Progress Amidst Prejudice:
Portraits of African Americans in Missouri, 1880-1920

Introduction to the Collection

The 129 portraits of African Americans that make up this collection span the decades, approximately 1880-1920, and represent citizens from small towns and cities across Missouri. Portrait studios in rural and urban areas alike captured this glimpse of black Missourians who lived, worked, learned and struggled in Missouri from the Civil War Reconstruction era through World War I.

For black Missourians, the 1860s and 1870s brought many changes. The Ordinance to Abolish Slavery in Missouri was completed on January 11, 1865, thereby freeing enslaved Missourians eleven months before the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended the “peculiar institution” of slavery for good. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted black Americans citizenship and guaranteed them equal protection under the law and all civil liberties afforded white persons, and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.

These developments ushered in an era of transformation, with many freed slaves celebrating independence, while simultaneously struggling to find jobs, receive an education, and survive in an environment of increasing intolerance and oppression.

The burning of black schools and churches, and the competitive job market drove many black Missourians out of the state. In fact, by 1870, there were fewer blacks in Missouri than there had been before the Civil War. i

Beginning around 1880, with the rise in “Jim Crow Laws” which established legal segregation, and continuing through the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which stated that separate facilities for black and white citizens were constitutional, the passage of discriminatory laws that oppressed African Americans became standard. The turn of the century saw a rise in acts of violence and murder perpetrated by angry mobs living outside the law. These lynchings of black citizens across the United States, including Missouri, were often ignored by those whose job it was to enforce civility and safety within communities. This grotesque streak of violence would continue for decades, and made life as free Americans even more unsettling for black citizens.

The years between 1880 and 1920 show a steady migration from smaller communities within Missouri to larger cities, especially St. Louis, where an already established black community provided the opportunity to receive an education, find jobs, and live with less fear regarding their safety from those still bitter about the Civil War and the new rights given to African Americans.

Census data shows the detail of this population shift and resulting social change. Moberly’s population was 10.6% African American in 1900, and by 1920 it was 6.5%. In 2000, it was 6.7%. Hannibal’s population was 14.5% in 1900 and 8.8% in 1920. By 2000, it was down to 6.6%. Conversely, the city of St. Louis rose from 6.1% African American in 1900 to 9% in 1920. In 2000, African Americans represented 51.2% of the population.

Although they were no longer bound to slave masters, many black Americans still found themselves working as farm laborers. In fact, in 1910, the most common occupation for black men and women in America was “Farm Laborer.” ii

While the struggle for better paying jobs would continue, black Missourians were making strides in the realm of education. In 1860, 41% of free blacks were illiterate, but in 1910, this number was down to 17.4%. In 1920 it was 12.1% and by 1930 only 8.8% were considered illiterate.

African Americans in Missouri between 1880 and 1920 had many hurdles to success, and the question of their progress versus their oppression can be debated. It cannot, however, be denied that at the turn of the century, black Missourians were more educated than at any other time in their past history. And the twentieth century was destined to bring new challenges, new burdens, and new achievements.

African Americans and the photograph

When the daguerreotype was first introduced in 1839, it was primarily members of the upper class who could afford to sit for the photographer. However, the cabinet card, introduced in the 1860s and popularized by the late 1870s, made it possible for everyone, rich and poor, to have their likeness made. Following development of this affordable means of creating images, photo studios sprang up on virtually every main street in America. Photographs became not only cheap, but could be duplicated as often as needed, and for the first time, family photos could easily be collected and assembled in photo albums for display.

By the late nineteenth century African Americans had the opportunity to participate in the phenomenon of portrait photography. Despite low earnings as barbers, laborers, cooks, or laundresses, blacks in Missouri could afford to buy or sew at least one nice suit or an attractive dress. Like white Americans, black Americans proudly dressed in their best clothes and posed for portraits. At the Missouri State Archives, one can find examples of how African Americans saw themselves a generation after slavery – as dignified, proud, hard working, and self-sufficient members of their communities.

The Collection

In 1999, curators at the Missouri State Museum located and purchased several photo albums that included unidentified African Americans primarily from the Moberly area, but also from Hannibal, Louisiana, Macon, St. Joseph, Jefferson City, St. Louis, and Kansas City. These albums were loaned to the Missouri State Archives for copying and scanning. In total, the collection consists of 129 images of African Americans from approximately 1880 to 1920. The bulk of the collection is in the form of the widely popular albumen print cabinet card, which was replaced later by the silver gelatin postcard.

Rights and Reproductions

The State Museum allowed the Missouri State Archives to copy the images in order to make them more widely accessible. It is because of the State Museum’s generosity that this portrait collection is now available online. Any use of the photographs found in this collection must credit the Missouri State Museum, Department of Natural Resources. Digital reproductions can be provided at cost by contacting the Missouri State Archives at 573-751-3280, e-mail [email protected], or by mail at Missouri State Archives, P.O. Box 1747, Jefferson City, MO 65102.

How to use this collection

The African American Portrait Collection consists primarily of unidentified cabinet cards from photo studios scattered throughout northern Missouri. The best way to access these portraits is to simply browse through the collection. You can; however, do keyword searches on a variety of fields, such as name, title, date, subject, image number, county, and city. Name searches should be done by typing the last name first.

i Greene, Lorenzo J., Gary R. Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland. Missouri’s Black Heritage, Revised Edition. Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

ii Smith, Jessie Carney and Carrell Peterson Horton, eds. Historical Statistics of Black America, Vols. I and II. New York: Gale Research, Inc., 1995.