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Exploring Black history, its sources and who gets to tell it

Daniel Fishel

Americans have celebrated Black History Month for 53 years. The tradition encourages schools, media and institutions to share Black history facts and uplift the stories of Black civil rights leaders and Black Americans who broke barriers in various fields. Yet many Americans admit that they were not exposed to Black history until adulthood — often, they learned Black history not from institutions, but from their families.

Historians report having to read between the lines when researching and interpreting news archives, art and literature on Black history — and that interpretation cannot always be taken at face value.

From left to right: Vivian Gibson, Cicely Hunter, Pam Sanfilippo
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Vivian Gibson, Cicely Hunter, Pam Sanfilippo
Book cover of "Last Children of Mill Creek" written by Vivian Gibson
Vivian Gibson
Book cover of "Last Children of Mill Creek" written by Vivian Gibson

“Oftentimes, these histories about Black people have been told from a white perspective,” said Cicely Hunter, public historian for the African American History Initiative at the Missouri Historical Society. “I think that's what's most important about interpreting history is that we’ve got to be more strategic in our emphasis that looks not just from the dominant narrative, but looks truly at Black life.”

Though technology has allowed both professional and amateur historians to uncover documents without traveling to and from multiple libraries, physical and digital archives often lack relevant and reliable information about the Black American experience. Newspapers published by Black people, for example, are frequently excluded from archives due to either passive or intentional omission.

Author and historian Vivian Gibson saw a gap in the interpretation of Black life in St. Louis through the destruction of her childhood neighborhood Mill Creek Valley. While she sought data and newspaper articles on what she remembered of her life in Mill Creek Valley for her memoir, “The Last Children of Mill Creek,” she found a different story.

“If you [search databases] for Mill Creek [Valley], you’ll find [pictures of] houses that have been demolished, but you can't find [pictures of] a neighborhood,” she said. The area “has been described as a slum, and all the pictures that you see are of that.”

The truth is that Mill Creek Valley was a bustling community of Black St. Louisans that included the St. Louis Stars’ baseball stadium, Vashon High School, which is the second high school that Black students could attend in segregated St. Louis, and Peoples Finance Corporation Building where Homer G. Phillips first conceived the idea of a teaching hospital for Black medical professionals and patients.

Exploring Black history, its sources and who gets to tell it

Long established beacons of American history in St. Louis have started re-interpreting history through renovations and new exhibits. Last month the Old Court House — part of the Gateway Arch National Park — started construction on the historic landmark to update exhibits on Dred and Harriet Scott’s lives in St. Louis, their family and their fight for freedom in St. Louis Circuit Court in 1846 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1853. Previous exhibits often told the history without perspectives from the actual family. They also excluded Harriet Scott in the historical interpretation of the landmark case Scott v. Sandford despite the fact that both Dred Scott and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom.

Construction rendering of an updated exhibit in the Old Courthouse which includes Harriet Scott
Gateway Arch Park Foundation
Construction rendering of an updated exhibit in the Old Courthouse, which includes Harriet Scott

Pam Sanfilippo, program manager of museum services and interpretation at the Gateway Arch National Park, said that history researchers previously would look at “traditional records,” which did not include first-person stories or oral histories. She credits the inclusion of oral history in the redesign of exhibits at Old Court House.

“We're very fortunate that the great-great-granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott lives here in St. Louis, Lynn Jackson,” Sanfilippo said. “She's been instrumental in sharing some of her family stories about her great-great grandparents.”

Many St. Louis on the Air listeners expressed frustration about the lack of Black history they were taught in school — and dissatisfaction about the quality or spin put on the history they did learn.

For the casual history buff looking for well-founded information about Black history, Hunter offered some hope. She recommends the Missouri Historical Society — especially the Library and Research Center which is open to visitors looking to learn more about their genealogy. “I think that we're definitely moving in the right direction. Reading against the archive, that's where the work lies,” she said.

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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."