Celebrating remarkable St. Louisans during Black History Month

    We honor and learn about remarkable individuals and their accomplishments during Black History Month. They include literary legends, sports heroes, activists, artists, educators, entertainers and more. Here are a few with a St. Louis connection.

    Voted “Greatest Female Athlete of All-Time” by Sports Illustrated, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is a track and field legend. Born in East St. Louis in 1962, she competed in four Olympics and won 6 medals, including three gold. Her heptathlon record still stands today! Joyner-Kersee’s record of service is also impeccable. A generous philanthropist, her foundation has helped countless people in her hometown. 

    An author, poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” made history as the first piece of best-selling nonfiction by a black woman. It tells the story of her early life, childhood trauma, and racism. Her accomplishments are too vast to list here, but she is perhaps best known for her inspiring words, including books, poems, plays, and more. 

    Frankie Muse Freeman spent most of her 60-year legal career in St. Louis. After graduating with a Law degree from Howard University in 1947, she established her legal practice in the Jefferson Bank Building in downtown St. Louis. Hired as legal counsel by the NAACP, Freeman filed suits against the St. Louis Housing Authority and the St. Louis Board of Education. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson nominated her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and she made history as the first woman appointed to the council. After being reappointed by several presidents, she returned to St. Louis and still practiced law at age 90. Hear form her in one of her last recorded interviews In Her Own Words: Civil Rights Activist Frankie Freeman.

    Dred & Harriet Scott spent most of their enslaved lives in St. Louis, where each filed suit for their freedom in 1846. The U.S. District Court in St. Louis heard the case the following year at one of the most important historic sites in the country, the Old Courthouse. After losing, the case made its way before the U.S. Supreme Court, where it again failed. Constitutional scholars have widely regarded Scott v. Sandford as the most flawed decision ever made by the Supreme Court. And Chief Justice Taney will forever be remembered for his pro-slavery decision. 

    The Scotts were ultimately freed, but not through the court system. New owners, the Blow family, emancipated them in 1857. Dred Scott only lived one year as a free man, but Harriet lived almost twenty more years and saw slavery abolished in 1865.

    Watch our Seeking Freedom documentary to learn more.

    Born in St. Louis in 1926, Chuck Berry was known by many as the father of rock and roll music. This title was the culmination of an unbelievable career.  

    At the suggestion of Muddy Waters, Berry met with Chess Records in 1955. Berry wrote “Maybellene” only weeks later, and Chess signed him to a record deal. His song soared to the top of the R&B charts – and many historians believe this was the first true rock and roll song. 

    Berry’s songwriting, stage presence, storytelling, and guitar talent were a formula for his success. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones introduced Berry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and summed up his influence, saying, “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry ’cause I’ve lifted every lick he ever played. This is the man that started it all!”  

    From 1958 to 1969, Curt Flood played nearly his entire professional baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Known as possibly the best defensive centerfielder in the game, he was a seven-time Gold Glover, three-time All-Star, and two-time World Series champion. But Flood’s sacrifices off the field make him one of the most important players of all time.

    Flood is known for his courage in challenging Major League Baseball’s reserve clause – a standard part of every athlete’s contract that gave owners total control. At that time, players were not allowed to negotiate with other teams. And although this case made its way to the Supreme Court and lost, it laid the foundation for change. Decades later, President Clinton signed The Curt Flood Act of 1998 into law and gave players the same rights as other professional athletes. 

    Black History Month is a time to learn about and honor individuals and their achievements. What about Josephine Baker, Annie Malone, or Tina Turner? How about George Washing Carver, Dick Gregory, Homer G. Phillips, and Miles Davis? They all have St. Louis connections. If you don’t know who they are, educate yourself during Black History Month – or any time of year.

    Learn more about Extraordinary Black Missourians.