 and opened his law practice. His name was Homer G. Phillips.

Phillips and his colleagues, among them Rev. George Stevens and J. E. Mitchell, took aim at public education. These men galvanized public opinion that resulted in the construction of Vashon High School in 1927. Along with Roger Baldwin, who later founded the American Civil Liberties Union. Phillips chiseled away at Jim Crow laws. His work in support of a hospital bond issue -- to secure $1 million of it to construct a new hospital for blacks in North St. Louis -- led to construction of what became Homer G. Phillips Hospital. His murder in 1932 cut short a life of one of the truly great civil rights crusaders in St. Louis history.

The first five decades of the 20th century were arduous for black St. Louisans. But the inspiration of Phillips was infectious.

In 1936, a Vashon High School graduate, Lloyd Gaines, who had earned a bachelors degree from Lincoln University, filed for admission to the Law School at the University of Missouri. His request was promptly denied.

With the support of the NAACP's Charles Houston and several local black lawyers, among them Sidney Redmond, Gaines filed a law suit in the Cole Country Circuit Court, claiming that since Missouri had no law school for blacks, he was entitled to admittance to the white institution.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in a historic decision in 1938, the high tribunal ruled, 6-2, that since the state had no law school for blacks, Gaines must be admitted to the all white Missouri University.

This was the first breach in the solid wall of segregation that had stood since 1789. Houston had his victory and the first step toward dismantling legal segregation. But even as Missouri tried to maneuver around the high court ruling, Lloyd Gaines vanished. He was never seen or heard from again.

But America would never be the same. Out of the Gaines case would come the Supreme Court decision of 1954.

Robert W. Tabscott, a Presbyterian minister, heads the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Society. One of its projects has been to put together stories of the diverse men and women who were important to this area's history. Ther preceeding is adapted from that work .