The African American Plight Post Civil War

When researching the Donley family, and also through the stories my family has told, it has become apparent that the Donley/Royster family kept in close contact with their former African-American slaves long after the end of the Civil War. In the 1910 Census, there is a fifteen-year-old African-American boy, Owen Belle, listed as a servant (unpaid) who lived with the Donley family. Beatrice Donley’s son, William Royster, distinctly remembers African-American help living with the family during his youth. How prevalent were such situations in Missouri, and how prevalent were racist systems and tactics in general? Through additional research it became apparent that these arrangements were rare in Missouri, but very common and even expected in the Deep South. When partnered with the fact that the Donley/Royster family were Confederate Veterans in the Civil War, the mystery as to why they would follow such a predominately southern practice of retaining close master/owner relationships with their former slaves becomes much more illuminated.

Early 1900’s Missouri was certainly not an ideal place for African-Americans, many in Missouri allied their sympathies to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and, though rare, forms of peonage and abusive tenant labor were seen throughout the state, especially in Little Dixie. The Missouri Historical Review, volume ninety-five states that Missouri also faced its share of blatantly racist newspaper publications that adamantly defended lynchings and white supremacy. However, besides these abhorrent systems put in place to stifle African-American freedom, African-Americans enjoyed relatively good access to the ballot box when compared to their southern counterparts. Volume ninety-five of the Missouri Historical Review goes on to state that Missouri, despite its flaws never faced the voter suppression that many southern states propagated, and links this to the fact that as a relatively young state Missouri never developed the oligarchical tone of southern politics. Peonage was also almost non-existent in the state of Missouri, with it being totally outlawed in 1867 and only one case every being brought to court. Why is it, with such as similar background, Missouri appears to have resisted much of the systematic state condoned racism that plagued its southern neighbors?

Missouri appears to have been relatively unique when it comes to African-American rights, very progressive when compared to its southern counterparts but definitely not the relatively accepting and relatively racially equal areas of the far north. What made Missouri unique in this way? To understand this question, one must look into the very beginnings of Missouri’s history, and to those families who first settled in Missouri. According to On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 by Dianne Burke, Missouri’s hills and thick forest did not attract the large southern plantation owners, but instead attracted individual families, usually in possession of small amounts of slaves which often meant a close bond between property and master. This bond was almost familial and resulted in much of Missouri willingly emancipating their slaves and lead to a much smoother transition into the reconstruction era. In the thesis of Jonathan Klusmeyer titled Slavery Continued: Peonage in Missouri, Klusmeyer chalks this uniqueness up to the fact that Missouri legislature shortly after the civil war was in the hands of radical Republicans, who went so far as to call a special election in 1864 to reorganize the Missouri government, according to Dorris Keeven-Franke of the St. Charles County History article Missouri’s Slaves Emancipated at last. Once the radical abolitionists achieved control in both houses and the governorship in November of 1864, they passed a flurry of laws giving blacks a legal advantage and ensuring for several generations to come that they would never suffer the plight of their southern brethren. Couple this with the fact that Missouri was much faster to industrialize than the generally poorer south, and we see both a lack of blacks able to be extorted, and a lack of whites searching to extort them.

When it comes to the case of the Donley/Royster family, it appears that their particular situation of maintaining their African-American help well into the 20th century was nearly unheard of in Missouri. Because of the unique history and nearly coincidental political happenings of the state, Missouri managed to escape the harsh black suppression that gripped much of the antebellum South. The Donley/Royster maintenance of the Belle family was likely mutually agreed upon as Missouri had instituted laws making such arrangements illegal if they were non consensual, the law was very much on the side of the African-American in these situations. The mystery of the Donley help seems to be little more than an “old habits die hard” situation, African-Americans remained more likely to be uneducated, and poor white farmers who could not afford to industrialize still needed labor, and it only made sense for their relationship to remain much as it had so many years before.