During the waning days of the summer of 1921, Missourians both far and wide were summoned to the Sedalia State Fairgrounds for a momentous occasion. Missouri was celebrating the centennial year of its birth as a state. Although events were held in various counties and towns, the Missouri Centennial Exposition and State Fair, the premier centennial celebration, took place in Sedalia from August 8-20. The event was organized around the official anniversary of statehood, August 10, when President Warren Harding was slated to appear, although, in the end, he only sent a telegram.1 The organizers hoped to both celebrate Missouri’s notable past and showcase the state’s present greatness.
The organizing committee published a guidebook that promoted the official exposition events and praised Missouri’s great achievements. How to Celebrate Missouri’s Centennial provided tips to help civic groups plan their own celebrations of the auspicious event.2 The group encouraged local communities to research their histories, create pageants and parade floats, and prompted local schools to engage in centennial projects and programming. The guidebook also boosted all the natural, economic, and human assets of Missouri. The organizing committee hoped Missourians learned their history and felt proud of it, proclaiming, “Just by being born and raised in Missouri a boy or girl receives the greatest inheritance possible anywhere in the world. They inherit for a home a portion of the center of the greatest and richest valley in the world, in the richest, most powerful and the best country in the world.”3
Advertisements were scattered throughout the guidebook for the various exposition events that were scheduled at the Sedalia State Fairgrounds. These included a dramatic “Pageant for Missouri,” massive fireworks displays, “auto races,” “aviation thrillers,” tractor shows, children’s programs, soldiers’ and sailors’ reunions, livestock shows, and a myriad of contests for children, women, and men, most revolving around farm products and home handiwork and cooking. There was also an ad for the women’s section of the fair called “We’ll Show You What Women Can Do!” The displays and programs celebrated the work of women through their membership in then-popular Women’s Clubs, their important “Hygiene and Health Work,” and their accomplishments in the Fine and Household Arts. With a nod toward women recently gaining the vote, the ad proclaimed, “Missouri’s new voters are quick to show their skill in many fields – in industry and science, politics and art, as well as the ever-new achievements of the home.”4
The guidebook concluded with “One Hundred Interesting Facts About Missouri,” a list that included famous people and events as well as statistics that celebrated the state’s predominance in industry and agriculture. There were a few references to Indigenous peoples in entries that described French and Spanish colonial history and others to slavery as it related to the statehood crisis and the Civil War. Prominent white men, such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mark Twain were singled out, but there were no specific references to notable women or Black Missourians in these historical highlights. As might be expected, there also were no mentions of Missourians from different ethnic backgrounds or non-Protestant religions. By and large, the histories of white men’s accomplishments were promoted while the histories of the many diverse men and women who made the state home were virtually erased.5
The Centennial organizers made it clear, if only implicitly, that the State Fair celebration was meant to be a whites-only affair – in as far as the fun parts were concerned. Even white women were encouraged to segregate in their gender-appropriate sections of the fairgrounds. Given Missouri’s cultural and legal landscape in 1921, it is not surprising that the official state event was racially segregated. By doing so, the organizers excluded many Missourians from the celebration, implying they did not play a part in shaping Missouri’s past or present.
A century later, Missourians again are tasked with commemorating another state milestone. It is always challenging to determine how best to mark anniversary moments. In the early twentieth century, the organizers believed the Statehood Centennial should be a celebration of the state’s greatest achievements and could serve an important role in efforts to boost Missouri as a premier location to visit and conduct business. They believed their task was to only reveal the aspects of Missouri and its history that were noteworthy and laudable. In all likelihood, the organizers spent little time considering any aspects of the story that were not. In years since 1921, the population of Missouri has become increasingly diverse, and the history of the state much more complex. It is still important to recognize – and even celebrate – the accomplishments of those who came before us; but at the same time, it is essential to acknowledge and reckon with some more difficult parts of Missouri’s history. In short, we should commemorate the anniversary in a way that recognizes this complexity rather than simply celebrating the past without critical reflection.
Missouri’s origin story is an excellent example of these points. The state’s early history is much more complicated – and often troubling – than the 1921 Centennial organizers revealed in their celebratory promotional literature. After all, Missouri’s quest for statehood created a national political firestorm over the expansion of slavery into the West. After two years of debate, it ended in a 1820 “compromise” that dictated the terms by which this issue would be decided in the future. But in the end, Missouri’s birth as a state was achieved at the expense of many Black Missourians, who suffered enslavement for another 44 years, and the wholesale removal of Indigenous Missourians to make room for a flood of new white settlers. The state went on to play a repeated and significant role in the sectional political conflict that led to the Civil War through events such as the fight over the status of slavery in Kansas Territory and the Dred Scott Decision. Missourians sided with both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, leading to battles between contesting armies, vicious guerrilla violence, massive loss of life, displacement of civilians, and the destruction of property throughout much of the state. And in the aftermath of the war, Missourians suffered from lingering animosities and conflicted regional identities as they worked to rebuild their society. This troubled past complicates efforts to commemorate Missouri’s birth as a state. Simply put, how should we celebrate the founding and early history of a state with such a challenging – and in many ways, problematic – history? One solution, sadly, is to suppress the negative histories and celebrate the positive as the Centennial organizers did in 1921. In an act of historical amnesia, they highlighted only the parts of the story they believed should be celebrated – Missouri as the gateway to the West, Mark Twain, rugged pioneer farmers, and white Missourians’ myriad of social, economic, and cultural accomplishments. Fifty years of new historical scholarship that is more inclusive of diverse Missourians’ stories allows us to commemorate Missouri’s Bicentennial more responsibly and inclusively than the Centennial celebration of a century earlier. There are still quilt squares and poster competitions as well as a penny drive but the leadership from historical, cultural, and educational institutions in the state has resulted in a different type of celebration.6
In the past, anniversary celebrations have often emphasized “great achievements” and obscured negative and challenging histories – stories of conflict, violence, and resilience that inform and affect our current environment. However, landmark events such as Missouri’s Bicentennial can serve as a catalyst to reflect on longer histories, especially those stories that are often overlooked to produce a consensus narrative. As people across the nation are having dialogues about who constructs historical narratives and how we celebrate, commemorate, and remember the past, Show Me Missouri offers an accessible space to learn about the diverse and difficult stories of the state and challenge the historical absences in our collective memories.7 This project hopes to make a significant contribution to commemorating the 200th anniversary of Missouri statehood in a way that recognizes and celebrates the important contributions of the diverse residents of this place while not burying stories that are painful or problematic in the process.
Show Me Missouri is a digital history project that examines the state’s history through the curation and interpretation of 200 objects. These curated artifacts showcase a comprehensive account of Missouri before and beyond the statehood moment, beginning with Indigenous experiences before European contact and extending to contemporary events. This project recognizes the aspects of Missouri history that are remarkable and unique, while it does not shy away from the difficult topics that have shaped the state’s history such as slavery and racial and ethnic discrimination. Show Me Missouri provides an opportunity for Missourians to learn about and reflect on the rich and complex history of the state during this commemoration and beyond.
The website features a collection of historically and culturally noteworthy artifacts, documents, maps, photographs, buildings, oral histories, pieces of art, among other ephemera. Each object includes a description of its history and a statement of its significance. Objects alone cannot tell a sweeping story of the state. To do so, the website also features interpretative essays that contextualize each object in the larger Missouri history.
Show Me Missouri was created and curated in partnership with public humanities institutions and universities from across the state. To learn more about the project team and collaborating institutions, click here.
Methods and Goals
While Show Me Missouri showcases a comprehensive history of the state, this website is primarily a critical and public-facing response to the Bicentennial commemoration. The objects and articles comprising Show Me Missouri promote the history and culture of the state while also provoking thoughtful discussions of its complex history. Our intent is for this website to serve as a virtual and democratic space that encourages Missourians to reflect on our shared past and present.
Show Me Missouri makes three significant scholarly contributions. First, the project places Missouri’s nuanced history at the forefront. During the completion of the project, our world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests. These events urged us to grapple with both Missouri’s and the United States’ painful past. Show Me Missouri engages with historical reinterpretation and reparative work through a free and accessible platform.8 We believe that examining the state’s history, its people, and its triumphs and tribulations through a critical lens is not only necessary to tell a complete and inclusive history of the state, but it also can help Missourians understand our past to profoundly shape our future.
Secondly, the project tells a comprehensive story that highlights a historically diverse Missouri. Anniversaries bring forth challenges in historical representation. As noted with the Missouri Centennial, these commemorations often celebrate specific moments and individuals while they suppress the experiences of numerous communities. Show Me Missouri attempts to tell an inclusive history of the state, one that highlights geographic, cultural, social, and demographic differences. Acknowledging Missouri’s diverse stories provides an opportunity to move beyond narrow visions of history and recognize how these multiple perspectives and experiences make Missouri’s story unique.
Finally, Show Me Missouri is an ambitious project that would be impossible to complete without statewide partnerships. This effort brought together scholars, students, public historians, museums, libraries, archives, and community members into a collaborative process that illustrates the relevance of history. Historical and cultural institutions from across the state nominated objects from their collections to be featured in the project. Public historians, librarians, archivists, among others, helped the project team identify artifacts and gaps to ensure that Show Me Missouri truly represented the diversity of the state. College professors and high school teachers incorporated the project into their classrooms, providing high school, undergraduate, and graduate students an opportunity to research, write, and publish articles. Show Me Missouri demonstrates the significant role these individuals and organizations play in interpreting, commemorating, documenting, and teaching the state’s past.
How to Celebrate Missouri’s Centennial: A Handbook of Suggestions, 19.
“While making a study of the Missouri of the past we should not forget the Missouri of the future.”
Missouri’s Bicentennial will, without doubt, evoke a sense of pride in the state’s history. It is our goal that the featured objects and essays on the website promote Missouri’s rich network of historical and cultural organizations. Ultimately, Show Me Missouri provides an avenue for the state’s residents to consider our shared memory, identities, and histories. Overall, we believe that this project can be a model for historians, both academic and public, to prioritize, write about, disseminate, and preserve the diverse histories that truly reflect the experiences of all those who have called Missouri home.
A Note on Themes and Terminology
As you explore Show Me Missouri’s collections and essays, you will notice that we have organized the state’s history through twelve themes: Agriculture; Arts & Culture; Business & Economy; Cities & Towns; Civil Rights; Education; Health, Science, & Technology; Natural Environment; People; Politics & Government; Religion; and War & Conflict. While these categories are not comprehensive, we believe these overarching topics establish a robust framework to understand Missouri’s history. These categories also enable connections across time and geographic space. Show Me Missouri seeks to challenge exclusive narratives of the history of the state. The project centers the experiences of everyday Missourians – Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, women, working-class and LGBTQ groups – not as tangential but rather as integral narratives in Missouri’s history. Rather than creating individual categories for historically excluded groups, the project attempts to place these experiences – whether they are of violence, resilience, or exclusion – within the larger narratives of the state. As such, these stories and experiences are represented under each theme to highlight the significance and diversity of these experiences in the making of Missouri. We recognize the historical and ongoing erasure of underrepresented communities in Missouri’s history. It is our goal that projects like Show Me Missouri can help us learn from the past and build a sense of belonging, particularly for historically excluded and underrepresented groups.
Bibliographies and Further Reading
The History Program at the University of Central Missouri, Historic Missouri, https://historicmissouri.org/.
Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, “A Fire Bell in the Past: The Missouri Crisis at 200,” https://democracy.missouri.edu/events/missouri-crisis-at-200-conference/.
Missouri Council for History Education, “Four Years to Statehood: A Curriculum for Missouri Schools,” https://www.mohistoryeducation.org/missouri-bicentennial-resources/.
Missouri Humanities Council, “Struggle For Statehood,” https://mohumanities.wixsite.com/struggleforstatehood.
Missouri State Archives, Our Bicentennial History: Missouri through Primary Sources, https://www.sos.mo.gov/Archives/Bicentennial.
The State Historical Society of Missouri, Missouri Encyclopedia, https://missouriencyclopedia.org/.
—-, Missouri Timeline, https://missouri2021.org/ara-homepage/missouri-timeline/.
—-, “Our Missouri Podcast,” https://shsmo.org/our-missouri.
The Story Center at the Mid-Continent Library, “State of Stories,” https://www.mymcpl.org/events/state-of-stories
- “Missouri’s Centennial Celebration is Opened,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, August 8, 1821, 3.
- How to Celebrate Missouri’s Centennial: A Handbook of Suggestions, E.G. Bylander, creator, (The Missouri State Fair Board, 1920). Missouri Centennial Collection, M 607.34 M691ho. State Historical Society of Missouri Digital Collections, https://digital.shsmo.org/digital/collection/p17228coll11/id/0.
- How to Celebrate Missouri’s Centennial, 20.
- How to Celebrate Missouri’s Centennial, 44.
- How to Celebrate Missouri’s Centennial, 67-80.
- Missouri 2021 Bicentennial Website: https://missouri2021.org/.
- See American Association for State and Local History, Making History at 250: The Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial, https://aaslh.org/programs/250th/.
- For more on reparative work, see Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, “Moving Toward a Reparative Archive: A Roadmap for a Holistic Approach to Disrupting Homogenous Histories in Academic Repositories and Creating Inclusive Spaces for Marginalized Voices.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies Vol. 5, Article 6 (2018): 1-17. https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1045&context=jcas.
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