The best teachers inspire a sense of curiosity in their students — about world affairs, their interests and their surroundings. But when a teacher becomes inspired and curious about his or her own surroundings, the result can be revelations about history, society and slavery. Dr. Lee A. Drake, a photography and art teacher at Webster Groves High School, is the author of A Firebell In The Night,
a nonfiction book based on his findings about African American life in St. Louis in the 19th century.
A native of rural Mississippi, Drake, 69, moved to East St. Louis when he was four years old. After serving in Vietnam, he moved to Missouri as an adult and began looking into the history of African Americans, particularly in St. Louis.
"No book talks about black life before the 1940s," he says. "But black folks were here during the World's Fair, they were here for the Olympics, they were here for the Civil War." He wanted to know what their lives were like.
With his only previous writing experience being his doctoral dissertation, the Kirkwood resident set out to write an essay. Instead, he found the project growing, with his research finally culminating "in this thing called a book."
As he dug deeper, his findings increasingly got darker — especially in the nature of how events were contemporaneously recorded. "My findings didn't paint black folks in a positive light," he says in regards to newspaper articles he came across covering the black community's events. For example, Drake describes in his book the disdain some whites had for black religious services and funerals. "There was always a racial light shed, even on positive events," he explains.
Other disturbing findings happened to the black community. For instance, the lynching and burning of a free man named Francis L. McIntosh, who had been a crewman on a riverboat. His murder was brought to a jury, which ultimately decided to throw out the case because they could not possibly find and punish all who were involved.
The title of his book, A Firebell In The Night,
comes from a quote by Thomas Jefferson. When Missouri petitioned to become part of the Union in 1819 as a slave state, Jefferson described it as just that, a raging dispute that engulfed Congress and eventually led to the Missouri Compromise
The question Drake asks in the book is this: "Was Missouri a slave state or wasn't she?" He cites acts like the Missouri Compromise as contributing to St. Louis's unique slave vs. freed slave culture — an aspect of African American life in the nineteenth century that he found particularly interesting.
"They knew each other," he explains. "When they sold slaves on the steps of the courthouse in the 1850s, how did that affect the free black folks, knowing that was being condoned?"
Drake states in his prologue that there is an arrogance in St. Louis when it comes to slavery. Even if no one wants to talk about it, slave pens existed near where Busch Stadium stands today. "Vestitures," as he says, of St. Louis's past with slavery still exist today. And deeper conversations need to take place to fully understand how they have shaped the city's urban landscape.
Drake's book tells the stories of slaves in St. Louis from the early 19th century through the civil war. He documents the horrors that took place, white culture, and freed slaves who were able to rise up in the community.
"The book changes back and forth so much," he says. "But my main point is, no book talks about black life before the 1940s. How hard was it for them to survive?"
A Firebell In The Night
is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon
and other retailers.
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