ST. LOUIS • Sixty cannon thundered along Clark Street. The evening sparkled with a fireworks show and thousands of lanterns and candles — an “illumination,” as it was called then.
The occasion was the celebration on Jan. 14, 1865, of Missouri’s decision to emancipate all slaves within its borders. A state constitutional convention, meeting at the Mercantile Library, 510 Locust Street, had abolished slavery three days before, on January 11. Freedom took hold the moment of the vote.
“Before the genial heat of the sun shall dispel the covering of snow which now hides the soil of Missouri, the action of this assembly will reveal that soil purified from the stain of slavery,” said George Strong, a lawyer from St. Louis and a convention leader.
Missouri’s decision had come in many stumbling and bloody steps. When the Civil War began, 115,000 Missourians were in bondage, most of them in counties along the Missouri River. Gov. Claiborne Jackson, a slaveholder-planter, tried to maneuver the state into the Confederacy.
Pro-Unionists, concentrated in St. Louis, thwarted Jackson but had wildly differing views on slavery. The next governor, Hamilton Gamble, wanted to save the peculiar institution and the Union. U.S. Sen. Gratz Brown supported letting blacks vote, but few Missourians went that far. Meanwhile, guerrilla war raged across the state.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, declared on Jan. 1, 1863, didn’t cover the border states. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery wouldn’t be ratified until December 1865.
In Missouri, the path to freedom wasn’t cleared until October 1864, after Union soldiers crushed a final rebel invasion led by Gen. Sterling Price, a former governor. Charles Drake of St. Louis, leader of the special convention, exemplified the state’s evolution — he had defended slavery in 1861 before undergoing an epiphany.
Even then, Drake’s convention refused to give voting rights to blacks.
But emancipation was momentous enough for a celebration. The Missouri Democrat, a pro-Lincoln newspaper in St. Louis, cheered the decision with a headline, “Glad Tidings of Great Joy.”
The Democrat said an integrated crowd of thousands mingled near today’s Old Courthouse for the fireworks show. Candles brightened the windows of homes and shops. “In many parts of the city the colored people had meetings, and their rejoicings were unbounded,” the newspaper wrote.
Its rival, the conservative Missouri Republican, sniffed that the event “was by no means universally participated in by the citizens.” It did call the fireworks “very brilliant.”
The convention resumed business and later produced the “Drake Constitution,” which included a strict loyalty oath that kept many former pro-Southerners away from the ballot.
The Missouri Voting Rights League, led by former slave James Milton Turner of St. Louis, worked to extend the vote to blacks. White voters rejected the idea in 1868, but the state accepted the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended the vote in 1870.
Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or firstname.lastname@example.org