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Missouri marks bicentennial with new citizens and ice cream

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — Missouri turned 200 years old Tuesday, commemorating its birthday with art, music, speeches, free ice cream and — fittingly — the recognition of new citizens in a state that once served as the gateway for westward expansion in the United States.

A bicentennial ceremony at the state Capitol marked the pinnacle of a year’s worth of events in every county intended to draw attention to Missouri’s history while also looking toward its future.

At its founding, most of Missouri’s residents had immigrated from other states or countries because of the promise of rich, available farmland. But some were bought to the state as slaves, and some Native Americans were driven out of their homeland.

Those who spoke at the bicentennial event acknowledged that Missouri’s history contains both praiseworthy and regrettable moments.

But overall, “we are a good people,” Missouri Chief Justice Paul Wilson said Tuesday, looking over a crowd of several hundred people spread across the Capitol lawn. “We’ve shone more often than we’ve blushed. We’ve been a force for light more often than we’ve been the cause of darkness.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who has traveled to dozens of towns on a bicentennial tour, singled out men, women and children in the audience as the true dignitaries of the day — those “who go to work every day, raise their families, go to church, live a good life [and] are good neighbors.”

Thirty-three people from 19 countries took the oath of U.S. citizenship inside the Capitol, where new Missouri-themed artwork was on display. Later in the day, free ice cream was being passed out at about 200 locations statewide.

Gaining statehood was a struggle for Missouri.

Territorial residents submitted a petition to Congress in 1818 to join the United States. But Missouri’s request became bogged down in Congress by a dispute over whether slavery should be allowed.

In March 1820, President James Monroe signed legislation known as the Missouri Compromise. Maine was allowed into the union as a free state. Missouri was allowed to draft a constitution as a slave state, so long as no other new slave states formed north of Missouri’s southern border.

“An enduring consequence of that compromise has been to make race relations a central theme of Missouri history for more than 200 years,” said Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Missourians thought they had become a state. Bells rang and cannons were fired in St. Louis as people celebrated, according to Kremer’s research. But the parties were premature.

Missouri’s first constitution, which sought to exclude free “Negros or mulattoes” from the state, prompted further opposition in Congress. After a second compromise over the interpretation of the constitution, Monroe signed legislation finally making Missouri the 24th state on Aug. 10, 1821.

Actual statehood didn’t seem to trigger any big celebrations — at least none whose records survived over time, Kremer said.

“A major reason that it took us so long to become a state is that we Missourians quarreled with the federal government — even threatening to secede from it before we had actually joined it,” said Kremer, noting that Missourians often still “don’t want the federal government telling us what to do.”

Missouri grew quickly during its first century — from about 66,000 people in 1820 to 3.1 million in 1900. At that time, it was the fifth largest state, and St. Louis was the nation’s fourth largest city, behind only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

But Missouri’s growth has slowed since then. Missouri had fewer than 6.2 million people in the 2020 census, sliding to 19th nationally. The Census Bureau plans to release the latest city population figures on Thursday.

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