After the month in which we took a moment to remember the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose visionary and prophetic words seem, unfortunately, just as relevant today as they were then), February is here. Dr. Herman Dreer, a pioneering educator, is the reason Black History Month has deep roots in St. Louis. He was shocked at the ignorance of his students’ African American history when he first arrived in St. Louis to teach at Sumner High School. Deer set up a Saturday school to encourage teachers to incorporate black history into their curriculum. He also encouraged year-long projects from students, which culminated in a celebration called “Negro History Week”.
My journey to discover more about the amazing history of African Americans in my city and state began as a handful of bits of knowledge in a vast sea of oblivion. I now share this with Dr. Dreer’s high school students. Although I had a book I needed to write, I was able to squeeze in enough information to fit my word count. A kind and thoughtful editor helped me to trim it down to make it more digestible for my intended audience (school kids). In my “zeal for the converted” status, I won’t claim that I know everything about St. Louis’ black history. If you don’t know them, I have some favorite people that everyone should meet.
Moses Dickson is an example. At 16 years old, he began to fight for the abolishment of slavery. At 22 years old, he co-founded the Knights of Liberty, a secret organization that recruits and prepares for an armed rebellion against slaveowners. According to historical records, the group had more than 47,000 members at its peak. Their plans were diverted by the imminent Civil War. Dickson and his Knights instead redirected their efforts to move people through Underground Railroad. Like Dickson, many others joined the Union Army. Dickson, who was an ordained minister after the war, co-founded the Knights and Daughters of Tabor (a black self-help society), Lincoln Institute (which later became Lincoln University), and was a key figure in the creation of the Colored Refugee Relief Board. This board dealt with the exodus of Southern African blacks from St. Louis to the north and west.
Father Dickson is not the only significant figure involved in Missouri’s civil rights struggle. Charlton Tandy, who worked alongside Dickson to promote causes such as abolition and higher education, cuts another large swath across the 1800s. His activism included organizing, legal processes, and direct interventions. He organized protests and boycotts against the St. Louis public streetcars that routinely forced black riders to the sides of the cars, as well as to demand changes in policies. It worked. There were also some lawsuits. But drivers continued to ignore this new reality. Tandy became famous for standing at streetcar stops, where African American passengers were waiting. He would then step into the path to grab the reins of the horse if the driver was not inclined to stop. If I may, the man was a badass if I can assess him without appearing glib. His impact was felt even by white St. Louis: his death in 1919 saw the St. Louis Post-Dispatch publishing an obituary. This was a rare instance of a ceding of printer ink on white paper. Tandy and Dickson left an imprint on our world today. Father Dickson Cemetery in Crestwood is named after him. Tandy Park in Ville is named for him. You can also visit the Tandy engine at the St. Louis Zoo train.