Of Primary (Source) Importance

15, November 2017

Color image of cover for "Standing Up for Civil Rights in St. Louis" book

Distilling 200+ years of civil rights history into a 76-page book provides an immediate recipe for writer’s agony—and that’s before the wrinkle of crafting text for an upper elementary school audience. Yet that’s the task Dr. Melanie Adams and I faced in researching and producing Standing Up For Civil Rights in St. Louis, a young reader’s companion to the #1 in Civil Rights exhibit currently on view at the Missouri History Museum.

We knew that part of drawing a 4th-grade reader into the sometimes remote-seeming tangles of the past would involve including the personal and official observations of the time, as they were happening. After all, it’s one thing for me as a writer to present lists of reasons for and against slavery; it’s quite another to let partisans of the early 1800s argue it out. Enter slavery supporter Charles Pinckney, a senator from South Carolina, and abolitionist James Tallmadge, a representative from New York.

Color image of "The Last Sale of Slaves" paintingThe Last Sale of Slaves by Thomas S. Noble, ca. 1880. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Sen. Pinckney defended slavery by stating: “During the whole of life [a slave] is free from care. . . . The great body of slaves are happier in their present situation than they could be in any other, and the man or men who would attempt to give them freedom, would be their greatest enemies.” Rep. Tallmadge countered in terms both direct and poetic: “Extend slavery, this bane of man, this abomination of heaven, over your extended empire, and you prepare its dissolution; you turn its accumulated strength into positive weakness; you cherish a canker in your breast; you put poison in your bosom; you place a vulture on your heart.”

A vulture on your heart! As the dispassionate nonfiction chronicler of civil rights history, I can’t indulge in such fanciful prose, but you can see how that would stick with a reader in a way that “others argued slavery was morally wrong” does not.

Along with illustrations and historic photographs, we included a recurring “Views & News” sidebar to highlight primary-source support of the topic at hand. We also provided as many eyewitness accounts and commentaries as possible. For adding authenticity, they can’t be matched.

Color photo of the historic Shelley home at 4600 Labadie Ave.The historic Shelley home at 4600 Labadie Ave. Photo by Cary Horton.

A quote from J. D. Shelley, one of the plaintiffs in the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer Supreme Court case, is a perfect example. The Shelley case outlawed the practice of restrictive housing covenants, which had been used to keep black homeowners out of white neighborhoods. Years afterward, Shelley’s remarks added a voice of humanity to the dry legalities of this landmark case:

The way I see it, it was a good thing that we done this case. When all this happened, when I bought the property, I didn’t think there was going to be anything about it. But I knowed it was important. We was the first ones to live where they said colored can’t live.

Naturally, the harsh realities of page counts and reading levels required some of the primary sources we came across to get left on the digital cutting-room floor. One of these was Rev. George Stevens’s 1907 pamphlet beseeching the St. Louis Board of Education to provide a high school for black students that approached the quality of those provided for white students. His plea contrasted an overcrowded, decrepit, barely functional Sumner High School with McKinley High School, whose student body was white.

. . . visit this school, modern in every way, look upon its spaciousness, its architectural lines of beauty and strength, its well-kept grounds, it is like entering another world. . . . All the high schools for white youth are after this sort—imposing, suited, roomy. The very sight of this school gives to the youthful mind a high conception of life and the object of education. Such a school in its appearance and environment makes for culture and refinement. Why should there be erected such schools for all youth except colored youth? Why should our best higher school, Sumner, be where it is, and what it is?

Black-and-white photo of Rev. George StevensRev. George Stevens, ca. 1927. From the book History of Central Baptist Church. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Such high-minded and moving appeals worked: The St. Louis Board of Education ultimately spent $300,000 to build a new Sumner High School, which still stands in the Ville neighborhood and remains a source of pride for the local African American community.

These are just a few examples of history springing off the page (or microfilm) of primary sources we consulted. Breathing life into a fascinating, critically important, and much overlooked facet of our city’s past has been an amazing learning experience. I’m grateful to those real, live humans of years long gone for giving us the words to understand how we got from there to here—and for helping us feel and know what they lived through.

—Amanda E. Doyle, co-author of Standing Up for Civil Rights in St. Louis

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