With this collection of stories, curated from St. Louis on the Air conversations, we present an oral history of civil rights, the black experience, and race relations in St. Louis from 1847 to 2016.
You can explore this collection in several ways: through our timeline below, which highlights key events; through our menus above, which direct you to lists of episodes, photos, and additional resources by theme; and through our Soundcloud playlist, which lets you listen to the project chronologically. To read more about the project, read Don Marsh's introduction below the timeline.
by St. Louis on the Air Host Don Marsh
In August of 2014, the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, ripped a scab from the long tenuous and often tortured relationship between black and white people, revealing that race relations were still in need of significant mending. Not only here in St. Louis, but all over the country.
Missouri in general, and the St. Louis region in particular, became a symbol of racial inequity, as well as resulting economic and social justice disparities.
Ferguson brought new attention to the existence of these disparities all across the nation. It gave a bigger voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, whose protestors demonstrated across the country, demanding a level playing field for all. The movement was given significant impetus by the shooting deaths of numerous young Black men at the hands of White police officers in the months following Brown’s death. The country experienced an increased degree of racial polarization: polarization that had existed either undetected or ignored just below, and sometimes not so far below, the surface of American society.
That Missouri has played a key role in this ongoing drama should come as no surprise. It has been a big part of the drama for a long, long time.
Missouri and St. Louis have a history of indecisiveness on the issue of race relations. Two centuries ago, although Missouri was a slave state, there was no unanimity on the question of abolishing slavery or maintaining it. Tension was often evidenced by violence and vitriol; there were distinct points of view and champions of both. Slavery in the state had been legitimized by practice, precedent, and politics. But there were also challengers: those of both races who refused to accept the status quo.
During the mid-19th century, slavery was being debated all over the United States. Abolitionists were active, and actively countered by the proponents of slavery. In the years leading to the Civil War, the Dred Scott case put St. Louis and Missouri in the middle of the discussion. While this Supreme Court case may have been a significant contributor to the war between the states, it may also have given evidence to a less publicized version of history: that white people here were active in the cause of Dred and Harriet Scott and their two children.
The Civil War led to an attempt to shift the paradigm of race relations. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were designed to do just that.
They did not. Reconstruction followed, then Jim Crow, then the modern era. Tension between the races continued through the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, it remains today in the 21st century, despite the 2008 election of America’s first African-American president. Some hoped the election of Barack Obama would bring with it a “post-racial” America. Clearly, it did not.
This collection is an attempt to bring that history from the Dred and Harriet Scott case, through and beyond the Michael Brown shooting.
For white people in St. Louis there is much to be both ashamed of and proud of in the region’s history of race relations. For black people, there is much of which to be proud … and embittered.
What follows is not intended to be a complete and detailed history of the period from 1847 to 2016. Rather, St. Louis Public Radio covers those years through conversations with historians, authors, and first-person interviews with people who lived some of that history. We have included interviews from 2005 to 2016, including detailed conversations on Ferguson and its aftermath.
For the most part, the focus is not on well-known “celebrities” of the civil rights movement, but rather on average people, black and white, who worked hard to eradicate the formal and informal barriers to integration. The intention is to enlighten black and white people on histories with which they may not be familiar, and to explore the environment in which we are living today, post-Ferguson. It is our hope it will inspire greater understanding and harmony between the races in our community today. Hopefully, these stories will also encourage a more detailed look at the events included.
NPR's blog about racial identity.
Black news, opinion, politics, and culture.
Eyes on the Prize
A documentary from PBS's American Experience.
The nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.
Southern Poverty Law Center
A nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry.
MO History Museum exhibit,Race: Are We So Different?
Learn the history of race, the role of science in that history, and the subtle expressions of racism in institutions and daily lives.
Michele Norris' Race Card Project
Your thoughts on race in six words.
More From STLPR
We Live Here
A multi-faceted, multi-media project about race, class, power, poverty, systems, and the people they touch.
One Year in Ferguson
A Peabody Award-winning audio slideshow about Ferguson.
A look at what happens after a homicide.
Don Marsh, St. Louis on the Air host; author, narrator, and producer; and the impetus behind this project
Audio producers: Libby Franklin, Mary Edwards, and Aaron Doerr
Digital media manager: Madalyn Painter
Web producer and designer: Katelyn Mae Petrin
Graphic design: Brendan Williams
Additional educational resources and photos for each episode contributed by Todd Swanstrom, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.