The Erasure of Missouri's First Elected Black Legislator

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Unmaking history

Less than a week after the first reports of Riley's victory, the November 13, 1918, headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch delivered a dramatic update: Although "unofficial returns had seemed to indicate his election," the paper reported a stunning reversal from the city's Board of Election, which had found that Riley was 337 votes short of the next highest vote getter, James T. O'Brien, a Democrat.

News of the electoral undoing traveled, but unevenly.

click to enlarge Riley was a target of a racist campaign, raising questions about the surprising reversal of his election victory. - NEWSPAPERS.COM
Riley was a target of a racist campaign, raising questions about the surprising reversal of his election victory.

"The reporting on it was very confused for months after the fact," Elwood says. He adds that he found accounts of Riley winning his seat as late as three months after the election. But it's not clear what happened to the original count so breathlessly reported in numerous papers, and, as a historian and researcher, Elwood cautions that these are questions he can't answer.

"The reporting on this is a little bit contradictory," he admits. "Multiple outlets did report his victory as the official count, but you don't see a lot of concrete numbers that come with those reports."

Elections were not quick affairs in 1918, Elwood says. Early reports were often suspect.

"But," he continues, "it is significant how widely it was understood that Dr. Riley had won. You have a situation where the Board of Election Commission is mostly silent in the days immediately following the election until a week later, in which they announce the official results. And then, there is a great deal of conjecture about what happened. Was he so completely defeated within the midst of what was, throughout St. Louis, a Republican landslide? Was there something untoward? There's no concrete evidence that there was."

What there is evidence of, however, is a hastily organized coalition of St. Louis racists who united in their mission just days before the November election. The adherents had all come to the same startling discovery: William M. Riley was Black.

Apparently, this came as a shock. Although Riley was a known businessman and had been featured in the earlier Argus coverage that directly mentioned his race, a group known as the Chouteau-Lindell Improvement Association spent the final days before the election in an effort to manufacture the controversy as a bona fide election crisis.

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