Curator Conversation: Crafting A Civil Rights Exhibit At The Missouri History Museum
In August of 2014, the world watched as Ferguson, Missouri, burned on a live newsreel. Stations were overwhelmed with video of riot vehicles trawling through crowds and men hurling tear gas canisters back at the police, an impassioned soundtrack of protest chants suspended over everything. But while some watching at home saw the birth of a new era of the civil rights movement in those images, others saw something else entirely. Curator and historian Gwen Moore even recalls one CNN newscaster’s comment that St. Louis was a city that “the civil rights movement had just passed by.” And she also recalls her immediate reaction: he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Moore is the curator of a new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, and she’s chosen a bold title for it: “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis.” But her team’s work seems less about proving that audacious claim and more about interrogating the very idea of what it means to battle for our collective freedom—and what exactly it might take to win.
The exhibit catalogs some of the most iconic images in the history of our local activism—think Percy Green scaling the Gateway Arch to protest the exclusion of Black workers from jobs in its construction. But it also breathes life into some of the least-visual and most vital moments in the movement, from the forgotten women and men who sued for their freedom during the slave era to the legal cases that originated in St. Louis and quietly laid a foundation for enduring national change. Moore commissioned local artists to paint portraits of the long-lost heroes whose photographs did not survive; their faces surround you from all directions, and their music and voices echo throughout the space, as loud and urgent to be heard as they were in life.
The story Moore tells “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis” is by no means an uncomplicated one: it spans Missouri’s early days as a union slave state, and it doesn’t shy away from painful truths about our years as a city that had eschewed Jim Crow laws but had yet retained a Jim Crow mindset. Nor does it ignore our hotly debated present; Moore actually encourages debate about Ferguson’s place in the legacy of the civil rights movement. But throughout, Moore tells every moment of the St. Louis region’s story with pride and real reverence—not just for what is verifiable, but for the questions that endure as the fight marches on.
Where does the title for this exhibition come from?
The title comes from an article that was written by Judge Nathan B. Young, who was one of the founders of The St. Louis American newspaper. For the bicentennial issue in 1964, he published a cover story under the headline “St. Louis: #1 City in Civil Rights History.” Needless to say, it was a bold claim. But he laid out his reasons for saying so in the article. He based it on the fact that we had more civil rights cases go the Supreme Court than any other city in the country—three at the time, and there would be a fourth in 1968. He also made the claim that we had the first civil rights protest on the continent—those were his words—in 1819, when free Blacks and white allies organized on the steps of the Old Courthouse, protesting that Missouri was entering the Union as a slave state.
But yes, people always want to know, “Where did you get that title?” They want to know, “Did you come up with it?” And I say no. But there was someone with some real bona fides who did.
You’ve said that a common reaction to the exhibit title is disbelief—that many St. Louisans believe their city never had a civil rights movement. Do you think that’s because so many of our images of from this period come from the Deep South?
Absolutely. When you think of the Deep South, you think of Jim Crow laws and extreme violence. St. Louis didn’t have Jim Crow laws after the end of the Civil War. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t have segregation—we absolutely did—but we only had two racially restrictive laws on the books: segregated schools and laws against intermarriage. We had different battles, different fights.
For instance, one of the fights we didn’t have centered around public transportation. And that was because of a couple named Neptune and Caroline Williams. Caroline was pregnant and had a small child, and it wasn’t safe for them to ride on the outside of the trolley cars, which Blacks were often forced to do. They filed a lawsuit and won. But, of course, winning a lawsuit doesn’t mean that the law will be enforced. Charleton Tandy was a civil rights leader, and he would grab the reins of horse-drawn streetcars and not allow the horse to move forward until Blacks were permitted aboard and inside. So because of this early form of nonviolent civil resistance, public transportation was not segregated—though restaurants, theaters, hotels all were.
Nonviolence—not just among the protesters, but also a relative lack of violent police retaliation against nonviolent protest—seems to be such a powerful component of the St. Louis civil rights struggle, at least in its early years. I wonder if that relative lack of dramatic violence is part of why this region’s legacy isn’t as loud, why it isn’t taught as widely in history classes.
I think so. Another example of that is that a lot of people don’t know that the first sustained sit-ins really happened here, in St. Louis. The earliest sit-ins happened elsewhere, but most of them were one-day events, a couple of weeks at most. These women [who led the protests] sat in for as many as 18 months … and I believe it didn’t get the same attention [as sit-ins in the Deep South] because there was no violence associated with the civil rights movement here. These sit-ins, no one was ever attacked. No one was pulled off of stools, no ketchup and mustard was dumped on heads. That didn’t happen here. But that doesn’t mean that what they did wasn’t heroic, or that their actions weren’t consequential.
Another way to look at it is that we had this strong civil rights infrastructure in St. Louis. We had these seasoned civil rights activists who had been planning and participating in these protests for decades, and they had the trust of the community—they knew what to do to avoid violence. A lot of people say St. Louis was the only major city that didn’t have a march after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and that’s not true. What happened was we had one of the only peaceful marches. When [local leaders] decided they were going to have a march to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, they thought maybe 20,000 people would attend. It would end up being 40 or 50,000 people, depending on who you ask—and they didn’t just take to the streets. They stayed up all night and planned out things that you and I wouldn’t think of.
For example, they had buses at the final destination of the march. They didn’t want people milling around, because that had the potential for violence. They thought of everything. And they don’t get credit for what they accomplished. They accomplished something quite unusual: they staved off violence. But instead of getting credit for that, it’s almost like they’re denigrated sometimes, because we didn’t have a riot like everybody else.
You’ve done such an extraordinary job in this exhibit of honoring those legacies, and contextualizing the deep and harrowing risks involved in all forms of resistance—not just rebellion. But that doesn’t mean you’ve shied away from the more visibly painful elements of the civil rights struggle. Why does the exhibit end with the Ferguson protests, and how do you frame that event in the context of St. Louis’ broader civil rights history?
What I always explain, as someone who was trained as a historian, is that we need some distance from an event to actually interpret and analyze it. So rather than try to do that with the protests in Ferguson, we decided to end with questions. We’re asking, “Does Ferguson fit into this narrative of the civil rights movement in St. Louis? If it does, why? If it doesn’t, why not?” We give people space to explore, and we give local artists and activists space to give their own answers to those questions. We ask, “Is this a moment, or is this a movement?” And then we let the visitor say what they think.
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