The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus on Monday shared thoughts on legislation highlighting the contributions of black Missourians in state history.
State Rep. Steven Roberts, D-St. Louis, began by discussing contributions of black people to the region — even before it was a state. However, contributions have oftentimes been omitted from history books, he said.
"When I think of black history in this country and in this state, 'celebrate' is not the first word that comes to mind," Roberts said. "Missouri entered the union as a slave state. Less than 200 years ago, we were owned as chattel."
Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet (Robinson) Scott, are national heroes, Roberts said. Each sued for their own freedom after living outside Missouri for a number of years. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices denied the plaintiffs' motions.
Nobody remembers the name of the chief justice or six other members of the court who denied Scott's freedom, Roberts said.
Roberts has introduced House Concurrent Resolution 74, which calls upon the Missouri General Assembly to condemn the Supreme Court's 1857 decision that despite having lived outside Missouri for some time, the Scotts must remain slaves.
The legislation asks lawmakers to resolve to never again deny legal protection to a class of human beings "on the grounds that they are less than human." And, among other things, it asks lawmakers to resolve to draw a line between Missouri's history, "which encompassed such inhumane and unfair treatment of our citizens," and the present and future of the state.
The state aims to be a place of equal treatment for all, the resolution states.
Roberts pointed out the case of Shelley v. Kraemer. In 1945, a black man named J.D. Shelley bought a house in St. Louis that was in a community with a restrictive ordinance that prevented black people from buying there. A man named Louis Kraemer who lived about 10 miles away sued to stop the family from closing on the house. The state Supreme Court sided with Kraemer, stating the covenant was a purely private agreement. The case was consolidated with a similar case (McGhee v. Sipes). Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, argued the case for the McGhees. While the Supreme Court held the racially restrictive agreements may not be regarded as violations of certain rights, enforcement of such a covenant would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment — that each person within a state is entitled to equal protection under its laws.
In Missouri's 200-year history, there have been more than 7,000 lawmakers, but fewer than 140 of them have been black, said state Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale.
Unrest in Ferguson in 2014 prompted Roberts to return to St. Louis to pursue a career in public service. Ferguson, a part of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area, erupted in riots following the Aug. 14, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. On Nov. 24, that year, a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson in the death. Unrest again erupted in the community.
"When we celebrate Black History Month, we're not just speaking about the history of African Americans and celebrating accomplishments of African Americans," Roberts said. "We are talking about our history, our nation's history and the history of our state."
Windham is sponsoring House Bill 1939, which would create a new state holiday, designating May 1 as Walthall Moore Day in Missouri.
Moore, of St. Louis, was the first African American to serve in the state's General Assembly. Among other things, he was influential in getting state funding for Lincoln University in Jefferson City. And he changed the institution, which is a historically black land-grant university, from Lincoln Institute to Lincoln University.
This article was edited at 11 a.m. Feb. 4, 2020, to correct the date of the Supreme Court's decision on the Dred Scott case.