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StrawHat
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Ivory Perry's straw hat. Photo courtesy of the Missouri History Museum (click for larger version)
September 12, 2012
It's just a hat, machine-woven of straw, with a wide brim and a high crown, the kind you see at carnivals and on beaches and even on city streets during the summer. Someone, possibly the owner, had attached a multi-patterned band of colorful fabric around the crown. It's all rather worn and faded, and with good reason. Also with good reason, it's in the collections of the Missouri History Museum.

This was Ivory Perry's hat. He famously wore it throughout the 1960s, and it has become a symbol of the actions that he took to combat the inequalities imposed on African Americans and other minorities.

Perry was born in 1930 into a dirt-poor family of black sharecroppers. He could hardly have seen any promise for his future in the cotton fields of Arkansas. He joined the Army, still a strictly segregated organization, where he was more than once in trouble; but he earned two Purple Hearts in Korea.

A meandering path after the Army finally took him to St. Louis. Like his native rural Arkansas, our city was bogged down in racial prejudice. Instead of moving on, he settled in and decided to make a difference. By the 1960s he — and his straw hat — had become well-known throughout St. Louis and beyond.

Considered a nuisance by many, especially those in power, Ivory Perry brought the problems and concerns of his community to the attention of his fellow St. Louisans, black and white. Perry wore that hat as he literally stopped traffic to call attention to the civil rights march in Selma. He wore it as he protested police brutality and Jim Crow practices, all too prevalent throughout the United States. He wore it when he publicly and vociferously complained about biased newspaper coverage that seemed to be featured in every edition.

That hat was often firmly planted on his head as he marched for better employment opportunities at Jefferson Bank and Laclede Gas and Southwestern Bell; as he campaigned for renters' rights; as he organized the movement to eradicate lead poisoning in the houses of the poor.

Ivory Perry died in 1989, well regarded in his community and beginning to be recognized for his dedication, even by white St. Louis. Shortly after his death, his daughter gave his hat to the History Museum. With that hat, she ensured that Ivory Perry would be remembered and, more importantly, that his fight for justice would be carried on.

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