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By Linda Emley
Since February is Black History Month, I want to share some history about how it started.
First I wanted to make sure it was politically correct to call it Black History Month because some people call it National African American History Month. I checked the NAACP web site and it said, “Every year during the month of February, we celebrate Black History Month.” Since it’s ok with the NAACP, I will continue on with the story.
1976 was the first year that a U.S. President officially declared February Black History Month. Gerald R. Ford told Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
The story of Black History Month begins in 1915 when a Harvard-educated man, Carter G. Woodson, and a minister named Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
This organization is now called ASALH – Association for the Study of African American Life and History. They hosted the first national Negro History Week in 1926 and later changed it to a month-long event. February was chosen because Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas both had birthdays in February.
I thought it would be interesting to take our 1881 Ray County History Book and see what kind of stories we could find for Black History Month. There were some interesting facts in this post-Civil War world. In this story I’m using the term “colored” because I’m quoting our history as it appeared in 1881.
The 1881 history gave the following facts from the 1870 census. There were 18,700 people living in Ray County –16,867 white and 1,833 colored. These figures helped me understand our history because I didn’t know there were 15 colored schools located in Ray County in 1881. The number of school-age colored children between the ages of 6 and 20 was 329 males and 227 females. Not all of the children attended school, as I learned from the same paragraph that noted there were 192 colored boys attending school and 153 colored girls in school.
The only school mentioned by name was in Richmond. “Teachers elected for (a) colored school in Richmond for 1881 to 1882, to commence September, with John D. Waltan, principal, and Milan McGee, assistant teacher.” I’m assuming the other 14 schools were rural schools.
Many of the teachers at the colored schools were trained at Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City. In 1879 and 1880, the Missouri legislators appropriated $46,000 for Lincoln Institute and $10,000 was devoted to training colored teachers for colored public schools in Missouri.
In 1881, the Missouri constitution, Sec 3 said, “Separate free public schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent.” So it appeared post-war Missouri was making an effort to correct the wrongs of slavery.
There were several pages in the 1881 history book about the cyclone that hit Richmond June 1, 1878. There were a few details about colored people. The African M.E. Church and the colored school house in Richmond were totally destroyed, and Laura Washington, a colored woman, was killed by the cyclone and a number of colored persons were also seriously injured.
There was mention of a small frame building occupied by a colored family being leveled. It’s sad that there are many pages about the “white folks” killed by the cyclone and only a handful of facts about the “colored folks.”
The 1881 history book page 301 had a story about the “colored soldiers” of Ray County. “In the fall and winter of 1863, a large number of colored soldiers were recruited from Ray county, and mustered into the service in St. Louis (Benton barracks). They were assigned to duty and did service in the 18th, 62nd, 65th, 67th, and 68th regiments, United States colored troops. Companies A and B, 62nd United States colored troops, and company A, 67th United States colored troops, were composed largely of colored troops, recruited from Ray County, and continued in the service until after the close of the war.”
I did some research on Benton barracks and found that life in the Civil War was not the same for the colored troops. “A camp of former slaves was located at Benton Barracks. During the summer of 1863, St. Louis was inundated by thousands of refugee slaves. The government had no way to determine which were slaves or “freedmen,” so all were all treated as freed men. On certain occasions slave owners tried to retrieve their subjects, but Union guards would only allow slaves to go willingly and without abuse.”
I did find a disturbing story in the 1881 history book that I’m sharing because it’s part of history and needs to be told. Page 237 tells about the “First Mortgage” in Ray County that was dated July 23, 1822. “I, Samuel Crowley, of Ray County, and state of Missouri, for and in consideration of the sum of one hundred dollars, current money of the United States, to me in hand paid by Jesse Mann, of the county and state aforesaid, hath given, granted, bargained and sold, and by these presents doth give, grant, bargain and sell unto the said Samuel Crowley, his heirs, executors, and administrators, one Negro boy, called Chance, about seven years old. To have and to hold the said Negro boy, Chance, unto the said Samuel Crowley, his heirs, executors, and administrators, or against any person or persons, claiming under, by or through me, them, or any of them: provided, and it is the true intent and meaning of these presents, that if the said Jesse Mann, or his heirs, shall well and truly, on or before the 23rd day of April, next, pay unto the said Samuel Crowley, his heirs, executors, and administrators, the said sum of one hundred dollars, current money of the United States, with the legal interest thereon due, clear of all charges, then the above instrument of writing to be void, and of no effect, else to be and remain in full force and virtue in law.” Chance was used as collateral for a $100 loan.
One more fact from the 1881 History Book is that Rebecca, a women of color, was listed as a member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Richmond. I’ve been looking for more details about this lady for several years and haven’t found anything about her.
Rebecca is going to be a hard person to find because early history about “people of color” was not documented. She would not be listed in any census records until 1870. If she was a member of the church in 1842, she would be getting up there in years by 1870. I will keep looking and maybe someday I’ll be looking for something else and find a story about our Rebecca, the Baptist who lived many years ago in Richmond.
Have a story suggestion for Linda? Know something interesting about African-American history in Ray County. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or see her in person at Ray County Museum, Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.