Picture the affluent St. Louis suburb of Clayton. Great schools. Flourishing businesses. A lively restaurant scene.
But how Clayton came to be synonymous with such commercial affluence is entwined with a little-known part of the suburb’s history.
From the 1800s to the 1950s, Clayton was home to a flourishing African-American community. The area’s black residents were pushed out of the area through rigorous “urban renewal” zoning policy to make room construction of the vaunted commercial center of the suburb. The black community in Clayton all but disappeared.
The neighborhood was bounded by Hanley Road and Brentwood Boulevard, and even more densely populated between Hanley and Bemiston Avenue on Carondelet and Bonhomme avenues. Today, 8 percent of Clayton’s population is African-American.
A short documentary, part of the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase is called “Displaced & Erased” and it is bringing light to the history of the African-American community in Clayton, which has often been relegated to a single paragraph in a history book. Clayton High School and Washington University grad Emma Riley directed the film, which will be screened Thursday, July 20 at the Tivoli Theater.
The history of the community
“This black community was a part of Clayton from its beginnings,” Riley said. “The first postmaster of Clayton was black and there was an African-American school called Attucks Elementary. This community was a part of Clayton until the 1950s. Coinciding with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, people started to buy up properties and then the City Planning Commission of Clayton started talking about getting rid of this area and rezoning it for commercial purposes in 1958. This community was slowly displaced throughout the '50s and '60s and was virtually non-existent in the 1970s.”
The documentary features retired Clayton High School history teacher Donna Rogers-Beard, and represents a small part of the research she has been doing into the subject for the past several years.
Rogers-Beard said that, at its height, the community was home to more than 300 people. She’s been working on her research since 1991, combing through archives of the St. Louis Argus newspaper and conducting oral histories after learning more about the Attucks School at the Clayton School District’s 100th-anniversary party. She hopes to release a book about the subject in the coming years.
Both Riley and Rogers-Beard joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss the history on Monday’s program. They were also joined by Rev. Doris Graham, who grew up in the historic African-American neighborhood and whose family was pushed out.
Memories of the neighborhood
Graham grew up in Clayton in the 1940s at 7730 Bonhomme Ave. with her mother and her mother’s sisters.
“Those were some of the best days of my life,” Graham said. “I went to Attucks School from kindergarten to third grade.”
Graham said that by the time she was in third grade, she had moved into St. Louis with her mother.
“I always kept in touch with my friends and family in Clayton, so when First Baptist Church of Clayton was told they had to move off of Brentwood Boulevard to make room for a high-rise, I’d hear from my aunt, a staunch member of that church who didn’t want to move,” Graham said.
That church began in 1893 and was eventually moved to Union Boulevard and Terry Avenue, in St. Louis. Now, that Clayton property is the site of Bethesda Barclay House, a residence for older adults.
“There’s just no evidence it existed,” Rogers-Beard said. “You have a whole community all the way to Hanley and, thank goodness, now we do have a plaque placed at the site of the old Attucks School.”
Why were people pushed out?
Clayton, Brentwood, Webster Groves and Kirkwood all had “urban renewal” zoning policies during the 1950s that pushed predominantly African-American communities out to make room for newer, commercial development. Rogers-Beard said that victims of these policies lost their homes over a period of 5-10 years.
“We see it first happening with property being bought and then, finally, zoning laws and eminent domain,” Rogers-Beard said.
Homeowners were paid for the property, but Riley said that payment doesn’t paint a full picture of the situation.
“If you look at what that property is worth now and what these people lost out on and the fact they didn’t want to leave, and I think that has implications for how wealth is transferred from generation to generation,” Riley said. “These weren’t just black people who were renting, they were property owners. So many people acquire wealth and come into wealth by transferring property down the line.”
Harland Bartholomew and Associates was the architectural planning firm responsible for presenting the plans to raze and commercialize the area of the African-American neighborhood. Riley said the firm was known nationwide as an organization that talked about the dangers of slums and made plans to replace housing for poor and predominantly black communities.
“That’s amazing because, where I lived, there were no slums up and down Bonhomme and Carondelet,” said Graham. “You know, people make up things to get what they want.”
Rogers-Beard said that in the 1800s, Clayton was actually ahead of its time because white and black students went to school together. It wasn’t until a newer school was built that African-American children were segregated into the one-room Attucks School, which was reintegrated in the 1950s.
Ironically, Clayton was one of the first school districts to become a part of the region’s voluntary desegregation program in the 1980s. Rogers-Beard would welcome African-American students who entered Clayton High School’s doors by saying, “Welcome home.”
“I would tell them: Clayton once had a black community, you are not the first.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.