‘He studied nothing, but knew something about everything.’

Post-Dispatch illustration

In January 1903, Rep. John T. Crisp of Independence proposed a “Jim Crow” law for Missouri, requiring Black and white passengers to ride in separate railway coaches. “Col. Crisp’s bill is taken seriously by his fellow members at Jefferson City. It is necessary to say this for the reason that Col. Crisp’s colleagues do not always take him seriously,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported

The “portly orator” did, in fact, introduce such a bill, but he was beat to the punch by Rep. Lon B. Williams of Scott County, a fellow Democrat who hoped to ride Jim Crow racism straight to the lieutenant governor’s seat. The two bills were combined into one, but after considerable debate and lobbying, the legislation was soundly defeated, 55-70, with all of the House Republicans and a few Democratic leaders opposing the measure.

Vocal opposition from Black Missourians was key — they held meetings and rallies, and showed up in force in the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.

(In the House gallery, Blacks and whites were required to sit in separate sections.) Another reason for the legislation’s defeat: the world’s fair planned for St. Louis in 1904. One Republican opponent pointed out that if the bill passed, fair visitors, including foreign dignitaries, would have to switch to segregated coaches when they crossed into Missouri. Black leaders also vowed to call on President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress to withdraw the federal appropriation to the fair if the Jim Crow bill passed.

(Among other opponents was J.W. McClure, described as a Sedalia businessman*, who wrote lawmakers: “In my judgment the members of the Missouri Legislature would be more humanly engaged were they trying to do something that might in some measure expatiate the damnable crime of slavery for which they and their ancestors were guilty as hell.”)

A month after the bill was rejected, 65-year-old Crisp died in bed, a victim of “fatty degeneration of the heart.” Even in death, the colorful ex-Confederate windbag, briefly a one-time owner of the old St. Louis Times (in the 1870s), was not taken very seriously. A lengthy obituary published by the Post-Dispatch included this assessment by John F. Philips, a Kansas City judge: “Crisp had a narrow escape from being a great man. A more fertile imagination, quicker conception of the ludicrous, startling, if not apt illustrations, or a more inventive faculty for things that had no existence in reality, I never knew. He was half lawyer, half theologian, half preacher, half farmer, half legislator and an allround politician. He studied nothing, but knew something about everything.”

In December 1903, Williams, who was only 34, died unexpectedly. Unlike Crisp, whose antics some found entertaining, Williams went to his grave largely unmourned and unloved, remembered chiefly for declaring on the floor of Missouri House: “God Almighty made a white man better than a n——.” The Black-owned St. Louis Palladium wrote about Williams: “He is dead now — called by the Maker of All — black, white, red and yellow — to give an account. May the All Merciful Father show more mercy than Williams was willing to give his brother in black.”

While Missouri didn’t adopt the railway legislation, like other states of the old Confederacy or with strong secessionist sympathies, it did enact many Jim Crow laws, including requiring segregated schools and criminalizing interracial marriages.

* Unclear at the time this was written whether this was J.W. McClure, the prominent cattle dealer, or Dr. J.W. McClure, the politically active physician. (Originally published July 21, 2021)

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