The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis (Book Review)

The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis (Book Review)

Journal of Southern History
Vol. 67

Lloyd A. Hunter
Franklin College of Indiana

The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. By Cyprian Clamorgan. Edited and with an introduction by Julie Winch. (Columbia, Mo., and London: University of Missouri Press, c. 1999. Pp. xiv, 122. $27.50, ISBN 0-8262-1236-0.)

When Cyprian Clamorgan wrote The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis in 1858, he described what it took to “make it” as an anomaly in that city. He recognized that, in St. Louis as in antebellum communities throughout the United States, to be free and of African descent meant that one did not fit into a society that assumed that black people were meant to be slaves and that only white people could know freedom. Yet Clamorgan observed that there existed in the Mound City “a certain circle; … a peculiar class–the elite of the colored race” who attained their high status through “wealth, education, or natural ability” (p. 46). And the greatest of these was wealth. This stress on wealth as the key component of St. Louis’s black aristocracy comes through clearly in Julie Winch’s reprint of Clamorgan’s brief work. Through her informative introductory chapters, meticulous editing, and extensive annotation, Winch enriches our perception of the African American community of pre-Civil War St. Louis.  She also makes a valuable contribution to the study of free blacks.

The Cyprian Clamorgan who emerges on these pages was a barber and a well-traveled steward on numerous Mississippi River boats. He was also a mulatto with an exceedingly complex ancestry. Winch adeptly unravels the snarled tale of Clamorgan’s family and of Cyprian’s descent from an apparently unsavory French voyageur, the ambitious slave trader Jacques Clamorgan (ca. 1734-1814), and one of Jacques’s parade of “Negro wives” (p. 23). Although Jacques amassed a considerable estate, he failed to gain entry to the white upper class of St. Louis. Later his equally opportunist grandson Cyprian sought to benefit financially both from the sale of Jacques’s land claims and the marketing of a literary challenge to the white “notion that black people were all alike because they were black” (p. 2). Hence his publication of The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis in 1858, a propitious time when the Dred Scott case, which also emanated from St. Louis, was commanding national attention.

Clamorgan’s little book is a virtual tour of the free black neighborhood of antebellum St. Louis. Through colorful vignettes and often humorous comments, the reader meets the African American elite while also receiving, in Winch’s view, “a serious message about race, class, and power” (p. 3). Here for example is Mrs. Pelagie Rutgers, a former slave who bought her freedom for three dollars but who is now “worth half a million dollars” (p. 48). Around the corner is Mrs. Pelagie Nash, who owns nearly the entire block on which she lives. Here also are the “inveterate gambler” but “strictly honest” Samuel Mordecai (p. 51) and the “nearly white” Antoine Labadie (p. 56). Interspersed with the visits are some of Clamorgan’s bold judgments. Although adamantly opposed to slavery, he believed that abolitionists suffered from “the same morbid and diseased brain” as that of Harriet Beecher Stowe (p. 45). Moreover, the colored aristocracy, while unable to vote, controlled elections because “wealth is power” (p. 47).

It is Winch, however, not Clamorgan, who tells the more balanced story of St. Louis’s black elite. Her voluminous annotations provide a wellspring of information based on a wide array of primary sources ranging from church records and court cases to deeds and census data. The annotations occasionally contain more facts than are necessary, and many of the archival materials could be more adequately dated, but Winch’s careful research and its insightful presentation offer a valuable window on black society, and on the roles of class and race, in a vital southern river city.

Tags: , , , ,