ST. LOUIS PLACE – Calvin Riley Jr. doesn’t need a time like Black History Month to raise the banner for Black history.
Riley, a retired St. Louis Public Schools teacher, thinks it’s so important that he used his own money to buy a building to house a museum about Black history in St. Louis. He also used his own money to buy most of the collections in the museum.Today, he shows off the history of African Americans in the Gateway City as director of the George B. Vashon Museum at 2223 St. Louis Avenue. While attendance is down because of COVID-19, about 5,000 have visited in most years.
“I have a passion for it, because I think that African American history should not be forgotten,” said Riley, who has collected Black memorabilia for more than forty years. “That’s one of the goals, to make sure that African American history is taught to the young as well as well as high school students and in college, because African Americans have done a lot in this world.”
The museum’s namesake, George B. Vashon, is also the namesake of Vashon High School. An abolitionist and lawyer, he lived from 1824 to 1878 and left behind a number of family members in St. Louis.
Vashon was the first African American graduate of Oberlin University, the first Black professor at Howard University and the first African American lawyer in the state of New York.
The story of the museum began in 2006, when Riley found artifacts of George Vashon in a house on West Belle Place. That find was news in this area and attracted interest elsewhere in the country.
So great was that interest that Riley considered an offer to sell the artifacts to a buyer elsewhere. Then he was asked to keep it because of all the things the Vashon family did in St. Louis.
“Someone said to me, ‘Why don’t you open a museum?’” Riley said. “One day, I saw this building, and a friend of mine said that he knew who owned it, and the person wanted to sell it.”
The museum has been open since 2014, he said. Like all museums, this one shows off memorabilia, in this case of African Americans. But Riley is quick to talk about specific people who made a difference.
One person was Oscar Farmer, who became the first Black police officer to wear a uniform in 1940. “Oscar Farmer said when he put on that uniform, he was well respected,” Riley related.
Another notable person was Doug Esom, who managed St. Louis radio station KEZK.
“I was proud to get his artifacts. Those are the people that must not be forgotten because they were first,” Riley explained.
“We had a lot of people in St. Louis who fought against segregation,” Riley noted.
Riley also has the artifacts of Dr. Lincoln Diuguid, who was a chemist who came to St. Louis in 1940.
“Dr. Diuguid told me that when he came to St. Louis, the Monsanto Company wanted to hire him,” Riley said. “But he had to pass for white. He could not tell anybody he was Black. He could not hire anybody Black.”
Diuguid turned down the offer and founded his own lab. He was there for more than 40 years.
“He was smart, and he was able to solve problems that nobody else could, and as a result of that, he was accepted by a lot of the other chemists across the country,” Riley said.
Desegregation helped Blacks gain social and employment opportunities; but at the same time, Riley said, some people contend that it damaged Black communities by scattering many of their members. It would be hard for communities such as Kinloch, Mill Creek and The Ville to come back together again, he noted.Many school groups, with numbers of white students, have come to the museum. But it’s hard for St. Louis Public Schools students, most of whom are Black, to visit the museum: The district lacks money for field trips.
“A lot of groups come from out of town, or they come from St. Louis County,” Riley explained. “They love it. They come in, and they’re impressed with how it’s organized. They get to see a lot of our people who they were not aware of who were not history-makers in St. Louis.”
During the pandemic, the George B. Vashon Museum is open by appointment only. To make an appointment, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-749-6322. The website is at http://georgevashonmuseum.org/