Posted by: Bob Fisher | July 28, 2009

An Eye-opening Road Trip Through Missouri

040I have recently returned from Missouri and an African-American media tour of that state; a destination in which there is still a great deal to discover in terms of Black history and the legacy of the institution of slavery.

I say “still” in part because even in the 21st century there are historical events in that state that require further “interpretation,” additional deconstructing (although I am not personally comfortable with the latter term), and a wee bit more reality-based travel journalism.

This is the “warts and all” school of travel writing I am talking about; this is not Gone With the Wind. As a matter of fact, as a Canadian, I had no idea how important the “in-between” state of Missouri was in terms of the Civil War; and its far-reaching aftermath.

I say this at the risk of being accused of indulging in revisionist history; and I am also aware that I may be offending the sensibilities of those of us (hmmm … me included) who are easily seduced into romanticizing history. Travel journalism of course can rarely be separated from complex historical contexts, and in Missouri especially, attempting to contextualize the travel “stories” might raise some puzzling, discomfiting, and even ethical concerns.

There are numerous events in Missouri that, on closer examination, defy the kind of media-friendly story that is usually intended to send happy tourists on their way exploring a destination to their heart’s content. And why not? Well I suppose it might depend on what you consider a good time. If it means that your romanticized image of the archetypal figure of Daniel Boone may just become slightly less Fess Parkerish, well I recommend that you fasten your seat belts. Daniel, by the way, was a slave owner himself and has become an heroic and iconic figure whose reputation in the contemporary light of day you might find a tad less larger than life. The way I “heard” it, Daniel was no doubt a great white hunter, but deep down he was just a woods-friendly guy who wanted to get away from civilization, do his thing, kill animals (and “Indians”), and not really worry a whole lot about bringing European culture to the Western Frontier. Actually, in my opinion, his son Nathan Boone was the more interesting (and entrepreneurial) figure, especially when I met Friar Moses Berry, a black priest in the Orthodox Christian Church in America who is a direct descendent of Nathan by .. um .. an “Unknown Slave of African Heritage.” Orthodox Christian Church in America, you say? Yup. And Father Berry also spent time in Russia before returning to his roots and opening his tiny Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum.

And there are numerous other African-American stories in Missouri that are slightly obscured by the mists of time. Springfield, Missouri, for example, was a town that had a prosperous middle to upper middle class black community until one of those devastating lynchings occurred (same old story of a white woman accusing a black man of rape), which created an exodus from the city of the aforementioned community. Fortunately, through the efforts of a woman by the name of Katherine Lederer, a university professor and archivist at Missouri State, the “lost black history” of Springfield has been partially recovered.

There are an almost unlimited number of other stories in Missouri that also deserve a much closer look. George Washington Carver’s birthplace in Diamond, Missouri is a bucolic spot, but also an opportunity to appreciate how this amazing man embodied the kind of Earth-friendly agricultural practices that, given his background, were way ahead of their time. And of course, the Dred Scott story is engraved on the consciousness (and conscience?) of the U.S. (if not the world) in terms of that historic and outrageous Supreme Court Decision. And what a surprise to discover that St. Louis had the largest and most affluent Black population (after New Orleans and Savannah) in antebellum America. How was this possible? Well, therein lies another great story. And the real story behind “Franky [Baker] and Johnny Were Lovers…” and Franky’s considerable economic impact on that city and its “society” world, may just knock your socks off. By the way, Carl Sandberg referred to the song as America’s putative “national gutter song”; and I assure you he was not being disrespectful. This of course is also Mark Twain country, and when you get a few glimpses behind the Missouri curtain, you also get to understand where Samuel Clemens was really coming from. Oh, and before I forget, I must mention the French town of Ste. Geneviève, which gave me a bit of an out of body experience because it was like being “back home” in small-town Québec. And that quintessential Québec-via-Normandy architecture was a bit of a jolt; especially the vertical log home built and owned by Blacks.

It was, as they say, a trip.

A Few Recommended Resources

The National Black History Tourism Network; Contact: Angela da Silva, Heritage Tourism Specialist (314) 865-0708

Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum

Katherine G. Lederer Ozarks African American History Collection

George Washington Carver National Monument and National Park

A Slideshow of Deliberately Juxtaposed Missouri Images

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