Intersection - African American History in Columbia, and Beyond

Mar 1, 2016

An image of Sharp End, the African American-owned business district in Columbia. Sharp End was largely torn down by the early 1960s as part of urban renewal projects.
Credit Courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri

  This week we're exploring African American history in Missouri, with a special emphasis on Columbia. Our guests are University of Missouri-Kansas City professor and historian Diane Mutti Burke, and MU doctoral student in history Mary Beth Brown. To learn more, listen to our entire show, or read and listen to portions of our interviews below. 

Listen to the entire show.

As recently as the late 1950s, downtown Columbia looked very different. Here MU doctoral student in history Mary Beth Brown talks about the former African American neighborhood of Cemetery Hill, which was torn down to make way for parking lots and businesses.

Slavery in the American south is often portrayed in movies or television as dominated by plantations worked by large numbers of enslaved people. Mutti Burke says that in reality most slave owners held a few slaves - especially in Missouri - but the cruel reality of slavery remained the same whether it be on a large plantation or a small household. 

Excerpt of our interview with Diane Mutti Burke.

The issue of slavery was fundamental even in the formation of Missouri as a state. Could you talk about that?

It was a huge fight for about a year in Congress trying to determine whether or not Missouri would enter as a slave state, and it was kind of surprising to Southerners because up until that point there really hadn't been a whole lot of debate about that at the national level. If a state wanted to enter as a slave state, nobody really complained about it. It was kind of at the beginning so the abolition movement in the North and there was some northern congressmen who did not want to see that happen. Sometimes, well for some of them, it was for humanitarian reasons but for a lot of them it was really for political reasons. They were concerned about the growing power off politicians from the slave states. They didn't want to see another slave state enter the Union because of that and so they fought quite hard about it. Now, the interesting about it is that they really didn't really ask Missourians what they thought about it. This is really a debate and a fight that was going on at the national level. The fact is if they had come out here to Missouri and interviewed people they would found that most of them very strongly supported Missouri as slave state and that's because most of the early settler were from  places where slavery had existed, they were either French settlers or people of French descent, there had been slavery in Missouri well before American's were ever  involved. The French have had slaves here both working in agriculture and of course domestic labor but also in mining operations in southeastern Missouri. So they had been here for a long time and they have had African and Indian slaves, native American slaves. But then also most of the early settles who had  moved from America had come form  places like Kentucky and Virginia, Tennessee, and they either own slave or they were supportive of slavery because because maybe the thought that some say they would own slave. They would have supported it pretty stridently, but they weren't really asked whether or not slavery should exist in Missouri. So what ultimately ended up happening was there was the famous compromise where Maine came in as a free state and Missouri came in as a slave state and then they continued to balance that out up to the Mexican war where every time a free state entered a slave state entered. So it kept the balance of power the same within the Senate.

I think many people's ideas of slavery revolve around the image of a large plantation, but that's not really what a slavery for the most part looked like in Missouri. How was slavery in Missouri different from other southern states?

Only a fraction of people owned many many slaves, hundreds of slaves. Most people throughout the South only owned a few slaves, but in a place like Missouri that was overwhelmingly the case. There were very few large planters here, people who owned 20-plus slaves. There were certainly people who did, but they were not nearly as numerous as in other slave states. So, size was a real factor. And what my research does is explore how it created some differences. Now, fundamentally at the bottom of it is slavery, and its every bit as harsh and as horrible as it was anywhere else, but it did create a little bit of variation in the experience of enslaved people in Missouri. The slave holdings were smaller because Missouri was located, surrounded essentially by free states, and that made a little bit if difference as well.

Did Missouri's position as a border state make it easier for enslaved people to escape?

First off you had to get outside of your own community and in a place like Missouri people tended to know one another. So they knew when somebody look like they didn't belong that they had come from someplace else and they would question them. So that was one thing it was very difficult to get out of the state of Missouri itself. But then even after you got into those free state/territory there was no guarantee that you would escape. Because there were people in all of those places who were willing and interested in capturing fugitives and returning them to people who claim them in a place like Missouri. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed as part of the compromise of 1850 they were compensated quite handsomely for doing that, so there was a monetary reward for sending people back and a lot of people decide that they wanted to capitalize on that. So it was very very difficult to run away. But having said that chances of getting away in Missouri were greater than getting away in Mississippi. Where are you going to run to if you live in Mississippi? You're surrounded by other slave states. So it did increase the odds fairly significantly.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.