Mo.'s Place(s) In Black History

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2002

One brisk Tuesday last month, I climbed the stairs of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, following the path of Missouri's most famous slave. Past the towering pillars hung portraits of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, looking at once stern and refined. A plaque offered details of their famous saga: the 1847 legal battle for freedom from bondage was launched on this site; the 1857 Supreme Court appeal; the controversial verdict denying the Scotts' request and stripping them -- and all black Americans -- of their rights.

The following Saturday found me nearby at the Black Repertory Theater for a staging of "Seven Guitars," the latest work by August Wilson. A poignant look at a black neighborhood in postwar Pittsburgh, it was written with the fiery pen of a black playwright and performed by an all-star black cast, in one of the country's leading showcases for ethnic drama.

During the journey in between -- past the corn and tobacco fields sprawled across Missouri, through a town named after a freed slave and another with an antebellum school for blacks -- I ventured deep into the roots of African American culture. In Lexington, the scene of a fierce Civil War clash, bullet-ridden antebellum mansions and abandoned slave cabins marked the spot where a story ended. In Kansas City, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum documented the lives of Satchel Paige and other baseball icons. Just across the state border in Leavenworth, Kan., a bronze horseman memorialized the Buffalo Soldiers, an elite group of African American cavalrymen deployed in battles between the late 1860s and the 1950s.

Angela da Silva, a cultural historian and fifth-generation Missourian, steered the route in a white Ford van; together we covered more than 400 miles in five days, overnighting in motels and B&Bs. We ate so much Kansas City T-bone, I swear the cows ran for cover every time we barreled past an open pasture. Da Silva's Black Travel Network offers tours for individuals and groups that cover much of the same ground we traveled.

Missouri, whose population of 5.5 million is only about 12 percent African American, is not the first place you would think to go looking for black culture. The jazz joints and soul food restaurants of Harlem are more accessible, the Atlanta childhood home and church of Martin Luther King Jr. more inspirational.

But the road from St. Louis to Kansas City offered the chance for me to learn about the heroes and other characters of my grandfather's generation. In St. Louis's Chestnut Valley, for example, a spurned Frankie Baker in 1899 gunned down Albert "Johnnie" Britt, her 16-year-old lover, inspiring one of the most famous blues songs of the 20th century, "Frankie and Johnnie." The tiny village of Mexico, Mo., is where a former slave named Tom Bass learned the horse trade and eventually became one of the world's best-known trainers. And in Saline County, Mo., Joseph Penny, another emancipated slave, bought 16 acres from his former master and turned it into the country's first incorporated black town.

Before taking to the road, I visited venues featuring some of St. Louis's best-known African Americans. After touring the Dred Scott exhibition, I headed to the small apartment where ragtime composer Scott Joplin lived around the turn of the 20th century. Here I saw the small, modestly furnished rooms where he wrote and entertained guests. A player piano performed "The Ragtime Dance," "Elite Syncopation" and other tunes that made Joplin famous.

With music still spinning in my head at nightfall, I dropped into Blueberry Hill, a club where Chuck Berry, another St. Louis native, occasionally performs. It was the rock-and-roller's night off, but no matter. Sipping a Coke while listening to Sam Cooke recordings, I imagined that Frankie would strut in any minute now, with Johnnie on her arm.

"Little Dixie"

The heavy oak door to Pleasant Green, a restored antebellum mansion in the tiny town of Boonville, took us a century and a half into the past. After sherry and homemade desserts with Florence "Winky" Friedrichs, whose family has been owners for five generations, we were offered a tour of the place, which is open to the public by appointment. Built in 1818, the Federal-style manse has 11 rooms, complete with a parlor, den and bedrooms with wood-beamed ceilings.

Out back was a tiny log structure, the last remaining dwelling of five cabins where the slaves once lived. In 1863, the family owned 17 slaves, according to a document Winky showed us. It listed the net worth of each -- $250 for a 39-year-old named Tom, $150 for 17-year-old William, $0 for a 6-year-old child. In all they were valued at $9,009.

"This was a brutal period," Winky said. "Most folks in these parts would just as soon forget it."

Nearby were similar estates, including Crestmeade, an 1859 Italianate mansion whose owner showed us the spot where Confederate troops had been sheltered. At Ravenswood, a 30-room home built in 1880, dust hung from cracking ceilings and wallpaper fell off wall after wall.

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