Following the Black History Trail

February 1, 2009
Filed under Destinations

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1997047_black_history_trail_9.jpg“The slavery story is such an integral part of the development of this country,” says Angela da Silva, director of the National Black Tourism Network in St. Louis, Missouri, and as fervent a promoter of the study of African-American history as anybody you’ll meet. She knows it well, and explains that the source of her interest can be traced to a fine house on the former Baker Plantation in central Missouri, built in 1827. Da Silva’s great-great grandparents were slaves there.

 

She believes that “people sometimes forget the contributions African-Americans made, in labor and culture.” A storyteller and teacher, Da Silva, 54, gives lectures and hosts re-enactments and other journeys through history, attempting to bring the Civil War and years preceding it back to life to make sure that we never forget.

 

Northeastern Missouri, da Silva explains, was “much more of a stronghold for slavery than most people realize.” She has recently developed a Black History/Civil War Trail through the area that begins along the Little Dixie Highway (the roadbed was laid by slaves more than a century and a half ago) with a visit to Hannibal, home to Mark Twain, but viewed on this tour from an “Afro-Centric Perspective.”

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Among other sites, the tour includes Palmyra, where in October 1862 the last of three reprisal executions of Confederates in northeast Missouri took place; the Athens State Historic Site, where a brief, crucial battle in August 1861 helped keep Missouri in the Union; the pastoral landscape where the Battle of Centralia took place in September 1864; and state capital Jefferson City, where only the third monument to Black Civil War soldiers in the country was recently unveiled on the grounds of Missouri’s only historically Black university.

 

The tour also includes several first-rate museums and other historic sites. Guy and I devoted three days to driving the tour, covering 450 miles – without ever leaving Missouri.

 

St. Louis is home to more than two dozen Black History sites including the George Washington Carver Garden, the Old Courthouse (scene of the historic Dred Scott trial), the Black World History Museum and the Scott Joplin State Historic Site.

 

One of the newest Black History attractions is the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing at the north end of town along the Mississippi River. The site, administered by Grace Hill Settlement House, was named for free black St. Louisan Mary Meachum, who helped escaping slaves cross the river into free-state Illinois. St. Louis, explains da Silva, was a pivotal point on the Underground Railroad, the network that helped slaves cross into states that recognized them as free.

 

A plaque at the Crossing, where we chose to begin our tour, commemorates what happened there in May 1855, when Meachum and a man identified as Isaac were charged in criminal court with helping eight or nine runaway slaves escape. The charges against Isaac were eventually dropped, but Meachum’s fate is unknown, says da Silva. Now in this lonely setting, where the air is rich with the scent of fish and the swirling brown river, costumed re-enactments are held every year.

 

To continue, drive west from St. Louis on Interstate 70 to St. Peters, where the trail heads north along Missouri Highway 79, part of the Mississippi’s Great River Road.

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A ticket to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal allows entrance into all eight of the museum properties, which include the Huckleberry Finn House and Becky Thatcher House.

 

Our first stop was at the museum, where director Regina Faden explained the facility’s mission: to do what controversial Twain, who hated prejudice and advocated social justice, would have wanted, and to be actively engaged in the community, which originally was settled by Southerners. Numerous plaques tell the stories of past African-American church members in the area. The museum is also home to dozens of Mark Twain artifacts.

 

The other museum properties are within walking distance. We found the Tom Blankenship House replica of particular interest, as Tom, a boy Twain had known, was the model for Huckleberry Finn. Placards explain that the book tells of a boy’s struggle with his own racism in the days before the Civil War, and symbolizes Twain’s efforts to overcome his early racism (his family had owned a slave), and efforts of American society to come to terms with its complicity in the evil “institution.”

 

At the nearby Planters Barn Theater, stage actor Richard Garey presents “Mark Twain Himself.” Recreating the famous Mark Twain Road Shows of a century ago, Garey, in bushy gray mustache and suit à la Twain, gives a terrific performance, bringing the author/humorist back to life through amusing and poignant stories, irreverent wisdom and satire.

 

From Hannibal, take U.S. Highway 61, then Missouri Highway 168 north to Palmyra, where a monument stands at the courthouse to honor the 10 Confederate prisoners executed by Federals in the fall of 1862, as retribution for the disappearance of a local Union sympathizer. The event would later be known as “The Palmyra Massacre.”

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While in town we had the privilege of meeting Joyce McGruder, 69, whose grandmother was a member of the last family to be sold as slaves in Palmyra.

 

The trail continues north, along U.S. Highway 61 to Missouri Highway 81 to Athens, once a bustling port town, now a 400-acre State Historic Site on the Des Moines River a mile or so south of Iowa. There, on the site of the 1861 Battle of Athens, a state park since 1975, administrator Roger Boyd is eager to tell the story.

 

He begins by explaining that citizens of few states suffered as those of Missouri did during the Civil War, with 1,125 battles, engagements and skirmishes taking place within its borders. And Missourians fought on both sides: at least 40,000 in the Confederate army, plus some 109,000 in the Union army. Missouri Union regiments also included more than 8,300 ex-slaves and free blacks.

 

Soon after the firing on Fort Sumter, northeastern Missouri was in the grip of anarchy, said Boyd. Though most residents were pro-Southern, the region was divided, and ambushes and assassinations were becoming common. To protect themselves, their families and their cause, men began to band together – Unionists as Home Guards, Secessionists as State Guard Units.

 

The confrontation between the two sides began early on August 5, with the Unionists surrounded on three sides by State Guards, the river to their rear. Though outnumbered at least five to one, the Union troops were better trained and equipped and, after only about two hours of fighting, the pro-South side was demoralized and in full retreat.

 

The trail continues to Kirksville, where we met Pat Ellebracht, president of the 275-member Adair County Historical Society. He explained the Battle of Kirksville, which took place August 6, 1862, and noted that it was “one of the 20 most important battles in Missouri, as it consolidated Union control of the state.”

 

During the three-hour fight, focused around the courthouse square, just five Union troops were killed and 32 wounded, but 150 Confederates died, 400 were wounded, and of the 47 taken prisoner, 15 were executed the following day. A monument in Forest Lewellyn Cemetery west of the square remembers 26 of the Confederate dead. Ellebracht adds that although slaves were sold in Kirksville, there were not many in the county.

 

Items in the historical society’s museum, which occupies the town’s first public library, include a 16-pound cannonball found lodged in the courthouse when the structure was burned in 1865, a diorama of the battle and much more.

 

The trail heads south on U.S. Highway 63, then east on Missouri Highway 22 to Centralia, a town of 3,700, where a large colorful mural by artist Jim La Grande displays images of local history: the September 1864 Centralia Massacre of Union soldiers by pro-South guerrillas, the railroad depot where the massacre took place, a Confederate battle flag and a stagecoach.

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Historian Jack Chance, president of the Friends of the Centralia Battlefield Historical Site, told us about the massacre and the Battle of Centralia that followed.

 

On September 27 Confederate guerrillas captured a passenger train pulling into town, executed the 22 Federal soldiers on board, then set ablaze the depot, railroad coaches and a freight train. Chance notes that although residents were pro-South, there were no slaves in the town of 100.

 

Several hours after the massacre, Union Major A.V.E. Johnston discovered the bodies of the soldiers, and rode with about 155 men of the 39th Missouri Mounted Infantry in pursuit of the guerrillas (among them 17-year-old outlaw Jesse James).

 

Encountering the guerrillas at Young’s Creek three miles southeast of town, Johnston and his men were quickly defeated in what was the largest engagement of guerrilla warfare in the Civil War.

 

The Black History Trail continues across the Missouri River to state capital Jefferson City and Lincoln University, the latter of which was founded in 1866. The school now has a student body of 3,500, about 15 percent of whom are African-American. Eight buildings on campus are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

There are several possible routes linking Jefferson City and St. Louis, but we suggest taking Missouri Highway 94, another scenic drive that hugs the north bank of the Missouri River, to Interstate 64 east into the city.

 

The next morning we drove back along I-64 to Highway 94 south, and turned right on Highway F to the last stop on the Black History Trail, the Daniel Boone Home near Defiance. This also happened to be the end of the trail for the famous frontiersman, who died in 1820. The home, on 1,030 acres, is open for tours daily March 1 through Thanksgiving weekend, and is now run by Lindenwood University in St. Charles as the Daniel Boone Campus School of American Studies. Also here is Boonesfield Village, comprised of more than a dozen historic buildings brought here in recent decades from elsewhere in the area.

 

David Knotts, dean of the facility, explains that the 4,000-square foot, four-story Georgian style manse house didn’t actually belong to Boone, but he had helped his son Nathan build it (1803-1810) and spent his last years here.

 

“The area was multicultural at the time, with not only Spanish, French and English people living here, but also other races, Native Americans and African-Americans,” said Knotts. “When Boone and other settlers came, they brought with them slaves and free blacks, among them skilled artisans who helped build homes on the frontier.”

 

Knotts is hoping for private grants in order to begin archaeological digs to discover where the slave quarters were located on the Boone property.

 

“Everything we do is educational,” said Knotts. “We want to show the important role slaves and free blacks played in helping settle the frontier.” That’s something you rarely hear about.

 

National Black Tourism Network, (314) 865-0708, www.tourism-network.net.

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