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.
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.
This was "Little Dixie," comprising seven counties stretched across northern Missouri, including Boone, Calloway, Clay, Cooper, Howard, Lafayette and Saline. They got the name because of the heavy ownership of slaves by locals during the 1800s. Before the Civil War, the three major cash crops in the region were hemp, tobacco and slave breeding, according to historical records. In 1860, census reports show, the slave population ranged from 24 to 52 percent across the region.
Violence against slaves was apparently commonplace. A plaque in the visitors center in Lexington detailed one such case: In 1856, Josephus Hicklin lashed one of his slaves, then beat him with clubs and rubbed cayenne pepper and tobacco in his eyes until he died. Son of a major Lexington slaveholder and breeder, Hicklin received a government pardon in 1857.
Such incidents transformed Lexington County into an early battleground between slaveholders and abolitionists. Da Silva explained how antislave activists developed an underground railroad to sneak slaves across the border into antislave Kansas. Patchwork quilts, she said, were used to secretly communicate with the slaves (several are on display at the visitors center). A tumbling block design signaled that it was time to pack up and move to a hiding spot. A shoo-fly design meant that the owner of the quilt was a member of a secret society who knew the route to freedom.
On Sept. 18, 1861, the Battle of Lexington, a significant Civil War clash, erupted here, with thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers clashing for three days. When it was over, 39 Unionists and 25 Confederates had died. The South had achieved a victory.
Local guides Brant and Michelle Near showed us the Oliver Anderson House, an impressive three-story red-brick Greek Revival mansion where much of the fighting took place. Bullet holes still mar the facade and the ceiling inside. Each August, it's the scene of a major battle reenactment.
Afterward, the Nears offered us a brief tour of Lexington, which culminated at a one-room log cabin. The former home of slaves, it had been long since abandoned, the yard covered with grass and weeds. Graffiti in white lettering marked an inside wall: "Union Forever."
And no wonder. This small town near the Illinois border was where Twain (born Samuel Clemens) lived between ages of 4 and 18, attended school and launched his writing career. Tourists flock here to visit the the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum and collect other Twain-abilia.
The problem is Tom, Huck and Becky were all fictional creatures. None of the controversial characters from Twain's real life is reflected in the museum or other local attractions. Glaringingly absent is the model for Jim, the slave who befriended Huck. Absent, too, are the half-dozen or so slaves who worked in the Clemens household, most of whom befriended the writer and left a strong mark on him.
Now a growing number of scholars and other critics are voicing protest over the exclusion of what they feel is a major aspect of Twain's biography. One of them is Terrell Dempsey, a bearded young Hannibal historian who is writing a book, "Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World."
"I look around Hannibal and wonder what we would be seeing if we lived here in Sam Clemens's day," Dempsey told me. "According to my research, there were five slave traders here then. One in four local people were slaves. A major trial of abolitionists occurred here and Clemens's father was a juror. None of that is reflected in the museum or anywhere else in Hannibal."
Da Silva was more blunt: "When I visit the museum and the town, I wonder where are the black people? What you don't see seems more important than what you do." Other Twain scholars, including Harold Bush, a professor at St. Louis University, have voiced their views, too. "Several individuals led Twain to re-evaluate and reject the views of the community in which he grew up," he told me. "It's important for the public to be aware of that shift."
Even locals are weighing in on the discussion. "People sometimes ask, 'How can you live in a town that is totally made up?' " said Stacie Beattie, who runs a Twain souvenir shop. "We know it's a fiction but, hey, what's the harm in it?"
The criticism comes at a time when Colonial Williamsburg and other attractions depicting the antebellum era are making a concerted attempt to revise exhibitions to include slaves and other harsh realities of the period.
Asked whether the Twain Museum was planning to make similar changes, director Henry Sweets explained that when the facility was opened in 1912, the Twain Foundation made a conscious effort to focus on Huck Finn and leave out the biographical aspects of Twain's life. "Now we're in a period of transition," he said, weighing his words carefully. "Some changes may be needed, but it's too early to say what they are."
Dempsey does not expect any updating of the facility soon. "Twain experienced an important awakening in his views on race," he said. "Hannibal is grappling with how to make that transition. But we seem to have the feeling that if we tell the truth, people will not come."
The plaques, videos and memorabilia in the baseball museum take you through one of the most remarkable chapters of American sports history: from the banning of blacks in white-owned teams in the 1920s, through the creation of an all-black league and the rise of all-black teams like the Kansas City Monarchs and players such as Jackie Robinson to the heights of American sports stardom. There's a statue of Rube Foster, the league's burly founder, balls pitched by Satchel Paige and a bat wielded by Jack "Buck" O'Neil. But the highlight is the "Field of Legends," a lifesize re-creation of a ballpark with bronze statues of the league's first 10 players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Upstate New York.
The American Jazz Museum, across the hallway in the same building, is a tribute to the characters who strummed their fingers weary and puffed their lungs dry until jazz became America's classical music. Here are interactive exhibits about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz giants, as well as recordings of everyone from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The Blue Room, a jazz club in the museum, features concerts by local jazz artists several nights a week.
After nourishing myself for three hours with sports and music history, I was hungry for real food. Gates Barbecue, one of city's oldest black-owned restaurants, was the perfect response. A platter of ribs and chicken, hickery-smoked and drenched in sauce, and my day felt complete.
From the sorrowful scenes of slavery to the sites where sports and music stars made their euphoric rise, I had taken in about as broad a swath of history as any trip could offer. It's a journey every traveler should make.
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