The Erasure of Missouri's First Elected Black Legislator

click to enlarge William M. Riley's campaign fortunes were splashy news in 1918 in the St. Louis Argus and across the country. - NEWSPAPERS.COM
William M. Riley's campaign fortunes were splashy news in 1918 in the St. Louis Argus and across the country.

For about six days in 1918, William M. Riley was the first elected Black lawmaker in Missouri's state legislature.

The St. Louis optometrist's win in the race for state representative, on a Republican ticket, made headlines across the country as newspapers detailed his victory despite a racist backlash of white voters who accused local Republican leaders of concealing Riley's race.

But those same newspapers soon had a different story to tell: Days after the election, the results were overturned. Instead of a breaker of barriers, his name etched in history, Riley was deemed the loser. His story faded from public view, even within the city he so briefly represented.

But the legacy of Missouri's almost-first Black lawmaker deserves so much more than empty pages in our history books. That's the position of Nathan Elwood, director of the Missouri Legislative Library in Jefferson City, who in the summer of 2021 was clicking through newspaper archives when he stumbled across a cryptic reference to a bizarre election more than a century in the past.

Digging further, Elwood found accounts of Riley's 1918 win in multiple newspapers — and he realized that he had rediscovered something important, and forgotten, about Missouri's history.

"It was a moment in the state's electoral history where things could have been very different," Elwood says now. "This was national news. I have found reporting on his victory as far as California, New York, Philadelphia. This was a monumental shift for Missouri."

But after months of digging, Elwood says his research turned up no published references to Riley after 1922, even among the region's growing Black political movements in the following decades.

Instead, Elwood says Riley "basically vanishes" from all available written accounts.

"I just found that very striking," he observes, "that someone who was so significant — who was reported on nationally — could in just a few years disappear, essentially."

Elwood maintains that Riley's story is more relevant than ever. More than two dozen newspaper accounts, which Elwood shared with the Riverfront Times, help trace the story of a successful business owner whose campaign for elected office pushed against the color barrier in Missouri — and won.

'Another step toward the goal of Democracy'

Who was William M. Riley? Among his earliest appearances in print is a June 1918 newspaper story in the Black-owned St. Louis Argus; the story describes him as a Kansas native who moved to St. Louis after completing his studies as an optometrist at Langston University in Oklahoma. The move proved a success for Riley, who established multiple offices and other businesses, including a jewelry store.

However, his entry into politics came at a time of crisis, notably World War I still raging in Europe. While there's never been a time when it was easy to be a Black politician, 1918 was an especially difficult year. Riley's St. Louis was caught in an era of intense racism and pushback to integration — with opposition coming both by ballot and bullet.

Just two years earlier, in 1916, St. Louis voters had approved legal segregation through a ballot initiative that made it illegal for anyone to live on a block where 75 percent of occupants were a different race. In 1917, East St. Louis burned as mobs of white workers, their rage abetted by police, massacred dozens of Black residents in an atrocity that shocked the nation.

But there was optimism around Riley's candidacy. The Argus described him in glowing terms.

"A man of his type is capable of fighting for the rights of his people," the paper editorialized. "Honesty and perseverance is his motto. He is capable and his character commends him to the honor. His election will be another step toward the goal of Democracy."

Riley went on to win his August primary, setting himself up to compete in a November general election that featured three candidates from the Democratic Party and three from the Republicans. At the time, the general election was structured to send voters' top three picks to the Missouri House, and the initial results indicated a Republican landslide: On November 6, 1918, all three Republican candidates, including Riley, swept their elections to represent St. Louis' Fourth District in Missouri's House of Representatives.

History had been made: Riley was Missouri's first Black elected lawmaker. The Kansas City Times noted "the Missouri legislature this winter will have its first negro member," while the St. Joseph Gazette described Riley as "the first of his race ever elected to the state legislature."

But while the news of Riley's win traveled fast, the celebrations would be short-lived. An election controversy was brewing.