Through history’s lens: An exploration of Black experience in St. Louis

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There is no shortage of museums in St. Louis to showcase the city’s rich history and culture. The George B. Vashon

Museum of African American History goes a step further, created with the intention of being a staple for the development of historical pride in St. Louis’ urban communities.

Calvin Riley, a St. Louisan who grew up in the Cochran Gardens housing projects, discovered a fondness for researching artifacts and acknowledging history related to his community. He was an explorer of his ancestral roots, which led him down a path to discover his family’s connection to inner-city programs and structured administrations within St. Louis.

“Anything that tells a story of a personal history can be an artifact,” Riley said. “I took my uncle’s Housing Authority jacket and multiple sets of his keys, in order to share his story and to get our people to understand the importance of collecting.”

Calvin Riley at George B. Vashon Museum. Contributed by George B. Vashon Museum

The museum, located in the St. Louis Place neighborhood, was named in honor of George Boyer Vashon, an African American lawyer and abolitionist who contributed to racial justice efforts in the city during the 19th century. The museum opened to the public in 2015, designed to provide access to a portal of artifacts and information about Black St. Louisans.

With over 4,000 artifacts, including pictures, scriptures, inventions and tools displayed, each step through the museum invites visitors to explore a historical journey through various generations. Riley was intentional about the way in which he sectioned the displays.  He wanted to honor the dimensions of the Black experience through individualized spaces.

In one section, the space pays tribute to successful Black artists and innovators who originate from St. Louis, such as Ike and Tina Turner, members of the Vashon family, professor and scientist Lincoln Diuguid, as well as many great legislators and athletes who have accomplished great feats.

“We have such a rich history, and many people have not tried to validate it,” Riley said. “But just like many other ethnic groups we have gone through so much, so we deserve to have our stories and our heroes valued, as well.”

There is a reflective element within the museum, specifically in its execution of sharing the realities of both the proud and harsh aspects associated with the city’s Black communities.

Visitors are invited to tour Black entertainment, through a corridor occupied with posters, vintage vinyl records, and even instruments from artists who set the pace for what became blues and jazz in St. Louis. In a neighboring room, there are displays of early 19th-century inventions of Black pioneers, such as magnifying devices, hair products curated by Annie Malone, and even original recipes and transcripts from the real Aunt Jemima. Within this same space, wax figures created during slavery can be found, alongside wooden furniture sculpted by the hands of enslaved Blacks, and robes that can be traced back to the Ku Klux Klan of Missouri.

“I just did my best to share our truth — even the negative sides — because even though it may not be pretty, it still needs to be told confidently so people of all walks of life can understand where we come from and how we’ve been adapted to our collective hardships,” Riley said.

Riley is also the co-author of “Black Saint Louis,” along with NiNi Harris. The book, released this past December by Reedy Press, chronicles more than 250 years of Black history in St. Louis.

 

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Gerald Burton Jr.
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