Two Cases of Problematic Language

Virginia and Francis Minor were very strongly anti-slavery. Despite growing up in a slave-holding family, they never owned slaves themselves. They were members of abolitionist groups, were strongly on the side of Scotts in the Dred Scott case and Francis even provided surety for two Free Negro Bonds, helping two former slaves live free lives in St. Louis.

But even they were not perfect. In my research I came across two instances where their words/actions could be interpreted as racist. I am including these here in an effort to be fully transparent about their lives.

Virginia: A Question of Intent
Most of the time, Virginia’s language when referring to people of color was proper and respectful. However in late September 1882 she gave a speech at the National Woman’s Suffrage Association Convention in Omaha, Nebraska in which she “urged the men of Nebraska to stand before the world and prove they had been educated up the point [sic] where willing to give women an equal political status with themselves and not assign her a position to that enjoyed by the Chinese coolie.”

Today, we see this term as a racial slur. But “Coolie” was the word used by the newspaper when describing, not directly quoting, Virginia’s remarks. However, she had used the term at least once before in a letter to Susan B. Anthony when she described how the “Chinese coolie labor system” could develop into a form of slavery in the United States that would be in opposition to the Thirteenth Amendment. The full sentence reads, “If Mexican peonage or the Chinese coolie labor system shall develop slavery of the Mexican or Chinese race within our territory, this amendment [the thirteenth] may safely be trusted to make it void.”

The use of the term “coolie” was not originally meant as a pejorative for immigrants; coolie was “the bureaucratic term the British used to describe indentured laborers.” In this letter, she also called the Chinese by their correct nationality, as opposed to the popular slurs of “Chinamen,” or “Yung Tung,” which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony employed on more than one occasion. So we have a situation of her using what is today an offensive term but then also being respectful of another group in the same sentence. We will never know her true intent; Virginia was an imperfect as others of her time, but it appears that she tried to be respectful of all, even if she didn’t always get it right.

Francis Signs a Questionable Letter

From 1884 through the end of their lives, the Minors lived at 3311 Lucas, which was part of the exclusive Aubert Place neighborhood, designed to be a “pastoral retreat from congested urban areas…[giving residents the] ideal balance of the country and the city–offering healthy bucolic open space domesticated with civilization’s amenities.”

The exclusivity may help explain why Francis’ name appears on an 1885 letter signed by property holders of Aubert Place protesting against the establishment of a colored school in their neighborhood. The school in question was likely No. 5 Colored School, which was built in 1885 and was located at 2840 Lucas Avenue, just down the street from the Minor’s home at 3311 Lucas Ave. This is the only time Francis is on record as showing any type of anti-Black tendencies and may be an example of an otherwise open-minded person also having a “not in my backyard” mentality.


For Virginia, see “Woman Suffrage: A Letter from Mrs. Francis Minor,” Daily Missouri Democrat, January 17, 1874, 4.) and (See Gandhi, Lakshmi, “A History Of Indentured Labor Gives ‘Coolie’ Its Sting,” Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed, NPR, November 25, 2013, accessed December 16, 2018.

For Francis, see “Board of Public Schools Official Report: St. Louis, June 9, 1885,” Official Proceedings St. Louis Public Schools, Volume 5, St. Louis: Nixon-Jones Printing Co, 1886, 372; Gerteis, Lewis S. The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History. Columbia, Mo.: U of Missouri Press, 2012, 42; “Banneker School,” St. Louis County Place Names 1928-1945, The State Historical Society of Missouri, accessed February 8, 2020,; and Banneker School, St. Louis, St. Louis (Independent City), Missouri, National Register #100001761”