Black History Month - Explore Missouri's Rich Heritage Print
News Releases - Travel & Tourism
Written by Tom Uhlenbrock   
Thursday, 31 January 2013 14:29
Jefferson City, Mo. — The Duck Room is a basement nightclub at Blueberry Hill restaurant in the Delmar Loop area of St. Louis. But one night each month, it becomes a living history museum with a performance by rock music pioneer Chuck Berry.

“He’s by far our most famous citizen,” says Joe Edwards, owner of the restaurant and music club that anchors the six-block entertainment and shopping district. “He was the first poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. Not only did he write his own songs, but he was a heckuva guitar player. Still is.”

February marks Black History Month, and Missouri has its share of important figures, from Dred Scott and George Washington Carver to jazz and ragtime musicians and Negro League baseball players. Their museums create an interesting itinerary for observing the special month. But you might also consider a stop at the Duck Room.

At age 86, Berry still performs his signature hits, and does the impromptu duck walk across the stage. His daughter, Ingrid, and son, Charles Berry Jr., perform in the band and help out when Dad sometimes misses a lick. The adoring audience doesn’t mind, greeting those senior moments with shouts of “We love you Chuck!”

While music critics disagree on the first rock ‘n’ roll record, Berry gets unanimous credit for being the entertainer who took the music worldwide, starting with “Maybellene,” his first single released in 1955. Berry was the first inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and recently received its American Music Masters Award at a tribute concert.

“He not only changed music, he helped change culture,” said Edwards, Berry’s long-time friend and part-time manager. “His music reached across the dividing line between blacks and whites. It also helped bring down the Iron Curtain. The Hungarian ambassador visited Blueberry Hill and said eastern and western Europeans listened to Chuck on their transistor radios. It did more to bring them together than any military threat.”

Scientist Carl Sagan paid homage to Berry in the late 1970s, when he chose the recorded sounds that would be aboard the Voyager space probes headed outside the solar system. “He included samplings of some of the best of what was on Earth,” Edwards said. “There were sounds of Brazilian jungles, some classical music and, for the 20th century, it was ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry.”

Admission to the Berry concerts at Blueberry Hill is $35. Visit BlueberryHill.com for a schedule.

While a trip to Blueberry Hill to see Chuck Berry represents a pop-culture focused experience, there are plenty of sites in Missouri for more traditional exploration during Black History month (and year-round, for that matter). Here’s a quick sampling:

George Washington Carver National Monument, in Diamond: Tucked away in the southwest corner of the state, the national monument is at the site of the Moses Carver farm, where George Washington Carver was born to a slave girl in 1864. As an infant, he and his mother were kidnapped by Civil War guerillas. George was returned; his mother was never found.

The monument includes a state-of-the-art visitors center that tells the inspirational story of Carver’s arduous struggle to rise from his humble beginnings to become an artist, scientist, educator and humanitarian. His research showed that rotating crops of peanuts and soybeans with cotton could revive Southern soil. To encourage the practice, he developed more than 300 uses for peanuts.

The 240-acre site includes a short walk through woods near a spring-fed stream where young George discovered his love for botany. Later, George wrote of the experience: “Day after day, I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauties and put them in my little garden I had hidden in the brush not far from the house, as it was considered foolishness in that neighborhood to waste time on flowers.”

George Washington Carver National Monument is the first national monument to mark the birthplace of anyone other than a U.S. president, and the first to honor an African American. For details, visit www.nps.gov/gwca.

Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site, near Butler: Dedicated in October 2012, the plot of rolling prairie near the Kansas border is Missouri’s newest state historic site. It honors the African-American soldiers who fought a small but important Civil War battle.

The 240 soldiers, many of them escaped slaves, were members of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry. In October 1862, they won a battle against a larger force of Confederate guerillas, marking the first time black troops were used in Civil War combat.

At the time, there was a national discussion about whether black soldiers would fight against whites. This skirmish, known as the Battle of Island Mound, answered that question, and made headlines as far away as New York City.

A white officer assigned to the unit wrote: “We have demonstrated that the Negro is anxious to serve his country, himself and race.”

The state historic site, south of Butler, has a circular gravel path that leads around some 40 acres of reclaimed prairie. Interpretative panels along the way explain what happened, and the significance of those events. Visit MoStateParks.com for more information.

The 18th and Vine Historic District, in Kansas City: A magical musical trip across Missouri could start at the Duck Room, in St. Louis, and end at the Blue Room, in Kansas City.

The 18th and Vine area was the center for black culture and life in Kansas City from the late 1800s to the 1960s. The Negro National League was founded near the district in 1920.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened in the early 1990s, and the complex was expanded in 1997 with the addition of the American Jazz Museum, which showcases the city’s musical heritage. The two first-class museums contain hundreds of photographs, artifacts and film exhibits that tell their stories.

The baseball museum profiles the league’s great players, including Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and Jackie Robinson, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs and was recruited in 1945 by the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African-American in the modern era to play in the major leagues.

The jazz museum describes the careers of such artists as Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. But the museum doesn’t stop at past greats. The Blue Room is an adjoining jazz club that showcases the best local and national jazz talent, in an intimate setting.

Visit AmericanJazzMuseum.com and NLBM.com for schedules and more information.

Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, in St. Louis: Like jazz, gospel, blues and rock, African Americans played a dominant role in creating yet another genre of music. Scott Joplin combined the structure of classical music with the free-flowing expression in jazz and gave the world the tinkling sounds of ragtime.

Born in Texas, Joplin took formal music classes in Sedalia, where he wrote “Maple Leaf Rag,” earning him the title of “King of Ragtime.”

He moved to St. Louis in the spring of 1900 to become a teacher and composer. His time in the city was his most productive and successful period. He wrote his first opera, “A Guest of Honor,” and “The Entertainer,” which was used as the theme song for the 1973 movie, “The Sting.” The classic piano rag is still played on ice-cream trucks throughout the area.

Joplin later moved to New York, where a string of personal disappointments took its toll. He died April 1, 1917. He was 49.

The second-story flat in a large brick house at 2658A Delmar Blvd., where Joplin lived in St. Louis, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 1984, the house and adjacent row buildings were acquired by the Department of Natural Resources and underwent an extensive restoration to become the first state historic site dedicated to an African American.

The second floor has been furnished with the décor and artifacts of Joplin’s era. Exhibits on the first floor interpret his life and work and include a music room where ragtime is played on a player piano. For more information, visit MoStateParks.com.

The Old Courthouse, in St. Louis: Now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial that includes the Gateway Arch, the majestic Old Courthouse has a 150-year history, highlighted by the landmark Dred Scott case.

The courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the pivotal case in 1847 and 1850. Scott and his wife, Harriett, were slaves who sued for their freedom, arguing that they had lived in free territory with their owners.

The Scotts won in St. Louis, but their owner, Irene Harrison, appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which overturned the lower-court decision. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed Scott and his family should remain in slavery. Although the Scotts later were freed, the decision hastened the divided country into the Civil War.

“The Legacy of Courage: Dred Scott & the Quest for Freedom” is a display in the courthouse on the first floor in the area where the original cases were heard. A bronze statute outside depicts Dred and Harriett Scott. Dred Scott’s grave is in Calvary Cemetery, in north St. Louis. For more information, visit nps.gov/jeff.

If you’re ready for a history-themed road trip, VisitMO has plotted your course, with the multi-day Trip Idea found here.

Tom Uhlenbrock is a staff writer for the Division of Tourism.

About the Missouri Division of Tourism
The Missouri Division of Tourism (MDT) is the official tourism office for the state of Missouri dedicated to marketing Missouri as a premier travel destination. Established in 1967, the Missouri Division of Tourism has worked hard to develop the tourism industry in Missouri to what it is today, an $11.2 billion industry supporting more than 279,000 jobs and generating $627 million in state taxes in Fiscal Year 2011. For every dollar spent on marketing Missouri as a travel destination in FY11, $57.76 was returned in visitor expenditures. For more information on Missouri tourism, go to http://www.visitmo.com/.


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