By MARK EVANS
When Farrar “Moses” Riney died in St. Mary (then spelled St. Mary’s) on Fen. 16, 1921, he left an amazing legacy for that time and place.
Born a slave, he had fought in the Union army to help abolish slavery, then had owned his own home in St. Mary.
A respected member of Immaculate Conception Church, he was buried in the cemetery in town and was referred to in his obituary as being respected by both blacks and whites.
On Feb. 16, Greg Elder is putting on an event at Immaculate Conception Church to honor the man and his legacy on the 100th anniversary of his death.
The art festival, which has encouraged area artists to submit works related to Riney, begins at 6 p.m. It is the second time he has been honored in recent years. A ceremony was held in July 2019 to dedicate a new marker by his grave.
FAMILY IS PROUD OF HERITAGE
A large number of relatives showed up for that 2019 event. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, a good number are expected this time, also. The family takes justifiable pride in their ancestor.
The Riney family started off in St. Mary, many of them migrating to Jefferson County and beyond.
Diane Selmon of Festus, is a great-granddaughter of Moses Riney. She said she was familiar with him, but that she had not known many details about him until he was honored in 2019.
She regrets not getting more information from her mother while she was alive,
“She always said, ‘If you have any questions, you’d better ask while I’m still here,” Selmon said.
Her mother, Blondell Underwood, known as “MeeMa,” who lived to the age of 92 in 2014, would have likely been a good source of information. She was one of several children born to Joseph and Odeal Riney. Selmon always heard Joseph Riney referred to in the family as “Grandpa Joe.” Joseph Eustius Riney was the son of Moses and Mary, and lived until 1943.
On the other side of the family, meanwhile, Charles “Chick” Dickerson of St. Mary traces his ancestry back to Mary Jane Burgette Riney, Moses’ wife. One of their 13 children was Mary Jane Riney (who dropped “Mary” from her name later in her life). She was born in 1870.
This Jane Riney, then a widow, married her second husband, Simon Peter Yount. Their daughter, Catherine Alberta Yount, later married Henry Dickerson, Sr., Chick Dickerson’s grandfather.
Like on the other side of the family, a wealth of information lost when Dickerson’s father, Henry Dickerson,Jr, died. He left Chick Dickerson with voluminous research he had conducted, though, passing on some valuable information.
MOSES WAS NOT ONLY SOLDIER IN FAMILY
Military service has run through the extended family. One of Selmon’s brothers, Lester Riney, was born in 1931 in St. Mary and died in 2018. He spent 28 years in the U.S. Air Force (joining it when it was still the Army Air Force). He fought in the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.
Lester Riney was also a successful Golden Gloves boxer, nicknamed “Flash.”
Another sibling, Quandell, had four sons, all of whom went into the military.
On the other side of the family, meanwhile, Chick Dickerson served with distinction as a member of U.S. armored forces during the Vietnam War.
Dickerson, who left the Army with a rank of E-5 and an Army Commendation Medal, later served as the first black deputy in Ste. Genevieve County, serving under Sheriff Robert “Rabbit” McKlin, 1994-2001.
Tracing the family’s military service through the Dickerson line also casts a light on the changing attitude of US military brass as to how black soldiers should be used.
After initially proving themselves Riney’s Company C Regiment 68 of the U.S. Colored Infantry and other black outfits were frequently put on the front line of battle. During the first half of the 20th century, though, a notion somehow took hold among military leaders that black soldiers could not be counted on in combat. During both world wars, most black soldiers and sailors had non-combat duties.
Dickerson’s father, Henry Dickerson, Jr., and uncle, Alvin Dickerson, both served in the US Army during World War II. His uncle, though, was a cook and his father was likewise not in a combat situation.
“I was the only one in the family that was in the war,” he said.
By the Vietnam War, the military brass had seemed to make a 180-degree turn and was quick to throw largely-black units into the most dangerous combat situations.
PUTTING THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE
Genealogy is an intriguing hobby. Recognizing those who helped change society and those who rose to positions of respect in a part of the country where race was a major issue, though, is even more important.
Among the documents the Dickerson family has is a listing of Thomas Riney’s slaves shortly before the Civil War. Moses, as a 14-year-old boy, is among them. As a dehumanizing touch, each slave’s monetary value is listed.
Yet that 14-year-old rose from that ghastly position to be lovingly eulogized as a beloved elder citizen of the community and the local church congregation by the time of his death some six decades later.
Honoring the memory of Moses and Mary Jane Burgette Riney helps put things in perspective and allows members of the family to look back with pride on an ancestor who started in life’s worst possible situation, but rose to a status few people in the 1850s could have imagined a slave could obtain.
“From what I’ve gathered, being a black man in his time, he pretty well stepped forward,” Dickerson said of Moses Riney. “He very easily well been a no good type person.”
Instead he strove to improve himself and established his family as a respected one in Ste. Genevieve County.
Dickerson noted that the extended family has always been “pretty honest and hard-working.”
“There’s a saying, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family,” he said. “We helped everybody out. When I lived in Chicago, I told people I came from a place where you could go out and leave your doors unlocked. If it rained your neighbors would come and close your windows. You wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”
Thanks to the character and determination of Moses and Mary Jane Burgette Riney, their descendents didn’t have as much to worry about as many southern black families did during the 20th century. They also inherited a legacy of a respected family to pass on to future generations.