The Erasure of Missouri's First Elected Black Legislator

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The association seemed to benefit from newspapers' willingness to restate their claims uncritically: One week before Election Day, on October 31, 1918, the Post-Dispatch reported that Riley's race "was not known to most of the voters in the district."

The Post-Dispatch story doesn't exactly fact-check this assertion, though its coverage does include denials from local Republican leaders distancing themselves from Riley, and "deny[ing] responsibility for putting a negro on the ticket."

It's also notable that the Post-Dispatch coverage of the controversy included a description of Riley's appearance, suggesting that his detractors made it an issue: Riley's skin was said to be "white, except for the innumerable freckles, and his hair is straight" — but the article also acknowledged that Riley had "the unmistakable facial characteristics of his race, which he makes no effort to conceal."

This claim — that the white voters of District Four did not know that Riley was Black — would be repeated as fact in several ensuing accounts of the election. But the attention also gave Riley a chance to speak for himself: In a handful of interviews that represent some of the only direct quotes from the candidate himself, Riley denied that he had won nomination through deceit. He pointed out that his photo had been published before the primary, and that the white residents of the district knew him well.

In an interview with the St. Louis Star and Times, Riley responded forcefully to the actions of the Chouteau-Lindell Improvement Association, which the previous night resolved to canvass house to house in the district "to inform voters about Riley's race."

At a time when the world was at war, Riley argued for perspective: "Members of my race are fighting in France to make the world safe for the white man as well as for the negro," he said. "We ought to be treated like citizens and we are not going to be intimidated."

click to enlarge Nathan Elwood, director of Missouri's legislative library, stumbled on Riley's almost-win of 1918 while researching the history of Missouri's first black State lawmaker. - MISSOURI LEGISLATIVE LIBRARY
Nathan Elwood, director of Missouri's legislative library, stumbled on Riley's almost-win of 1918 while researching the history of Missouri's first black State lawmaker.

A missed opportunity

Riley was just one figure in St. Louis' burgeoning movements of Black political power. Yet, unlike Walthall Moore — whose 1920 election in St. Louis cemented his place, officially, as the first African American in the Missouri House — or attorney Homer G. Phillips — whose name became synonymous with the hospital he founded that trained generations of Black doctors and nurses — Riley's story lay dormant for decades, his legacy buried in newspaper archives and waiting to be rediscovered.

But where did he go after the 1918 election?

Through census records, Elwood found Riley's last listed St. Louis residence in 1922. By 1930, the census entry for a "Wm. Riley" — with the same date and birthdate — shows up in Baltimore, listed as a salesman.

"I do believe he left St. Louis," Elwood says. "I think it made it difficult to center ongoing advocacy around his election loss without him there to be part of it."

In fact, Riley had lived just three years in St. Louis before his election, and, as a transplant who appears to have departed not long after, Elwood says it is unlikely that he left behind any local living descendants.

As for Riley's disappearance from the press and history books, Elwood has several theories. One explanation is that Riley's ouster was bad political optics — particularly at a time when both political parties struggled to retain Black voters.

"It seems likely that Republican-affiliated papers would rather avoid mentioning their failure around that election," Elwood suggests. "The Democratic papers would likely wish to forget their attempts at voter suppression."

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