Black St. Joseph

Black St. Joseph, Missouri

Jada standing next to a statue of the Pony Express in St. Joseph, MO

Jada standing next to a statue of the Pony Express in St. Joseph, MO

Saint Joseph, also known as “St. Joe” is the largest city in Northwest Missouri, serving as the county seat for Buchanan County. With a 2007 estimated population of 73,912, Saint Joseph is the eighth largest city in the state of Missouri. The St. Joseph Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Buchanan, Andrew, and DeKalb counties in Missouri and Doniphan County, Kansas, had an estimated population of 122,306 in 2006. Saint Joseph is also home to Missouri Western State University.

Missouri Western State University attracts many African American students to its school due to its close proximity to Kansas City. The school has about a 10% population of black students. There are several black sorority and fraternity organizations.

The racial makeup of the city was 91.88% White, 5.03% African American, 0.46% Native American, 0.47% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.69% from other races, and 1.44% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.61% of the population.

After the Civil War had ended and the 1866 Missouri Constitution mandated “free public schools for Negroes,” soldier/educator/civil rights activist James Milton Turner, a former slave, was appointed second assistant state superintendent of schools. His only duty was to establish black schools, among them the log Banneker School, built that year in Parkville just north of Kansas City. The logs were replaced with bricks in 1885, and until 1904, when the school closed, it had held about 70 students in eight grades.

One of the principal supporters of the school was none other than Jesse James. Considering the outlaw’s radical Southern sympathies, this may seem surprising, she said. But according to the Missouri Historical Society, Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda, had married a Dr. Samuels, the father of two mixed-race children, when her own sons were small, and the children grew up together. One of Jesse James’ stepbrothers was headmaster at the Banneker School.

Today, the tiny school at the end of a very steep street, empty for more than a century, is dilapidated and forlorn. But according to a sign, work has begun to turn it into a black interpretive center.

Jesse James Home in St. Joseph was the end of the line for the notorious outlaw. Under the assumed name Tom Howard, James and his family had moved into the small frame house only a few months before fellow gang member Bob Ford gunned him down April 3, 1882.

James, 34, was standing on a chair to straighten a needlepoint wall hanging when he was shot from behind, said museum director Gary Chilcote. The bullet that killed him left a large hole in the wall (now protected with plastic) near a faded needlepoint, still crooked, embroidered with the words “God Bless Our Home.”

Jesse James Gets Shot From Behind

Jesse James Gets Shot From Behind

The house, moved a few blocks to its current site in 1977, is now part of the Patee House Museum, one of the finest, most extensive museums anywhere. The Patee opened as a luxury hotel with 140 guest rooms in 1858, and today is a National Historical Landmark for its role as headquarters for the Pony Express (1860-61). Over the years the building was a hotel three times and a women’s college twice before serving 80 years as a shirt factory that closed in 1957. Six years later it opened as a museum.

A trip to St. Joseph has to include the Black Archives Museum. Quite surprisingly, St. Joseph has attempted to collect both the good and bad history that makes up St. Joseph honoring the struggles and triumphs of its African American population.

Black Archives Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri

Black Archives Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri