Bound by Division - Race in St. Louis

Apr 15, 2011

Jack Straughter was a pipefitter in the 1960s when he and his wife were looking for a new house for their family of seven, and so he could have afforded to live almost anywhere in the city of St. Louis.  But as a black man, there were places he never considered looking.

"I didn’t have any desire to move across Delmar, because I knew that Delmar was an area that I just wouldn’t be comfortable,"  Straughter says, sitting in the dining room of that home on Thornby Place, about seven blocks north of Delmar. Vacant lots, where houses of similar majesty one stood, dot the surrounding streets.

Legally speaking, Straughter was free to move south of Delmar – the U. S. Supreme Court had struck down racial covenants in its 1948 ruling in Shelley vs. Kraemer, involving a duplex in St. Louis's Greater Ville neighborhood. But Straughter says past experience had him doubting the mentality that led to those covenants in the first place had changed.

"I worked out in University City. I was in high school, and I would catch the Delmar bus,” he says. “And there would be conversations that you would hear and knowing that you were there. They just didn’t care if it hurt your feelings or it affected you or not. So I got that opinion of them and it stuck with me." Even today, he wonders how he’ll be treated if he ventures south of Delmar.

A culture shock coming home

Allison Rose picked up on the same divide when she returned to St. Louis after 10 years in New Orleans.

On a recent Wednesday night, she was among the 60 or so people – all white – enjoying a late beverage on the roof of the Moonrise Hotel in the Delmar Loop.

Coming home was a culture shock, she says. In New Orleans, black and white neighborhoods are so close together than residents interact everywhere.

"It really just struck me that I could go to a Target or a Wal-Mart in this city and every single person there is white. And it was insane," she says.

A deep-cutting mentality

Alderman Terry Kennedy traces it all back to the Civil War.

"This was a slave-holding city in a slave-holding state and some of that mentality has not been completely eliminated or eradicated," he says.

Kennedy, the chair of the black caucus, represents the 18th Ward, one of the few in the city that crosses Delmar. The differences as you drive the north-sound thoroughfares of the ward are stark – abandoned buildings versus mansions on private streets, a Straub’s versus a corner market selling mostly processed foods.

But Kennedy says the effects are worse than differences in services. The mentality cuts much deeper than what you can see.

"There are many people that I know that moved here from out of town, and one of the first things they say is that St. Louis feels like a very oppressive place to them," he says. "Beyond destroying the capacity of one group to fully interact and participate in the culture of a city, to me it also destroys the spirit of the entire city."

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Terry Jones says Missouri’s hybrid status in the Civil War – a slave state that never seceded, and hence never went through Reconstruction –  may play some role in the staying power of the city’s racial divide.

"There was never a period where African-Americans achieved political control in the late 19th century as was the case in the south, and that meant no policies were put into place that could be a counter force," he says. "Missouri shifted immediately from a slave state to a Jim Crow state."

The first restrictive covenant emerged in St. Louis in 1911. Their use expanded after the Supreme Court in 1917 struck down a Louisville, Kentucky residential segregation ordinance similar to a piece of legislation pushed by citizen's initiative in St. Louis. Informal arrangements such as two different sets of real estate listings for whites and blacks continued into the 1970s. Terry Kennedy says economic, social and political inequalities are just as firmly entrenched today.

Kennedy will concede to some victories. He remembers seeing the "whites only" signs on city businesses. He remembers when black youth would get harassed if they went near what is now the Grand Center arts district.

Discrimination is no longer legal, even if it is engrained, he says. (By one measure of population - city blocks - St. Louis is among the most integrated cities.) And youth of all races are talking to each other more than they did when he was growing up.

"That I believe can be a foundation, but it can only be a foundation if you use it as that and begin to have the higher discussion, and that is how to dismantle the institutionalized and the systemized racism," he says.

Bringing about change through being uncomfortable

That’s the approach that local activist Karen Kalish says she’s taking with her effort to bridge the city’s divide – a program called Cultural Leadership. It gathers students from high schools across the region for a year of lectures, seminars and trips that Kalish says drill into the complicated issues surrounding race.

"We keep these kids uncomfortable all year long," she says. "Our young people say they never would have met each other if it wasn’t for Cultural Leadership. They immediately bond because they both then have the same goals of bringing about change."

That’s probably true for Tyjuan Morrow and Erin Schroeder, who went through Cultural Leadership three years apart and met at Kalish’s eclectically-decorated home in Clayton one rainy March evening to pitch Cultural Leadership to a prospective donor.

"I went to Beaumont High School, in North City, and we had one white student there," Tyjuan says. "Growing up, every white person that you’ve seen in my neighborhood could have been the police."

"Lindbergh is a district that is almost all white," Erin says. "When I was growing up, when you crossed the River Des Peres, you were supposed to lock your doors."

The two are now pushing for change in the small ways they can. Tyjuan and a Cultural Leadership classmate, Richie Gallant, started a tutoring program that paired students from the private Whitfield School in the county with students from Beaumont, and he says he speakers up when friends make racist remarks about whites. Erin pushed for the Lindbergh School District to keep the voluntary desegregation program so her classmates had some exposure to other races.

Ultimately, says John Wagner, the policy director at Focus St. Louis, interpersonal relationships are a crucial piece of the puzzle.

"You can legislate or mandate things like the civil rights era certainly did, but you can’t legislate or mandate how people think, or how they go about their daily lives,” he says. “I think that’s the tough part, is really changing minds."

The agency’s two-decade old program called Bridges targets the professional population with the goal of turning conversations into action. Wagner says it’s led to incremental progress since the agency last looked at racial diversity in 2001, though not fast enough for him

"A friend just last week kinda half joked that when Armageddon comes around you’re going to want to be in St. Louis because it’ll get here 10 years later," he says ruefully.

Alderman Terry Kennedy says programs like Cultural Leadership and Focus St. Louis show there’s a desire for change in the city, although there’s also a fear about upsetting the balance of power.

But officials may not have a choice, he says. An oppressive environment can’t last forever.

Web Extra: Living Your Values in a "No-Go" Zone

As a child, Anne Voss lived north of Delmar before the area became a “no-go” zone for white families.

She stayed and raised seven children in a house on Windermere Place – even as the neighborhood changed and others moved out.

These are her reflections on living her values when it came to race relations in St. Louis.