ST. LOUIS – Black History Month is every month at the Missouri History Museum.
A display on civil rights is part of the timeline visitors walk through no matter when they visit. But February, which has been specially designated as Black History Month since 1976, takes on new meaning each year for those who curate Missouri’s flagship house of history.“We still have a long way to go,” Shakia Gullette, who coordinates Black History Month events at the museum, said in an interview. “It would be nice if we could celebrate more African-American history in the school system, in our schools, but we have definitely made leaps and bounds.
“And more people are celebrating every day, and those that are not African-American, so it is becoming American history.”
Gullette said that when she was searching for ideas for February programs, she decided that with an election on seemingly everyone’s mind, a focus on the African-American vote made sense.
So the museum put on its African American Vote event to kick off the month.
What was clear when listening to the experts assembled was that the importance of the vote itself has been interwoven with efforts on the part of those in power to try to take it away, or at least make it harder to exercise. The tactics most are aware of date back more than a century.“They created a whole mechanism to keep blacks from voting,” panelist and University of Missouri Black History Professor Devin Fergus told the audience. “They created a poll tax, which is basically a tax on housing. Something like a literacy test, that said you had to read a passage from the state constitution.”
But this conversation was just as much about how history seems to be repeating itself in modern times. Dr. Gena McClendon of Washington University has made a study of more recent efforts to keep African-Americans away from the polls.
“Tactics will be employed or try to be employed to suppress the vote,” she pointed out in an interview prior to the panel discussion.
Sometimes, she says, those tactics are more subtle.
“If you live in a particular neighborhood, does it take longer to vote?” she asked. “Those sorts of things. Are there other distractions of things that keep people from voting? Especially what we’re talking about is voter suppression. So what are some of the non-statutory things that happen at polling places that people don’t know about?”McClendon is also studying Missouri’s voter ID law, part of which was thrown out by the state Supreme Court in January.
“NAACP and the A. Phillip Randolph institute, they’re constantly in litigation fighting for voter rights, particularly around this issue of voter ID,” McClendon said of the battle that remains in the courts today.
The overarching conversation surrounded the past and present of voting power in the hands of African-Americans.
It’s a history many here will tell you has never been more relevant. That’s what audience questionnaires overwhelmingly stated at the end of the night, according to Gullette.
“People were really energized to continue to vote,” she said. “People were very honest and said, ‘I vote in the national elections. I may not vote in our local elections, but I will now.’ So I think everyone left with some kind of engaging thought to move forward in that way.”