The Erasure of Missouri's First Elected Black Legislator

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Indeed, Riley's election featured a familiar refrain of conspiracy theories around the supposed fraudulent importing of Black voters: As recounted in historian James Neal Primm's sweeping St. Louis history Lion of the Valley, proponents of the 1916 ballot initiative to legalize housing segregation spread rumors that Black residents of Memphis were being driven to voter registration in limousines "by the thousands."

The pattern repeated in 1918 with Riley; in its campaign against the optometrist, the Chouteau-Lindell Improvement Association told an Oklahoma newspaper that the supposed Republican scheme to elect Riley was tied to heavy voter registration in the Black community "which has been found to be fraudulent."

But Elwood says he's found no other reports of confirmed fraud during the 1918 election in local sources. Equally baseless, he says, were the reported claims that Black voter registrations for the 1918 election were traced to vacant lots, insane asylums and names "taken from tombstones in negro cemeteries."

Riley himself appeared to be aware of the attempts to undermine the vote: In pre-election coverage in the St. Louis Star and Times, Riley told a reporter that Black voters in his district "are being carefully instructed how to proceed on election day to forestall any fraudulent attempts to deprive them of their vote."

click to enlarge The first Black lawmaker to actually serve in Jefferson City was elected in 1920 — two years after Riley's reported victory was wiped away. - TIM BOMMEL/HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS
The first Black lawmaker to actually serve in Jefferson City was elected in 1920 — two years after Riley's reported victory was wiped away.

Whether Riley truly lost or was the victim of retroactive meddling, it's clear to Elwood that Black voters took note of the strategies being deployed to keep their candidate from the halls of power. Through the next decades, it became increasingly common to accuse Black voters of being "led to the polls" or of being brought across state lines to vote illegally.

Similar accusations were levied two years later when Walthall Moore made history by entering the Missouri legislature as a state representative in 1920. One newspaper, based in Caruthersville, made no secret of its hardline racism by lamenting in a story that "the 1920 election was stolen by illegal [n-word] votes." Another report in the paper noted Moore had won his 1920 election by a heavy margin, making it a "hopeless undertaking" to reverse. The report included another notable observation: It described how, "four years ago," a Black candidate was elected to the Missouri legislature "but was counted out, his margin being but small."

It was this last reference, a hint at what had transpired behind the scenes of Riley's 1918 election, that caught Elwood's attention. What seemed at first like an offhand detail motivated him to scour newspaper archives for the full story of how a Black lawmaker had been "counted out" of an election because of his margin of victory.

Riley's election showed how a dedicated group of racists could successfully overturn a Black victory. Two years later, with Moore's victory, Elwood notes that "it cemented a strategy of calling into question the legitimacy of elections that the white supremacist establishment opposed. If they did not like the results, they would preemptively claim that the results would be fraudulent. And those claims always fell along racial lines."

Riley's ouster — from politics, St. Louis and history — should stand as an important moment in the history of St. Louis and Missouri. In 2022, Missouri has 25 elected Black lawmakers in the state House and Senate, the largest number ever in the history of the Missouri General Assembly.

"It has taken a very long time to get to this point," Elwood says. Today, he calls Riley's election a "missed opportunity" for expanding enfranchisement for Missouri voters of all races.

"It was because of machine politics, because of the corruption that existed at the time, because of a more entrenched racism within both of the parties throughout the 20th century," he observes. "It's hard to say what might have been, but I do think that it would have been significantly important to have seen a Black legislator in our state — even two years earlier than we did."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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