The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis (Book Review)

Posted in Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2009-10-26 22:10Z by Steven

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.

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The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States on 2009-10-26 21:53Z by Steven

The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis

University of Missouri Press
1999 (originaly written in 1858)
ISBN 978-0-8262-1236-8
136 pages
6 x 9
Bibliography, Index, Illustrations

Cyprian Clamorgan

Edited with an Introduction by

Julie Winch, Professor of History
University of Massachusetts, Boston

In 1858, Cyprian Clamorgan wrote a brief but immensely readable book entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. The grandson of a white voyageur and a mulatto woman, he was himself a member of the “colored aristocracy.” In a setting where the vast majority of African Americans were slaves, and where those who were free generally lived in abject poverty, Clamorgan’s “aristocrats” were exceptional people. Wealthy, educated, and articulate, these men and women occupied a “middle ground.” Their material advantages removed them from the mass of African Americans, but their race barred them from membership in white society.

The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis is both a serious analysis of the social and legal disabilities under which African Americans of all classes labored and a settling of old scores. Somewhat malicious, Clamorgan enjoyed pointing out the foibles of his friends and enemies, but his book had a serious message as well. “He endeavored to convince white Americans that race was not an absolute, that the black community was not a monolith, that class, education, and especially wealth, should count for something.”

Despite its fascinating insights into antebellum St. Louis, Clamorgan’s book has been virtually ignored since its initial publication. Using deeds, church records, court cases, and other primary sources, Winch reacquaints readers with this important book and establishes its place in the context of African American history. This annotated edition of The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis includes an introductory essay on African Americans in St. Louis before the Civil War, as well as an account of the lives of the author and the members of his remarkable family—a family that was truly at the heart of the city’s “colored aristocracy” for four generations.

A witty and perceptive commentary on race and class, The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis is a remarkable story about a largely forgotten segment of nineteenth-century society. Scholars and general readers alike will appreciate Clamorgan’s insights into one of antebellum America’s most important communities.

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