My mother, Adelaide Mahaffey Schlafly, was an unusual woman. When she was in her late thirties she decided to go to college. As the mother of three young children she most definitely did not match the profile of the typical undergraduate in the 1950s. Nevertheless, she enrolled at St. Louis University and graduated magna cum laude the month before her 41st birthday.
While she was at SLU one of her professors helped open her eyes to issues of social justice, particularly with respect to racial inequality and the plight of disadvantaged members of society. At the time my father was serving on the St. Louis Board of Education, which was dominated by politicians who were more interested in lining their own pockets and in helping out their cronies than they were in educating the children of St. Louis. My father had been elected to the board as a reformer committed to rooting out corruption. In the process of fulfilling this commitment he made a lot of enemies.
When my father ran for re-election to the board in 1959 the political bosses in the City were unified in their opposition. But, even though the political machine was against him, he had something more powerful going for him. My mother was in charge of his campaign. She personally recruited a thousand volunteers on his behalf. My mother and her army of volunteers not only helped re-elect my father to the board; they also helped elect another reformer named John Hicks, whose election was historic in its own right. Reverend Hicks was the first African-American ever elected to a citywide office of any kind in the City of St. Louis.
My mother recognized that the problems of racial discrimination could not be solved by focusing solely on the City of St. Louis, but needed to addressed on a statewide basis. She also recognized that attitudes about race in St. Louis were more enlightened than in the rest of Missouri. Missouri had been a slave state throughout the Civil War. Racially segregated schools had been enshrined in the state’s constitution. Missouri was among the states that outlawed interracial marriage. In fact the Missouri General Assembly had recently expanded the scope of its anti-miscegenation law to forbid marriages between whites and so-called “Mongolians.”
My mother and her allies were not deterred. They made repeated trips to Jefferson City urging the General Assembly to enact legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations….places such as restaurants, hotels, theatres, and stores. Given the racial climate at the time, it’s not surprising that they encountered staunch resistance. She spoke of a legislator from Southeast Missouri who argued against the bill, saying, “In my part of the state we have a saying that you never see a white bird and a black bird sitting next to one another on a fence.” This same man was later elected governor of Missouri.
Despite the hostility my mother and her colleagues faced in Jefferson City, they ultimately prevailed. She was proud that Missouri, a former slave state, had adopted a public accommodations law before the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Adelaide Mahaffey Schlafly was born in 1915, four years before women were legally allowed to vote. She recently died peacefully at home at the age of 97. Our city, state and nation have come a long way in her lifetime. She was instrumental in accomplishing much of this change.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.