Photos, letters and documents sit in old cardboard boxes hidden away in the corners of people’s homes. This is where a lot of Black history lives.
The people who curate Black history have trouble tracking down what they don’t know exists. In rural Missouri, history is lost either because it was never recorded or the people who possessed those records and stories left long ago.
The majority of Missouri’s Black history begins with slavery. In 1860, at least 100,000 people were enslaved in the state, according to a report from the Washington University in St. Louis Law School. And, according to the Missouri State Archives, in 1847, the General Assembly passed a law that prohibited Black people from learning how to read or write.
Gary Kremer is the executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri and has spent several decades documenting Black history in Missouri. Kremer said the law prohibiting Black people from learning to read or write makes documenting Black history particularly difficult.
“It’s really hard to try to give a voice to people who were voiceless or whose voices were stifled for many, many decades,” Kremer said. “That’s a significant problem.”
Kremer said while there are interviews with former slaves later in their lives and other documentary records that can be retrieved to document that time period, it’s not the same as having their own written accounts.
“The absence of the records of African-Americans in their own words in their own hand from the period before the Civil War is probably one of the biggest challenges,” Kremer said.
The exodus of Black people from southwest Missouri during the late 1800s also factors into the lost history.
Dorothy Berry worked with her father, the Rev. Moses Berry, at Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove, Missouri. The museum was on Main Street in Ash Grove for 10 years. In 2013, the reverend’s health forced him to close the museum’s physical location, but Dorothy was able to move it online.
Dorothy said the museum works to showcase Black history in the Ozarks. She said many people don’t think there is a rich Black history there because the Black people who were enslaved there left after a series of lynchings.
“It has allowed people to sort of live with a story that there weren't any Black people there in first place,” Dorothy said.
Primarily during the turn of the century, some people’s houses were burned down, and other people abandoned their homes and belongings.
“Generations later you don't necessarily remember something of, like, ‘This is the house that my great-great-grandparents moved into,’ because it was abandoned by people who left the town because they were scared,” Dorothy said.
Black people fled Missouri during the Civil War and their history faded away.
“When African-American soldiers were allowed to enlist in 1863, many white folks in Missouri tried to stifle that,” Kremer said. “And to threaten especially Black men, and beat, kill Black men to try to suppress their desire to join the army. And many Black men fled the state as a consequence of that.”
Dorothy said she has seen young Black people take an interest in preserving their histories. She is the chair of the Society of American Archivists’ Archivists and Archives of Color Section, and she said many up-and-coming Black archivists are working to safeguard their cultural background.
“There are tons of emerging Black curators who do work positioning the materials that already exist in collections to show how Black history has been erased,” Berry said.
Preserving history can put curators in uncomfortable situations, Berry said.
“The work is often hard, and the work often involves trying to get people to talk about their history who don't trust you or who don't trust the institutions you represent,” Berry said. “But nobody said history was easy.”