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Meet some ‘Extraordinary Black Missourians,’ from fur traders to pitchers to opera singers

Meet some ‘Extraordinary Black Missourians,’ from fur traders to pitchers to opera singers


When a person "steals" his book, John A. Wright Sr. is flattered. 

"I know we've done well when someone borrows a book and never brings it back," he says.

And many people might find "Extraordinary Black Missourians" worth, well, a long-term loan. An easy-to-read paperback with short biographies and photos of more than 100 people, the book is easy to pick up and put down, as Wright says.

Updated for the 200th anniversary of Missouri's statehood, "Extraordinary Black Missourians" includes people well-known to St. Louisans — Nelly, Tina, Maya and Lou — while also traveling across Interstate 70 and into towns and valleys that produce surprises. For instance:

Extraordinary Black Missourians

"Extraordinary Black Missourians," second edition

By John A. Wright Sr., Sylvia A. Wright and John A. Wright Jr.

Published by Reedy Press, 256 pages, $19.95

• In Clay County, Wright found a man who became one of the first non-native Americans to settle near Oregon Territory's Puget Sound. Rumors were that George Washington Bush's Conestoga wagon hid silver dollars from his days as a cattle farmer or fur trapper.

• In Boone County, a literate preacher helped enslaved people escape to Minnesota. Robert Hickman helped found the first African American church in St. Paul.

• An enslaved teenager in Callaway County, who told her white owner she would "hurt" him if he didn't stop raping her, made good on that threat and killed him. Known only as Celia, she was hanged in Fulton in 1855.

• Another woman, born in Independence, became a cook for Union Gen. Philip Sheridan. After the war, Cathay Williams enlisted in the Army, posing as a man, William Cathay.

Finding stories of outstate Missourians was sometimes difficult, Wright says, because often they haven't been written about frequently or included in books. 

Now 81, he's a retired educator who has written several books about St. Louis, including contributions to Arcadia Publishing's Black America Series such as "The Ville" and "Kinloch: Missouri's First Black City." He worked with his wife, Sylvia Wright, on the 2013 first edition of "Extraordinary Black Americans." Because of her current health issues, Wright asked one of his educator sons, John A. Wright Jr., to collaborate on this second edition.

The senior Wright was born in the Ville neighborhood and, like his wife, graduated from Sumner High School. For his bachelor's degree, he attended Harris Teacher's College, later earning his doctorate from St. Louis University. Sylvia Wright became a nurse and earned a master's from Washington University. They reared their three sons in University City. 

John Wright Sr. says he was taught Black history in school, but he believes that sometime in the 1960s, classrooms started focusing more on "multicultural" education. Perhaps "whites were uncomfortable with Black history because there was so much violence," he says. 

"I think we're getting back to where we're going to talk about history and what happened."

He does remember, though, some distortions he learned, such as that everyone heading to western frontiers was white. "We were omitted from many things," he says. 

"Life would have been much different for me growing up if I had known about Black cowboys." 

Now, he says, "it's good for all kids to having a rounded view of history."

Civil rights icon Frankie Muse Freeman honored with statue

Frankie Muse Freeman speaks at the dedication of a statue in her honor Nov. 21, 2017, at Kiener Plaza. The statue depicts Freeman walking away from the courthouse after winning a landmark NAACP case that ended legal racial discrimination in public housing. With her are Adolphus M. Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP chapter, and daughter Shelbe Freeman Bullock. 

The pioneers he includes in "Extraordinary Black Missourians" may be some of the least-known, yet most-interesting, entries. Occasionally, entries from the 18th or 19th centuries present challenges, with birthdates, even names, being uncertain. (And an entry for Charles E. Anderson, a trailblazing meteorologist, seems at times to confuse him with Charles A. Anderson, a war pilot.)

The people Wright chose did not need to be born or raised in Missouri, although some were. Others moved here for college or jobs. Some left and became internationally known singers (Tina Turner, Josephine Baker, Grace Bumbry) or writers (Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes). Others worked in Missouri, where they made their names (Cornell Ira Haynes Jr., aka Nelly; Chuck Berry; Lou Brock), passed laws (William Lacy Clay, Leon Jordan), fought for civil rights (Frankie Freeman, Theodore D. McNeal) or taught school (Charles Henry Turner). 

Wright knows that even more Missourians could be included in his book. But when readers make suggestions of who to add, he asks, "Well, who would you take out?"

Here are 10 more Black Missourians whose stories are extraordinary. For dozens more, you just may need to buy or borrow the book.

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