Watermelons and Prophets

Illustration of one of the floats in the 1890 Veiled Prophet procession (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Oct. 5, 1890)

Organizers of the Order of the Veiled Prophet in 1878, led by Confederate veterans Charles and Alonzo Slayback, sought to lift the city’s profile as a growing, affluent commercial hub. But, early on, the all-white, all-male Veiled Prophet promoted racist tropes, which were unapologetically echoed by all the leading newspapers of St. Louis.

One theme, which appeared several times in the organization’s first four decades, depicted “carefree” African Americans, gorging on watermelons. “One of the best comic floats in the procession,” the Globe-Democrat said of the 1890 display.

In The Atlantic in 2014, historian William R. Black explained how watermelons emerged as a politically potent symbol used by whites — and it’s worth revisiting to better understand the racist underpinnings of the Veiled Prophet organization.

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‘The house where Eugene Field was not born’

eugene-field_edited-1A plaque on the Eugene Field House says “the children’s poet” — famous for “Little Boy Blue,” “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” and other works — was born there. The Field House Museum, on its website, says “Eugene Field was born in St. Louis at 634 South Broadway, on September 2, 1850.” And some contemporary news stories also say Field was born there.

But he wasn’t.

A former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter named Robertus Love took the blame for the confusion — a century ago. In letter to the newspaper, published on Feb. 12, 1917, Love wrote: “About 15 years ago I suggested a story on Eugene Field.… My suggestion was approved and I was assigned to get the story. I interviewed several persons who had known Field more or less intimately when he lived here as a young newspaper man. Also I interviewed his guardian, an elderly gentleman now dead…. In reply to a specific query as to where Eugene Field was born, his guardian told me it was the house on South Broadway.” Read more of this post