Dr. Herman Dreer and Black History Month in St. Louis

26, February 2016

Every February, communities across America come together to explore, learn, and celebrate influential African Americans like Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This celebration hasn’t always been the norm, however. The roots of Black History Month go back to 1915, when Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard professor, and Jesse E. Moorland, a minister, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (what is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or the ASALH).

Historic image of Sumner High School students marching in front of the Jefferson Memorial Building during its opening celebrations in 1913.Students from Sumner High School march past the Jefferson Memorial Building during the parade for its dedication in April 1913, one year before Herman Dreer began teaching at the school. From the collections of the Missouri Historical Society.

In a time when Jim Crow—a series of laws severely restricting the rights of African Americans—reigned supreme, the ASALH challenged the prevailing racism and encouraged scholarly research of African American history with an academic journal and other publications. As part of its work, the ASALH first sponsored a Negro History Week in 1926. The week fell in line between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, celebrating two individuals who had worked to expand African American rights. It wasn’t until 1976 that the U.S. government officially recognized a full Black History Month.

St. Louisans first experienced Negro History Week in 1927 thanks to the work of Herman Dreer and several influential educators. Dreer had moved to St. Louis in 1914 to teach at Sumner High School, a premier African American high school of its time. When he arrived, he found that his students didn’t know much about their ancestors’ history. Saddened by what he learned, Dreer—who was a member of the ASALH—worked with other St. Louis educators to organize St. Louis’s first Negro History Week. A key component of the celebration was the Saturday School of Negro Education, a program dedicated to helping teachers integrate African American history into their curriculum. 

Historic image of Dr. Herman Dreer and Julia Davis with teachers trained at the Saturday School of Negro History, ca. 1930.Dr. Herman Dreer and Julia Davis with teachers trained at Saturday School of Negro History, ca. 1930. From the collections of the Missouri Historical Society.

Yet Dreer didn’t stop there; he worked throughout his life for African American equality. Recognizing that local African American students lacked an accredited institution of higher education, Dreer founded Douglas University in 1935, a four-year university that offered African Americans the chance to continue their education without leaving home. Among many other accomplishments, Dreer also helped with the Shelley v. Kraemer case in 1947, promoted the integration of African Americans at Washington University in 1948, and received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1955. 

Thanks to the dedication of Dr. Herman Dreer, St. Louisans of all ages now celebrate Black History Month and learn about African American history. 

—Zoe Rollins, Teens Make History Exhibitor

Teens Make History is an award-winning, work-based learning program that encourages local teens to develop key professional skills, build self-confidence, and explore the complexities of history. As paid part-time employees of the Missouri History Museum, teen apprentices work closely with staff members on projects like museum theater plays, exhibit components, oral history interviews, and education programs. Learn more at mohistory.org/TMH.