A push to mark the buried history of ‘harrowing’ slave prisons near Busch Stadium (2024)

This story was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund.

ST. LOUIS — Robin Proudie remembers working concessions at the old Busch Stadium as a teenager, selling popcorn and peanuts to hungry baseball lovers.

Her favorite memory is the seventh game of the Cardinals' 1982 World Series. After the final out, she joined hundreds of frenzied spectators who poured on the field to congratulate the new champs. She remembers star shortstop Ozzie Smith picking her up in celebration.

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But there is a part of Busch Stadium history that Proudie only recently learned about, a dark history linked to the building that was so dear to her. Historians say some of St. Louis’ most notorious slave prisons — known as the Lynch slave pens — sat near the intersection of South Broadway and Clark Avenue, where the new Busch Stadium, Ballpark Village and the InterPark Stadium East garage are now clustered.

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Thousands of men, women and children were held in Bernard M. Lynch’s underground slave prisons before the Civil War, incarcerated in rooms with dirt floors, no beds and bars on the windows. Some were chained to basem*nt cells, waiting to be sold to local buyers or “down river” to work in cotton and sugar cane fields.

Remnants of the prison cells survived in the basem*nt of a large drug company warehouse and office building until it was torn down in 1963 to make way for the baseball stadium where Proudie worked as a teen.

“I had no idea…I’ve parked in that garage,” said Proudie, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved. “This is hallowed ground with people’s souls. It needs to be acknowledged publicly that their lives mattered.”

A historical marker memorializing the Lynch slave pens was erasedwhen the drug company building was demolished in 1963. The marker was never replaced.

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But that could soon change. After apush in recent years from advocacy groups and state legislators, the Cardinals organization has signaled it's open to placing a marker at the Lynch slave pen site, as well as working with groups to memorialize other locations.

There's another potential option to recognize the Lynch slave pen history: a growing National Park Service network of sites honoring people who resisted slavery “through escape or flight." Park Service officials say the Lynch site could qualify as they expand the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom locations in Missouri.

Despite efforts in recent years to memorialize St. Louis' African-American history, historians and community leaders say local institutions and businesses still have a long way to go toward adequately acknowledging that past. Given the Lynch pens’ role in the slave trade in St. Louis, many point to the lack of a marker or memorial as a failure to educate people about a key piece of city history.

“Historical markers help us understand who we are and provide context,” said Geoff Ward, an African-American history professor at Washington University who also directs the WashU & Slavery project. “Changing street names and remembrances of racial violence potentially makes people more committed to equal justice.”

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Mason, chair of the St. Louis Freedom Suits Memorial Foundation, was instrumental in the effort to build the downtown sculpture that commemorates lawsuits filed by enslaved people to push for freedom. He believes a memorial for the Lynch pens is long overdue, and he's willing to work with the Cardinals and other organizations to make it happen.

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“We need to have a cultural recognition of what horrors occurred over 500 years of slavery,” Mason said. “I believe the Cardinals meant what they said … It would send a great signal that says black lives matter.”

'Harrowing fear'

Baptist minister Galusha Anderson, a staunch abolitionist, was an eyewitness to Lynch’s slave prisons, which he wrote about in his 1908 book, "The Story of a Border City During the Civil War."

In the book, Anderson described taking a group of Baptist ministers to meet Lynch outside one of the slave pens and asking to be let inside:

"He put his great iron key into the lock, turned back the bolt, swung open the door, turning his face towards us, said, 'Gentlemen, I do not have much stock on hand today' … There was no floor but the bare earth. Three backless wooden benches stood next to the walls. There were seven slaves there, herded together, without any arrangement for privacy….one fairly good-looking woman about 40 years old, tearfully entreated us to buy her, promising over and over again to be faithful and good. In that sad entreaty one could detect the harrowing fear of being sold down south."

Kenneth Winn, a historian and former State Archivist of Missouri, is working on a book about Lynch. Winn says mystery surrounds the businessman who once dominated the slave trade in St. Louis. From 1848 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Lynch owned and operated a slave prison at three different locations downtown, holding as many as 100 prisoners each.

Winn says Lynch had many ways of benefiting from his prison business, sometimes working closely with city officials to incarcerate enslaved people. But he profited most by selling enslaved people to buyers in the South who were desperate for labor for their cotton and sugar cane fields. It was a terrifying business, as families were often torn apart, with loved ones loaded onto Mississippi River steamships and transported to dangerous plantation work.

Although Lynchyearned to be part of the upper class of St Louis, the barbarity of his trade kept him from social circles, Winn says. Still, Lynch often sold or rented enslaved people to the well-to-do.

“Banks in St Louis were deeply involved in the slave trade,” Winn says. “He was very successful. The banks didn’t have any problem lending him money.”

But after building the last and biggest of his slave prisons near the current site of Ballpark Village, Lynch did not anticipate the start of the Civil War. When Union troops took over the city in 1861, Lynch fled to Louisiana, where he had relatives and his ties to slavery were more welcome. His last remaining slave pen was turned into a prison for Confederate soldiers. He died in Louisiana after the war. His papers and ledgers documenting his trade in St. Louis were never discovered, Winn said.

Remnants of Lynch's slave pens survived a century later, in the basem*nts of buildings constructed downtown. In the 1ate 1930s, a marker commemorating the Lynch slave pens was placed on the exterior of the Meyer Brothers Drug Company building, at South Broadway and Clark, by a division of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. The marker read in part:




But the marker didn't survive the demolition of the building in 1963, as the city undertook a downtown redevelopment. Anheuser-Busch, then owner of the Cardinals, and other businesses contributed millions to the plan, which included building the old Busch Stadium and parking garages.

The Lynch marker wasn’t all that was destroyed. In the basem*nt of the warehouse were four dingy prison cells made of brick and stone walls. They were the remains of a Lynch slave pen that had survived unnoticed for nearly a century, until a Post-Dispatch reporter shined a light on it.

In a front-page article on Feb. 17, 1963, the reporter described the basem*nt and the prison cells this way: “No windows, ventilation light or sanitary facilities grace the dungeon-like pens. Heavy foundation stones form the back of the cells. A brick wall across the front of the opening has a narrow opening to each cell.”

In the article, a drug company executive seemed oblivious to the significance of the site.

“Before the buildings go,” Carl F. G. Meyer III, then-president of the firm, told the Post-Dispatch, “I hope to take a rake and scrape around in the cells. There’s no telling what you would find.”

Lois Conley, founder and executive director of the Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis, remembers seeing that article when she was a teenager. She wondered at the time if anyone would put up a marker to acknowledge the site’s significance.

“You can tear down buildings, but the history still exists," she said. "It’s important to remember the good, the bad and the ugly.”

'Bring our history to light'

In the mid-1990s, an ownership group led by Bill DeWitt Jr. purchased the Cardinals. The organization eventually planned a new, more modern stadium linked to a blocks-long entertainment and business development.

After the groundbreaking for the new ballpark in 2004, preservation experts complained the Cardinals weren’t doing enough to protect artifacts that might be found during construction, including possible items from the Lynch prison site. “They’re doing the same as everybody else, which is blowing off history,” an anthropology professor told an Associated Press reporter in 2004.

Not so, responded a team official, saying, “The Cardinals are building history right now.”

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The new Busch Stadium was completed two years later. The adjacent Ballpark Village was constructed in phases and completed in 2020. But across the street from the glitzy lights and baseball memorabilia, there was no mention of the Lynch slave prisons.

That bothered two then-Missouri state representatives, Trish Gunby and Rasheen Aldridge, who were sensitive to growing racial justice outrage in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd killing. The Lynch slave pens deserved a public marker, the representatives explained in a January 2021 press release that stated "how race and injustice have divided our region."

“We believe this acknowledgement will start healing those divisions, bring our history to light for many, and start conversations that need to occur," the release said.

The Cardinals did not respond publicly at the time, but they got the message, Gunby said. The team's president, Bill DeWitt III, started a dialogue that grew to include historians and professors familiar with the Lynch slave pen story. Since the Cardinals don’t own the parking garage close to the site of the slave pens, a manager from the owner, InterPark, also participated in the meetings.

But months of discussions dragged into years. A lack of a formal nonprofit to take leadership of the project hindered progress, people involved with the talks say.

“It’s been frustrating,” Gunby said in a recent interview. “We’re on the cusp of getting something done with all these groups behind us. We just can’t get it across the finish line.”

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But last month, responding to a reporter's inquiries, the Cardinals released a statement expressing their support for placing a marker to the Lynch slave pen site near Busch Stadium. The Cardinals also indicated they have been in discussions with other organizations, including the Missouri Historical Society, the National Park Service and Greater St. Louis Inc., that could expand historical markers to other locations.

"The Cardinals will continue to remain supportive of the important historical vision that Representatives Gunby and Aldridge had in mind when these conversations first began back in 2021 and are hopeful that a regionalized effort to recognize and share these stories relating to our city’s past can be realized," the statement said.

There is another way a Lynch marker or memorial could become reality. The National Park Service has a network of more than 740 sites across the country honoring people who resisted slavery, as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom that was authorized by Congress in 1998.

Last year, the Park Service recognized four Underground Railroad sites in Missouri. This year, four more were added, including the General Daniel Bissell House in St Louis County; Oglesby Park and the Smith Chapel Cemetery in Foristell; and "Lila, the Life of a Missouri Slave" program in St. Louis.

Winn, the historian, believes he has enough evidence to get the Lynch slave pens approved for the Underground Railroad program. Winn plans to work with local organizations to apply for Park Service recognition. If approved, supporters could then apply for federal funding to build a memorial or marker.

The push for a Lynch slave pen marker joins other efforts in recent years to memorialize African-American history in St Louis. They include the Dred and Harriett Scott statues near the Old Courthouse, dedicated in 2012, and the Freedom Suits Memorial Foundation sculpture unveiled near the Civil Courts building in 2022. Most recently, the extensive Pillars of the Valley sculpture near the CityPark soccer stadium pays tribute to the African-American community of Mill Creek, razed in the 1950s to make room for a highway system.

But historians and community leaders say more can be done, noting that there hasn't been a regional effort by officials or historical groups to plan memorial projects.

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Angela da Silva, a former history professor who has led tours and reenactments of slavery issues in St. Louis, says she has seen too many promises broken when it comes to acknowledging Black history. “If I stop storytelling, who will take my place?”

Others, like Lynne Jackson, a descendant of Dred Scott and president of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, see a new energy to commemorate African-American history in the region. Jackson was on some of the calls with the Cardinals about placing markers at the Lynch prison site, and she is optimistic it will happen.

“There’s a momentum that’s in process and being birthed," she said. "When people become aware of this, we will become what we are supposed to be: a unified city that cares about history.”

That hope is shared by social justice advocate Proudie. A memorial to the Lynch slave pens is especially important, she says, because baseball is in her blood. Proudie is a descendant of Sylvester Chauvin, who was captain of the St. Louis Black Stockings, one of the first Black baseball teams to tour the Midwest and Canada in the 1880s.

Despite his illustrious career, Chauvin, born into slavery at St. Louis University in 1860, was buried in an unmarked grave after his death. In 2022, a donation by the nonprofit Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project allowed Proudie and her family to place a headstone for Chauvin in St. Louis’ Calvary Cemetery, in a fitting memorial to his contributions.

“I think he would have been proud of what we are doing,” she said.

For more information about the River City Journalism Fund, which seeks to support journalism in St. Louis, go to rcjf.org.


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A push to mark the buried history of ‘harrowing’ slave prisons near Busch Stadium (2024)


A push to mark the buried history of ‘harrowing’ slave prisons near Busch Stadium? ›

Cardinals fans walk through Ballpark Village, at Clark Avenue and South Broadway, as they head toward Busch Stadium for a game on Saturday, June 8, 2024. The area was once home to slave prisons run by trader Bernard Lynch, and advocates are pushing for a marker or memorial to educate people about the site's history.

What would happen if slaves tried to escape? ›

One of the most powerful ways an enslaved person could resist was to run away. Running away carried heavy risks. If runaways were caught, they would be physically punished, usually by whipping, and might be made to wear chains or handcuffs to prevent them from running again.

Who were the first slaves? ›

“The first example we have of Africans being taken against their will and put on board European ships would take the story back to 1441,” says Guasco, when the Portuguese captured 12 Africans in Cabo Branco—modern-day Mauritania in north Africa—and brought them to Portugal as enslaved peoples.

When did slavery end? ›

13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865) National Archives.

What is the simple definition of slavery? ›

slavery, condition in which one human being was owned by another. A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel, and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons.

How were female slaves punished? ›

Whipping, a common form of slave punishment, demanded the removal of clothing. For the female slave, this generally meant disrobing down to the waist. Although her state of half dress allowed the woman some modesty, it also exposed her naked breasts to all eyes.

Where did most slavery happen in America? ›

Throughout colonial and antebellum history, U.S. slaves lived primarily in the South. Slaves comprised less than a tenth of the total Southern population in 1680 but grew to a third by 1790. At that date, 293,000 slaves lived in Virginia alone, making up 42 percent of all slaves in the U.S. at the time.

Who owned the most slaves in the world? ›

Slavery was a mainstay of the Brazilian colonial economy, especially in mining and sugarcane production. 35.3% of all slaves from the Atlantic Slave trade went to Colonial Brazil. 4 million slaves were obtained by Brazil, 1.5 million more than any other country.

Which country received the most slaves from Africa? ›

Brazil and British American ports were the points of disembarkation for most Africans. On a whole, over the 300 years of the Transatlantic slave trade, 29 per cent of all Africans arriving in the New World disembarked at British American ports, 41 per cent disembarked in Brazil.

Who brought the first African slaves to America? ›

In 1565, for example, the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to present-day St. Augustine, Fla., the first European settlement in what's now the continental U.S. In 1526, a Spanish expedition to present-day South Carolina was thwarted when the enslaved Africans aboard resisted.

What does July 4th mean to slaves? ›

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

Why did Texas wait to free slaves? ›

Why Did it Take so Long for Texas to Free Slaves? The Emancipation Proclamation extended freedom to enslaved people in Confederate States that were still under open rebellion. However, making that order a reality depended on military victories by the U.S. Army and an ongoing presence to enforce them.

What is the 13th Amendment word for word? ›

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

What were the three types of slaves? ›

Slavery was practiced in many different forms: debt slavery, enslavement of war captives, military slavery, and criminal slavery were all practiced in various parts of Africa. Slavery for domestic and court purposes was widespread throughout Africa.

How many slaves are in the US today? ›

The practices of slavery and human trafficking are still prevalent in modern America with estimated 17,500 foreign nationals and 400,000 Americans being trafficked into and within the United States every year with 80% of those being women and children.

What is slavery today called? ›

Trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” are used as umbrella terms to refer to both sex trafficking and compelled labor.

What was the punishment for helping slaves escape? ›

No court in the nation could issue a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of an alleged fugitive. Anyone helping a slave escape could be imprisoned for six months and fined the enormous sum of one thousand dollars. The law made mockery of the due process rights found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

What would happen to slaves if they didn't work? ›

Look at what might have happened as a result of a slave missing an afternoon's work. Men were shot, people were whipped, shackled or forced to wear a ball and chain for weeks, and some were sold.

What was the best chance for slaves to escape? ›

Traveling under cover of night often offered the best chances of escaping. However, most slaves did not have maps or compasses to guide them. Without the use of these tools, a fugitive's ability to successfully navigate to a safe house, railroad station, or the woods was often a matter of life or death.

Why was it so hard for slaves to escape? ›

Surviving exposure without proper clothing, finding food and shelter, and navigating into unknown territory while eluding slave catchers all made the journey perilous.

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