A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I: Historic Contexts
8 - The African-American Experience
"The problem of the twentieth century" wrote W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, "is the problem of the color line." The words of the great African-American writer on race relations was as much a statement of historical trend as prophecy. By the time those words appeared in The Souls of Black Folk the lines of segregation in America were drawn in thick, bold lines. St. Louis was no different. Racial segregation was institutionalized in St. Louis by intent, accident, or benign neglect throughout its history, effecting the nature of race relations in the city today.
Slave & Free in St. Louis
Race relations in St. Louis were more complex than many other places because the city was located in a border state that permitted slavery. Urban slavery took on a character of its own. In the home of King Cotton, most slaves lived in plantation or farm settings, having little or no contact with free blacks. While larger plantations tended to be somewhat self-contained units requiring some skilled slaves, the vast majority were unskilled field workers. Southern cities differed. Businesses or individuals could "rent" slaves with specific skills such as printing, blacksmithing, horse care, or carpentry. People who lived in St. Louis and other border cities like it had more frequent contact with slaves with known abilities.
This regular contact with both north and south meant that free blacks and slaves walked the same streets, met the same people, and interacted with one another. This mingling of slave and free heightened the issue of the peculiar institution and its abolition. St. Louis was a major slave auctioning center during the 1850s, as buyers in the lower Mississippi River dealt with more than two dozen agents in the trade such as Corbin and Thompson on 6th between Pine and Chestnut. Its main competitor, Lynch's, operated its market on Locust on the current site of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and a slave pen on Broadway adjacent to today's Busch Stadium. Some 2,000 hecklers shouted down auctioneers at a public sale on the steps of the Old Courthouse in 1861, stopping the practice for good in St. Louis.
St. Louis mirrors the national experience. Slavery existed and flourished alongside free blacks. "Free" was, of course, a relative term. African-Americans in antebellum St. Louis needed licenses to live in the city, and were banned from voting or testifying against whites in court. While a "black aristocracy" of merchants and professionals existed here by the late 1850s, their lives were far more restrictive than those of their white counterparts. Blacks were subject to housing restrictions, curfews, bans on education, and prohibition from testifying in court against whites.
Since white residents came here from different parts of the country, political values clashed. Pro-slavery folk encouraged the slave trade, supported the 1847 ban on educating African-Americans, and may have even owned slaves. A group of them lynched mulatto Francis McIntosh12 in 1836, tying him to a tree and burning him alive. Abolitionists ran newspapers and aided fugitives fleeing to freedom. Elijah Lovejoy moved to St. Louis in June of 1833 to be editor of the St. Louis Observer, a Presbyterian paper. Within two years pro-southern whites answered his antislavery editorials with threats against the paper's office. After a series of break-ins at the paper in 1837 and a judge publicly denouncing his views, Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois, where slavery was illegal since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Later that year, a pro-slavery mob attacked the paper's office and killed Lovejoy. Frances Dana Gage met violence as well. A women's rights leader and writer in Ohio, Gage moved to St. Louis soon after chairing the 1853 National Women's Rights Convention in Cleveland. She wrote extensively on feminism and temperance in the 1840s and 1850s for regional, national, and agricultural papers. Horrified by slavery in Missouri, Gage directed her energies here toward abolition. The Missouri Republican responded by merely refusing to publish her fervently antislavery columns, but others took stronger action. Her home was burned several times before the Civil War.
Others worked through the legal system, hoping to find justice in the courts. Attorney Roswell Field (father of the famous children's writer Eugene Field) joined a team of lawyers in the late 1840s to represent Dred Scott, suing for his freedom. Peter Blow, Scott's owner, brought him to St. Louis in 1830, and later sold him to Dr. John Emerson at Jefferson Barracks. Emerson took him to a free state, where he married a free black named Harriet. Later he and wife moved back to the area with the doctor. After Emerson died and left his property-including his slaves-to his wife, Scott sued for his freedom. His argument in 1846 held that he was now a free black after his experience in the north. A second trial ruled in his favor in 1850, but the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision two years later, returning Scott to John Sanford, who had since purchased Scott from Emerson's widow. After five years, in 1857, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled against Scott; Chief Justice William Taney ruled that blacks had no rights under the constitution which white people needed to respect. Sanford sold Scott to Taylor Blow, who legally freed the Scotts a year before Dred Scott died in 1858.
At the time of the Dred Scott case, about one person in twenty living in St. Louis was African-American, two-third of whom were slaves. The percentage of the population with African descent was about five percent until the late 1870s. The end of political Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the south compelled southern blacks to migrate north to cities such as St. Louis. Most famous, perhaps, were the Exodusters of 1879, so named for their exodus to what many of them thought was a sort of "promised land."
Like European immigrants, these Exodusters were both pushed and pulled north. Many feared the Reconstruction and the absence of U. S. troops would eliminate their rights or, worse yet, return them to slavery. The KKK gave added impetus to fear for safety and life. At the same time, they were attracted by the lure of land in the opening West. Migrating to form new black communities, mostly in Kansas, these former slaves arrived in St. Louis (and Kansas City) penniless on their trek to new lives in the West.
Local black leadership wanted to provide enough money and supplies to move these migrants out of St. Louis as quickly as possible. Some were concerned that these immigrants would become an economic drain on the African-American community's limited resources; others feared that increased numbers of poor blacks would confirm white stereotypes of racial inferiority. James Milton Turner, Moses Dickson, John Wheeler, and John Turner led the creation of the Committee of Twenty-Five in early March of 1879, to organize transportation and temporary housing for the 10,000 or so travelers. The Committee split in mid-April: the Colored Refugee Relief Board worked on finding housing and transportation, while the Colored Immigration Aid Society raised money to form new black colonies in the west. Most Exodusters moved to the plains of western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and southern Utah; others stopped in St. Louis. The city's black population increased by 1880 to 6.36 percent of the total, many of whom were migrants.
Immigration to St. Louis increased again in the 1910s. Southern rural blacks were attracted to many growing industrial centers by the lure of factory jobs. Detroit, Gary, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron, East St. Louis, and Buffalo were popular destination points. African-Americans filled a local labor shortage in 1916 created by World War I, since European immigration came to a trickle. The same was true during World War II. Attracted by wartime production jobs such as those in the local small arms plant, the black population increased 41 percent during the war.
Fraternal organizations provided one response to the flow of new black arrivals and the racism they encountered. Like their counterparts for whites, these groups combined aspects of social clubs and benevolent societies. Prince Hall No. 10 (named for the first black Mason, Prince Hall, who joined in Boston in 1775) was the first to open in St. Louis, followed by Lone Star No. 22 three years later and H. McGee Alexander No. 8 in 1860. At the end of the Civil War, the lodges successfully petitioned their parent organization, the Ohio Grand Lodge, to create their own Grand Lodge of Missouri.
By 1909 there were nine black Freemasons chapters in the city, and the Negro Masonic Hall Association raised enough money to purchase its own building. The groups moved from their rented quarters to Easton Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard). Members of these lodges included some of the most prominent members of the local African-American community. The Masons helped black immigrants find jobs and places to live, offered needed relief, contributed to charities, backed education, and promoted the Horatio Alger-style values of honesty and good work.
On a visit to St. Louis in the early 1960s, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the church remained the most segregated institution in America. In fact, separate worship had a long heritage. The earliest church for blacks in St. Louis, First Baptist, opened in 1818. Others from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and Baptist denominations followed, expanding in the 1840s.14
A growing black population in St. Louis required more and bigger churches. St. Paul's AME grew out of the African Methodist Church, for example, erecting its new building in 1872 at 11th and Lucas. It was the first church building constructed by and for an African-American congregation. The church moved to Lawton and Leffingwell in 1890.
The Laclede Town development in the 1960s took the site, so the church moved to 1260 Hamilton Avenue. The first Roman Catholic church for a black congregation, St. Elizabeth's, opened the following year in the former Vinegar Hill Hall at 14th and Gay. Its Oblate Sisters of the Poor, an order for black nuns, opened a parish school in 1880, and published the Chronicle (later the Interracial Review) in the 1920s and 1930s. The order closed in 1950.
"Reading, Writing, & Figuring"
Soon after becoming pastor at First Baptist Church in 1827, former slave John Berry Meachum started a school for African-American children. He soon closed it under great pressure from local authorities who accused him of stirring up trouble by teaching blacks "reading, writing, and figuring." Five more schools cropped up by the 1840s, all in churches-at Chambers Street Baptist at 10th and Chambers, First African Baptist at 3rd and Market, St. Paul's AME at 7th and Washington, and Second Colored Baptist (later Central Baptist) near 3rd and Franklin. Fr. Augustin Paris organized a school for black Catholic girls at 3rd and Poplar in 1845, mostly for daughters of free blacks. It closed in 1846 "under pressure of civil authorities."
Missouri law banned teaching African-Americans to read and write starting in 1847, growing largely out of fears by slave owners that an educated black population would be a rebellious one. However, the Mississippi River was considered beyond state jurisdiction, governed by federal law only-and beyond the reach of the school ban. John Berry Meachum created a new school on a barge in the Mississippi River. Skiffs carried students each day to the barge where they took classes, then returned at night without ever technically breaking the law.
During the Civil War, with St. Louis under Union control, pro-northern leaders had greater latitude. Unitarian minister William Greenleaf Eliot and businessman James Yeatman created the "American Freedom School" at the old Ebenezer Church site on Washington Avenue in 1863 to teach fugitive and recently freed slaves the three R's. Two days later, the building mysteriously burned, but the school continued in different quarters.
At the end of the Civil War, Missouri enacted a new state constitution. Passed in January of 1865, provisions included a ban on slavery and a requirement that all school boards support education for African-Americans. When the academic year started, St. Louis had five schools for blacks with 1,600 pupils administered by a Board of Education for Colored Schools. At first, it rented sites for schools, so they moved frequently in the early years. Twelve schools for African-American children opened their doors at the start of the 1875 school year, including two-year-old Colored School No. 8, later named Simmons School.
Under state mandate, "High School for Colored Students" (Sumner High School) opened as well. Its first black teachers entered classrooms there in 1877; Oscar Waring became its first African-American principal two years later. Its first graduates, Emma Vashon and John Pope, matriculated in 1885. Since, alumni included popular singer Tina Turner, opera singer Grace Bumbry, performer Robert McFerrin, activist Dick Gregory, actor Robert Guillaume, Liberian ambassador Lester Walton, educator Julia Davis, tennis great Arthur Ashe, local newscaster Julius Hunter, and Yankee catcher-outfielder (and the American League's first black Most Valuable Player) Elston Howard.
Sumner had graduated its first, albeit small, class five years before the St. Louis Board of Education accepted a request from black leaders to designate segregated schools by name rather than by a "Colored School" number. The names commemorated prominent African-Americans both locally and nationally. For example, when Vashon school opened as an intermediate school in 1927, the Board of Education named it for Oberlin College's first African-American graduate George Boyer Vashon and his son, St. Louis educator John Boyer Vashon. Four years later it became the second local high school for African-American students.
That same year, St. Louis Public Schools opened a vocational school for black students at 814 North 19th Street. Named Booker T. Washington Technical High School in 1934, it harkened to Washington's model of race relations. A proponent of "accommodationism," Washington and his Tuskegee Institute emphasized skills-related training for blacks so they could be assimilated, or "accommodated," in white society. It taught skills readily marketed in industrial society and geared to the factory more than the office, rather than the liberal arts curriculum proposed by Washington's chief rival, NAACP co-founder W. E. B. DuBois.
Even after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, St. Louis schools remained segregated. As with many cities, black and white St. Louisans lived in separate parts of town for the most part. African-Americans generally lived north of Delmar by 1970, white residents in the south and southwestern city, with an integrated strip down the central corridor. These housing patterns dictated the racial distribution in schools, creating a de facto segregated education system even after the Supreme Court held that separate schools could never be equal. Some three students in four in St. Louis city schools were African-American in 1980, while white students increasingly attended schools in the county. To overcome this factor and integrate St. Louis Public School classrooms, court-ordered "desegregation" began in 1980, in which African-American students from the city and white students from county schools were swapped to achieve greater racial balance in schools. Public education, then, both reflected and reinforced racial segregation.
The 'Hoods: Segregated Housing
Segregated housing patterns were far from mere coincidence or happenstance. Who lived where reflected social attitudes about race. African-Americans lived in separate and discrete areas, even more accentuated than those of other recent urban arrivals living in Irish, German, Polish, or Italian neighborhoods. However, these Euro-American groups could eventually blend into the larger society. African-Americans' color always identified them as different from the prevailing white culture, making it easier to force them into separate areas.
Those areas tended to be similar to other tenement areas: substandard housing, overcrowded, unsanitary. This is not to say that all black neighborhoods were slums. Before the Civil War St. Louis boasted a "black aristocracy" of middle-class African-Americans. Eventually The Ville stood as the neighborhood for middle-class black families. These housing lines along racial boundaries held legal sway at times. By a three-to-one margin, voters enacted a segregation ordinance in 1916, holding that no one could move to a block on which more than 75 percent of the residents were of another race. The NAACP successfully fought the order in the courts. White separatists responded by creating associations of white residents living in neighborhoods near black residential areas to solidify segregated housing. The United Welfare Association, who orchestrated the ordinance based on such a law in Baltimore, continued with its support from the Real Estate Board of St. Louis. One member organization, the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association, sought to ban blacks from moving into an area bound by Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Newstead, and Easton. Each property had attached to it a fifty-year covenant forbidding sale of the house to "persons not of Caucasian race." The Ville stood as the primary neighborhood for middle class blacks.
J. D. Shelley and his family purchased a home at 4600 Labadie in 1939, within the boundaries set by the Association. Louis and Ethel Kraemer, a white couple who lived across the street at 4532 Labadie, filed a lawsuit against them to preclude their moving in. African-American Realtor James T. Bush, Sr., who sold the house to the Shelleys, promptly formed the Real Estate Brokers' Association of St. Louis and hired African-American attorney George Vaughn to represent the Shelleys. The St. Louis Circuit Court refused to recognize the covenant, but the state Supreme Court reversed the decision. Finally, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1948 decision that such covenants limiting access to or ownership of property due to race violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Shelley v. Kraemer remains a landmark case leading to lifting legal restrictions based on race.
While the Shelleys were fighting to reverse segregated housing, other institutions were reinforcing it, whether by design or benign neglect. The most conspicuous were, ironically, funded with tax dollars: urban renewal and public housing.15
Mill Creek Valley was an African-American district from the mid-1800s through the turn of the century. A mix of homes, tenements, shops, saloons, dance halls, and night clubs gave the area a special character. Its population grew markedly after World War II, as black population in the city surged. The St. Louis electorate passed a bond issue in 1954 to redevelop the area. Some 20,000 people lived from Market and Vandeventer to the Mississippi River, and between 20th and Grand, extending south from Olive to the railroad tracks; 95 percent of them were black. Demolition of the area began in 1959 to make way for Laclede Town, Grand Towers, the Ozark Expressway (US 40), and a 22-acre extension by the St. Louis University onto the Civil War-era Camp Jackson site. Nearly forty churches were razed in the process.
Some displaced residents moved to The Ville, others to the area between Delmar and Natural Bridge on both sides of Grand. This shift accelerated the black migration already in progress to University City, Wellston, and Pine Lawn. To accommodate the poorest displaced residents, the St. Louis Housing Authority continued to construct public housing on the north side-a decision reinforcing the racial segregation of the city. When the Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority started demolishing blocks of Mill Creek Valley with bond issue money, the NAACP called it a "Negro removal project." The net result displaced thousands, reinforced the north-south division, and dealt a final death blow to a center of African-American culture.
Roots of Distinctive African-American Culture
Out of St. Louis segregation, centered in the Mill Creek Valley and The Ville neighborhoods, grew a distinct African-American culture. Marked by both music and Negro National League baseball, this culture is two-sided, according to writer and social commentator Gerald Early. While jazz and black baseball gave African-American culture its texture, life, and vitality, it is also true that it could never have evolved without the oppression of segregated society.
Music in African-American St. Louis centered around the Chestnut Valley area-Chestnut and Market streets around 20th. Tom Turpin's Rosebud Cafe at 2220-2 Market Street was the hub of emerging ragtime music by 1895. Scott Joplin wrote some of his most famous work-"The Entertainer," "Gladiolas Rag," or "The Cascades,"-while playing piano at the Rosebud. (Joplin lived at 2658 Delmar, though, just a short streetcar ride away.) Proprietor Thomas Milton Turpin (1873-1922) was a composer himself, as well as a creative inspiration for a generation of ragtime musicians as notable as Joe Jordan, Sam Patterson, Louis Chauvin, and Charlie Warfield. When his "Harlem Rag" appeared in 1897, it was one of the first rag pieces published for piano.
Tom Turpin's father, Tom "Honest John" Turpin, owned the Booker T. Washington Theater with his brother, Charles. Opened around 1912 at Market and 23rd, the Washington was among the first theaters operated by and for blacks in the United States. During its life until closing in 1930, it featured the typical range of theater offerings: vaudeville, movies, and live music. Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith both performed there. Growing up in Mill Creek Valley, a young Josephine Baker sneaked into the theater and danced on the street in front of it.
Baseball is another stone in the foundation of this African-American culture. As the game rose to status as the "national pastime" in the second and third decades of this century, African-Americans were caught up as well. However, the major leagues banned black players until 1947, when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yet a rich baseball tradition grew in the black community in the early twentieth century. Chicago American Giants pitcher Rube Foster organized the Negro National League in time for the 1920 season, envisioning a third and parallel major league. The St. Louis Giants had a franchise. After playing in an old Federal League park on the southeast corner of Grand and Laclede, they moved to Giants Park near Broadway and Clarence for the maiden season of the NNL. When ownership changed the following season, so too did the name-to the St. Louis Stars. They moved to Stars Park near Compton and Market in 1922, and installed lights for night games in 1930. (The Negro National League preceded the other two major leagues by half a decade in playing night games under lights.)
The Stars also signed one of the greatest players of the twentieth century, outfielder James "Cool Papa" Bell. Later joining the Homestead Grays with the likes of Josh Gibson, Jimmie Crutchfield, and Satchel Paige, and then to the Kansas City Monarchs, Bell ranks among the greatest of batters and base runners. He is the only player to ever steal home-in a post-season exhibition tour of All-Star black and white teams-against Cardinal great Dizzy Dean. Teammate and road roommate Satchel Paige, never at a loss for a story (apocryphal or otherwise), claimed that Bell was so fast that when he retired for the night and turned off the light, he was in bed asleep before the room darkened.16 Bell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For that, city government later renamed Dickson Street for him, to James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue.
Partisan activities among African-Americans had roots in the Missouri Equal Rights League, formed in 1865 at the 8th Avenue Colored Baptist Church. Dedicated to allowing African-Americans to vote, it dissolved after passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Creators of the short-lived Liberty Party first met in St. Louis in the 1880s to form a new black national party. It held but one national convention to nominate a presidential candidate, coming to St. Louis in 1904. William T. Scott of East St. Louis and his running mate W. C. Payne of Warrenton, West Virginia, made scarcely a blip on the political screen in Theodore Roosevelt's landslide victory. Most African-American politicos felt they had better chances at influencing policy by working within the existing party system.
For the most part, though, African-Americans were relegated to second-class members of the Republican Party in the decades after the Civil War. The great national exodus of black voters from the Party of Lincoln to that of Franklin Roosevelt occurred in 1932; in St. Louis politics, the process started a generation earlier. Democrats tried to court African-American voters when Jefferson Club president Henry Hawes formed the parallel Negro Jefferson Club. They both supported Democrat Rolla Wells for mayor in 1901, but black voters returned to the Republican fold in 1904 over unfulfilled promises and heavy courting by Roosevelt.
Blacks in political leadership positions made one last attempt to become more influential Republicans. Charles Turpin became the first black in St. Louis to win public office in 1910 as constable, and re-election in 1914. Attorneys Crittenden Clark and George Vaughn, Missouri Grand Knights of Pythias grand chancellor Aaron Lloyd, and Argus publisher Joseph Mitchell formed the Citizens Liberty League in December of 1919 to see more blacks elected to public office and serving on party committees. It helped Walter Moore win election to the Missouri General Assembly in 1920, and Clark as the first black justice of the peace. Four years later it orchestrated election of Robert Scott as the city's first black ward committeeman. But the Grand Old Party continued to soft-pedal them. Turpin, Vaughn, Mitchell, and attorney Homer Phillips orchestrated the final bolt to the Democratic Party in St. Louis in 1934. By 1937, three in five black voters in St. Louis were Democrats.
Civil Rights Activism
At the same time of party wrangling and battling segregated housing ordinances, black civil rights organizations were evolving. The Committee for Social Services Among Colored People organized in 1910-the same year as the Urban League nationally-as the first interracial group in the city. It became an Urban League chapter in 1918, and started receiving Community Fund dollars four years later. The League offered services unique to the urban experience. It opened a day nursery and dental clinic in the 1920s, for example, and initiated the Federation of Block Units in 1932. It worked in the 1940s and 1950s to push employers to hire and promote African-American workers. It merged with the East St. Louis chapter in 1980.
Growing out of a desire for a more integrated St. Louis, the March on Washington Movement began work in 1943 for jobs and access. It organized pickets of Southwestern Bell starting June 12, lobbying for jobs for black operators whose applications the company had turned down. After some 200 black members paid their phone bills in pennies at the downtown office on September 18, Bell agreed to open an office in a black neighborhood with African-American employees.
The Movement then turned its attention to lunch counters. A letter campaign led by Alderman Jasper Caston led to a city ordinance in April, 1944, desegregating lunch rooms in City Hall and all other municipal buildings. In May, the newly formed Citizens Civil Rights Commission set its sights on department store lunch counters, which were always closed to black shoppers and diners.
Stix, Baer, and Fuller refused service to three black diners on May 15, with management offering to start serving blacks if other department stores did so. Forty black and fifteen white women tried to be served at counters at Stix and Famous-Barr July 8; the stores closed the lunch counters. Finally Scruggs, Vandevoort, and Barney gave in and opened its lunch counter to blacks in 1945-but not its more posh main dining room. All eating establishments in department stores were gradually desegregated during the 1950s with help from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
CORE also ran the Jefferson Bank and Trust demonstration starting August, 1963. As with Southwestern Bell, the issue was jobs. Demonstrations called for hiring four black clerical workers at the bank. Constant pressure from demonstrators including 2nd Ward Alderman (and future Member of Congress) William Clay, Louis Ford, Robert Curtis, Norman Seay, and Charles and Marion Oldham compelled the bank to agree on March 31 to five hirings.
ACTION, organized by local activist Percy Green, engaged in similar activities. Green's primary targets were organizations such as the Veiled Prophet, which admitted no black members. After ACTION protests at the 1969 VP Parade and the Veiled Prophet Ball three years later, the Veiled Prophet accepted physicians William Banton II, Eugene Mitchell, and R. Jerome Williams in 1979 as its first African-American members.
St. Louis was not the site of some of the most bitter civil rights confrontations in the United States. Birmingham, Selma, Detroit, and Los Angeles experienced far more violence and destruction. This does not mean that St. Louis was an integrated city, or that such activities were uncommon. In many ways, the experience in St. Louis was typical of most American cities including regular activities, generally peaceful demonstrations, occasional visits from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But all pointed to the truth of DuBois' assertion of a century ago, that the problem of the twentieth century has been the problem of the color line.