Missouri joined the Union as a slave state, and its judicial still system bears the weight of that history.
This is an account of the historic connections between slavery, lynching, and Missouri’s “death row” along the Missouri River.
The Missouri River runs across Missouri parallel, more or less, to Interstate 70. Highway and river intersect in many places as both amble across the state through the band of 13 or 17 connected counties (depending on how tourist guides count them) called Little Dixie. Little Dixie begins in the west at Kansas City and ends in the east at St. Louis.
It is along this stretch of the Missouri River that early settlers from the Upper South (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia) came to make Missouri their home. Attracted by cheap land offered in the Land Act of 1820, they brought their social customs and agricultural skills, and they brought their slaves. Missouri joined the Union as a slave state in 1821.
Missouri held 114,900 slaves in 1860. They accounted for less than 10 percent of the state’s total population. But the highest concentrations of slaves were found in Little Dixie. All were double digit percentages, some a quarter or a third of the population.
Little Dixie had a disproportionate number of post-Civil War racially-motivated lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Many of the victims are known by name. Some are recorded only as “Unknown Negro.” Missouri itself had the second highest number of lynchings outside the Deep South, 60 of record. Half of all lynchings occurred in the band of counties called Little Dixie.
One can readily see a rough if not direct correlation between high African-American populations and the number of post-Civil War lynchings committed against blacks.
We are never quite rid of our histories, even as they hide from our immediate awareness. History shadows us, forms us in ways we do not recognize, dodging between the “then” to the “now.”
This is the “now.” Little Dixie’s disproportionate number of slaves, and equally disproportionate numbers of lynchings, finds correlation with the disproportionate number of death sentences handed out by Missouri courts. A report puts it succinctly: “… lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today.” More pungently, an acquaintance calls the Missouri River corridor “death row.”
Along with disproportionate death penalty sentences, Little Dixie has also produced the highest number of Missouri exonerees; persons sentenced to death who later had their convictions overturned. The number is four, as I count them; all African-American and all from Little Dixie.