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‘Extraordinary Black Missourians’ Profiles Even More Locals Who Made History

People featured in "Extraordinary Black Missourians" include, clockwise from top left, Henry Armstrong, Tina Turner, Lorenzo Greene, Nathan Armstrong and Julia Davis.
Provided by Reedy Press
People featured in "Extraordinary Black Missourians" include, clockwise from top left, Henry Armstrong, Tina Turner, Lorenzo Greene, Nathan Armstrong and Julia Davis.

Dred Scott. George Washington Carver. Maya Angelou. We all know these names. They were Black Americans who changed the course of history. And the three have a shared legacy beyond that: They all lived in Missouri.

They are also among the many people featured in the new, second edition of “Extraordinary Black Missourians.” It’s an updated version of the book first published eight years ago by Reedy Press. And it contains much more than just the household names you know from history books.

Co-authors John A. Wright Sr., Sylvia A. Wright and John A. Wright Jr. introduce readers to writer Chester Himes, historian and editor Nathan B. Young and attorney Margaret Bush Wilson. They also explain the Missouri connections for notables you may not realize lived here at various points in their lives, including Clarence Thomas and Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the founder of Chicago. In a series of readable biographies, they detail the stories of Black people who did amazing things for our country, for our city and for our culture.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Wright Sr. and Wright Jr. explained that the book’s new edition added nine profiles and updated others. Activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who co-founded Campaign Zero with an aim of ending police violence, is one of the only additions who came to prominence after the book’s edition. The other newcomers, like Sylvia Stark, a formerly enslaved Missourian who found new life as a Canadian homesteader and died in 1943, help flesh out long-neglected parts of history.

“These are people who’ve been around, but haven’t been recognized,” explained Wright Sr.

Both Wrights are longtime educators. John Jr. currently teaches for the St. Louis Public Schools, and John Sr. was a teacher and former assistant superintendent for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, among many other positions. They said their work in education shaped the way they approached the project.

Too many Black Missourians who made big contributions to the world were never properly memorialized, Wright Sr. said. “And that’s intentional,” he said. “A lot of effort has gone into hiding African Americans’ contributions.”

John Wright Jr. said that concealment both buries important stories and helps falsify the record of oppressors. He pointed to York, the enslaved man who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous journey but never received a fraction of the attention. And, at the end, William Clark refused to give him his freedom.

“The behavior of Clark was shameful, absolutely disgraceful and inexcusable,” Wright Jr. said. “It doesn’t shine a positive light on Clark at all. If you look into it, I think to cover it up, as much as to erase York, it was to erase Clark’s behavior.”

The book hopes to set the record straight, for York and for all the other extraordinary Black Missourians.

“We teach what we’ve been taught,” Wright Sr. explained. “We value what we know. And if you don’t know something, you don’t value it. Our goal is to make names and individuals known so they will be valued when we talk about our history.”

Related Event

What: John A. Wright Sr. and John A. Wright Jr. at St. Louis County Library

When: 7 p.m. March 16

Where: facebook.com/STLCoLibrary

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.