Like many of us, Boo Kistner Henderson, former executive director of Craft Alliance, finds art not just beautiful but thought provoking. One day, nearly six years ago, she stood in front of a work that was even more than that — transformative — not just for her but for others in her family, too.
Kahlil Robert Irving's work, titled "Before And After Sundown, Town," served as a springboard for Henderson and her family to dive deeply into their lineage of which they had long been proud. What they found was shocking and dismaying: Two of their ancestors — prominent and lionized for their deeds in the mid-19th century — were slaveholders.
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This discovery has led them to join a growing movement of St. Louisans that includes scholars, civic leaders, descendants of slaveholders, and others who are engaged in what might be described as a vast re-remembering.
St. Louis has long been connected to slaveholding. The Dred Scott case — memorialized at the Old Courthouse downtown — looms large as part of the nation's understanding of and reckoning with slavery. But in many ways, St. Louisans have denied, deflected and avoided coming to grips with the havoc their ancestors wreaked in the lives of African Americans. Most have never given a thought to how all of that continues to have an impact on how race is lived in these times and in our town.
But the Kistner family has. And this is how they are facing up to the challenge.
Boo Kistner Henderson, now 64, was raised as a Catholic. And so perhaps "epiphany" might be the right word to apply to the moment she first saw Irving's work.
Henderson had known Irving since he was a teenager through Craft Alliance, a gallery and education center. Irving spent hours after school and on weekends there, taking classes, working one on one with instructors and building a portfolio. Even when Irving was young, Henderson sensed he was destined to be a great sculptor.
About six years ago, she saw Irving, then 24, working on something involving hundreds of black vessels. Ultimately, it would become the installation "Before and After Sundown, Town." The vessels, representing Black bodies, were placed on raised platforms that looked to Henderson like auction blocks. "And it made me think: 'This is about slavery. It is about slave auctions,'" she says.
That triggered a memory. Henderson recalled having met a Black freelance photographer whose name had something in common with her family.
"John Booker was his name. My father's name was John Booker Kistner. I had named my daughter Rachel Booker. And I thought, 'I need to find out about this and more about my family,'" she says.
As she did so, she spoke to Irving about how his work had been catalytic. Irving appreciated how she was thinking.
"I hear white people talk about their past and their families often," Irving says. "And I do think there are issues of denial. Some are living in a space of blindness, willful blindness and ignorance. ... So, I think it's great that some people would take it upon themselves to move forward and get closer to who they are and where they come from. It's really important."
Henderson took the first step by contacting Kelly Draper. Draper is a metals artist and member of the teaching faculty at Craft Alliance. But she also is a genealogist and had been working part time for many years at St. Louis County Library as a researcher in the History and Genealogy Department. Draper agreed to help Henderson learn more about her ancestry and how it might connect with African Americans.
It's not that Henderson was entirely clueless about her lineage. It had been a source of pride in her family. In particular, one ancestor by the name of Moses Linton stood out. Given his prominence, she suggested that Draper start with Linton, who had married a woman by the name of Anne Rachel Booker.
Aim your web browser at a history provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and you will find Dr. Moses Linton named as a cofounder of the first U.S. chapter of the organization and described as "humble and committed to his faith."
Born in 1808 in Kentucky, Linton carried a book of anatomy around with him as a child, according to the society's account. He earned his medical degree in 1842 and moved to St. Louis, where he joined the faculty of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, which was located in what is now downtown. His presence proved timely and useful as seven years later St. Louis faced a cholera epidemic resulting in as many as 20 deaths a day.
According to the society's account: "About one-third of the city's residents fled, but Dr. Linton stayed to use his medical talents to treat others. ... [He] served as house physician for the Jesuit staff and students of SLU [and] ... was able to keep every single person he treated from dying of cholera."
Since she was a child, Henderson has known of Linton's achievements as they were part of the family lore, passed down from generation to generation. Henderson wrote about him in a grade-school essay, and one of her three daughters, Rachel Booker McLoughlin Hirshberg, did the same.
Her cousins, William "Rocky" Kistner, 66, and Elkin Kistner, 64, say stories about Linton were shared with them as well. They can all remember worshiping at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, where they could find among the ceiling's mosaics an image of their great-great-grandfather comforting a child. Henderson and her brother and sister were married in the cathedral; her father served as a lector there until his death in 2002; and her daughter Lizzie was baptized there.
What Henderson and her family members did not know until more recently is that Moses Linton was a slaveholder. This knowledge came to them through Kelly Draper. She unearthed it by looking at federal census records for St. Louis from the 19th century in which officials documented "Slave Inhabitants." A record from 1860 shows M.L. Linton in possession of seven slaves with their ages listed in descending order: 35, 20, 16, 5, 3, 2, and 1. No names or relationships are listed, but it's not difficult to imagine that the eldest slaves, who were females, might be parents to the four youngest. Nor does the record show what work the slaves provided, just that they were listed as Linton's property. Another record shows that Linton and two fellow doctors had slaves assigned to them at the university's hospital.
Henderson found the information heartbreaking. So did her cousins, Rocky and Elkin. But there was more bad news for Elkin and Rocky coming from their mother's side of the family. After learning about Linton, Rocky, a veteran journalist, started researching John Gano Bryan, his maternal great-great-grandfather. Bryan Hill, a city public school, was named for their ancestor in recognition of his efforts to promote education in the city. Gano and John avenues in the same neighborhood are named for him as well.
Bryan had also been cited as one of the founders of the Joseph McDowell Medical College in St. Louis, a predecessor of the Washington University School of Medicine. His reputation extends statewide as he was one of five commissioners involved in locating the University of Missouri at its current site in Columbia. Along with all of that, he was a military veteran of the War of 1812, a physician, businessman and political power broker.
Nothing shameful in that. But in doing his research, Rocky unearthed an account compiled by Floyd C. Shoemaker of the State Historical Society of Missouri and published in 1934 in the Sedalia Weekly Democrat.
Shoemaker said Bryan was "dogmatically intolerant," a renowned duelist and "an extensive slaveholder." Bryan "bitterly upheld the cause of slavery and is said to have outfitted 1,150 men who served under ex-Senator David R. Atchison in Kansas in 1856, in an effort to make that territory pro-slavery."
Brothers Rocky and Elkin Kistner call it "perversely ironic" that Drs. Linton and Bryan had likely pledged fealty to the Hippocratic Oath as part of their training — to do no harm — but engaged in the practice of enslaving people.
They wondered, too, why their parents, Dr. William and Ruth Franklin Kistner, had never mentioned that slaveholding was part of their ancestry. Had they known?
In fact, they did know, Rocky and Elkin concluded. They kept it a secret from everyone, Rocky says, except for one special person.
Mayrether Baker was a health-care worker who took care of Dr. William and Ruth Franklin Kistner.
"I can't remember exactly when May first told me about this, but I'm sure it was after my dad died and after Boo and the family had discovered the Linton connection to slavery. She told me that my dad told her there was a connection to slavery in the family and that he apologized to her," Rocky Kistner says.
Baker, now living in Jefferson City, confirmed Rocky's account. She remembered his parents warmly, having worked for the two beginning in 2005 until their deaths — Ruth Kistner in 2009 and William Kistner in 2013.
"Dr. K was inquisitive about my family," Baker recalls in a recent phone call. Accordingly, Baker says she told him her parents had come from Mississippi, where they had been sharecroppers, harvesting cotton for a landowner. When the landowner began cheating them, Baker's parents fled north, as so many other African Americans did in what has come to be known as the Great Migration. The Bakers focused on providing their children with a good education when they came to St. Louis, and Baker credits that and their work ethic for her achieving a satisfying career as a certified nursing assistant.
As a doctor, William Kistner already had a great respect for the role nursing assistants play in the health-care system. He also understood the racial inequities in that system and volunteered with a medical clinic in north St. Louis in his final years of practicing medicine.
Baker and Dr. K spoke candidly and frequently about health care and other topics. One day, Baker says, Dr. K asked her to sit down for another one of their talks. "He had some papers. They were yellow, old ... like family histories. And he said, 'May, this is a part of my history that I'm ashamed of. There was some slavery in my family.'
"He showed me the names and what it was, and he said, 'May, I am so ashamed about this I don't even talk about it. But I felt like I could tell you.'"
Baker recalls replying, "Well, it's not as if you treated me like I was less than ... There are certain times in our lives when our family members do things that have nothing to do with us and it will cause embarrassment and shame. But it's not your doing."
Baker added, "If you were that way now, we would have a problem because I wouldn't be here." Then they both laughed.
"Then he asked me to bring a picture of myself. ... He put it in a frame and put it on the wall with other pictures of his family," Baker says. "That was just so endearing to me to show me that kind of kindness."
Rocky and Elkin Kistner are still trying to sort out why their dad couldn't bring himself to share the family history with them. Now, the two are determined to share their slaveholding ancestry not just with family members but with their community.
The slaveholding discoveries led to several rounds of group texts among family members that at first expressed anguish and then resolve to address the situation in a constructive way. On Easter weekend in 2017, 20 family members representing two generations met at Anne Kistner Morse's home in the Central West End. Among those on hand: Elkin's son, Bill, 32; and Boo's daughters Rachel, 37, and Lizzie, 34, who had memories of the gathering.
"I'd never thought much about my ancestors or family lineage, for better or worse," says Bill, remembering the get-together.
Lizzie recalls: "We actually weren't totally shocked given that our family had been in St. Louis for so long and knowing the history." While all in attendance recognized the gravity involved in slaveholding, a few family members were reluctant to criticize their ancestors' legacy.
Rachel and Lizzie felt otherwise. "Well, yes, it was a different time. And yes, people are complicated, but my perspective was that he was not a good person," Rachel says. Dr. Moses Linton "was doing something that was not right. And there were people in the world at that time who knew it wasn't right. And we came away from that gathering thinking, 'So now what do we do about our family? What do we do with this knowledge?'"
Some ideas began to bubble up. But before going further, Elkin, Boo and Rocky knew they had to include others in the discussions, namely African Americans such as family friends Chelsey Carter, Ben Phillips and Damien D. Smith.
Elkin met Carter, 31, through his three children when they attended John Burroughs School with Carter. She is currently a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University and will be an assistant professor of public health at Yale School of Public Health starting in July.
One day a few years ago, she got in a tiff with her condo association after she put up a Black Lives Matter sign, which led her to call Elkin, who is an attorney. He helped her carry the day, and when she asked him to bill her, he wouldn't hear of it. When Elkin in turn called seeking her assistance, she offered to help.
Elkin had known Phillips, 71, for many years as both were engaged in city politics and governance. They grew even closer because of a lawsuit Elkin filed concerning the federal government's chemical spraying of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex and nearby north St. Louis neighborhoods during the Cold War. Phillips was the lead plaintiff among former residents who were seeking damages for health problems they suffered in the aftermath. (It was unsuccessful.)
Smith, 42, is a filmmaker. He would go on to direct a documentary, Target: St. Louis Vol. 1, about the chemical spraying, which took note of Elkin's lawsuit. The film debuted last fall.
While Carter, Phillips and Smith brought with them a high regard for the Kistner family, they pulled no punches.
"I have been very direct with them throughout the process," Carter says. "You can't just do performative things, simply change street names. When you are thinking about the impact of structural racism and particularly the enslavement of human beings, how are you repairing those relationships?"
Carter said families who had slaveholders as ancestors must consider how slaveholding allowed whites to accumulate generational wealth at the expense of Black families. In the Kistners' case, she noted it may have had a hand in family members building generational wealth, attending elite schools and finding rewarding work in medicine, law, media and the arts.
"One thing I appreciate about this family is that they understand this and are trying to meet it head on," Carter said, "though what they will actually do remains to be seen."
Two ideas have surfaced. One would be to set up a program for descendants of slaves that would provide college scholarships. Another that excites Elkin Kistner and Phillips would be to create a learning center devoted to study of the region's slavery history at the Law Library Association of Saint Louis.
Few people, other than attorneys, know about the library, which occupies two floors in the city's Civil Courts Building. The facility is beautifully ornate and now a bit underutilized since so many research materials can be accessed online. Kistner serves as secretary for the library board, which has eight members.
Such an enterprise would not be out of step with the library's recent activities under the guidance of director Gail Wechsler. For instance, the library is hosting a Law Day event on May 3 on the topic of Black freedom suits in antebellum St. Louis, featuring Kenneth H. Winn, former Missouri state archivist.
Phillips sees lots of possibilities. "You have got this wave of people trying to change history," he says of white nationalists. "You can hide history, but you can't change history. The library could be kind of a traffic cop with lots of information. It will help academics. It will help people who are interested in the history of slavery."
Phillips is an influencer. He was city marshal for seven years in the 1980s, then a city lobbyist for four and a half years, and most recently a secretary for the city's Board of Election Commissioners before stepping down in 2017.
Also influential is longtime St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason, who initiated a drive to create a memorial sculpture commemorating legal efforts to free slaves. Mason supports the law-library concept as well.
"I'd like to think it might bring our community more together in an era of disharmony," Elkin Kistner says. "It would provide physical and virtual space where people can get together and at the same time, give the law library some vitality."
He adds: "There's an aspect, of course, that enables me to think that I am actually doing something to make up for what my ancestors did."
Brian Guerin provided research and reporting for this story.
Richard H. Weiss is executive editor of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a nonprofit racial equity storytelling project that receives support from the Pulitzer Center and other civic-minded organizations and individuals. Go to beforefergusonbeyondferguson.org for more stories.