Missouri entered the Union as a slave state in 1821. That did not mean all black people were slaves or were without rights. In fact, prior to the Civil War, it was legal for free black people to own property, including slaves. They could sue and be sued. They could testify in court against each other, just not against white men.
Even with these rights, though, black people were watched and limited. One Missouri constitutional amendment in 1847 made it illegal to teach black people to read and write. Still, many black people not only survived but prospered. By 1860, there were about 20 black barbers in St. Louis and several of them were worth more than $20,000 according to the 1860 census report. Across the state, black people operated vegetable stands and meat markets. Others made their living in the cattle business or in river boat connections.
One of the wealthiest black people lived in Independence. Hiram Young was born a slave in Tennessee about 1812. He was still a slave when he married Matilda, but by working hard and saving his money, he bought their freedom around 1847, and the couple moved to Independence in about 1850.
A free black person, Young began building freight wagons for settlers heading west and for the Forty-niners looking to get rich in the gold fields of California. By the time the Civil War started, he was making 800-900 wagons a year and close to 50,000 ox yokes. According to that year's census, his inventory alone was worth more than $50,000.
Because of the hostilities, Young moved his family to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, until the war was over. Upon his return to Independence, he found his business was destroyed and had to begin all over again. Unfortunately, he never fully recovered from those financial losses and he died in 1882 deeply in debt.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written Historically Yours for the Boonville Daily News for over 10 years. In celebration of Missouri's upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to [email protected]