Display about people being forced from homes unearths lifetime of memories for Griot founder
Lois Conley was a teenager when her parents lost their Mill Creek neighborhood home to eminent domain. A portion of her former backyard became Market Street after the city leveled the area in the name of progress.
Conley is the founder of St. Louis' Griot Museum of Black History, which sits across the street from the site of the future National Geospacial-Intelligence Agency, in a demolished area that was part of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.
Through Dec. 15, the north St. Louis museum is hosting an exhibition exploring how the government’s power to condemn mostly black neighborhoods has affected people in St. Louis and Kansas City. Conley and photographer Matt Rahner co-curated the display.
Conley talked with St. Louis Public Radio’s Nancy Fowler about the exhibition, “Eminent Domain/Displaced,” as well as her personal experiences of more than 50 years ago.
Would you tell us a little about your own story of being displaced when the city of St. Louis condemned your family’s home?
Lois Conley: When we actually moved out of Mill Creek, which was ’61, I was in high school. It was pretty traumatic because there were no lights, there were no public utilities, there was no water.
So we were going out salvaging wood from properties that had been torn down to put it into ... fireplaces.
And I was the, you know, cute, young, teenager in high school. I didn't want anybody didn't know we were living like that so I would take the long route to and from school every day just so nobody could see me coming and going.
It was embarrassing. You know I look back now I know that that was the best my parents could do. It just seemed like a really rough and awful time for a teenager.
Now, the The Griot is not too far from an area that was subject to eminent domain for the new NGA site. So what does that look like from where you sit?
Conley: It's very interesting because after my personal experience in Mill Creek, I went to work for … the Midtown Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation and found myself in somewhat of a similar predicament, having to get people moved out of that area so that the hospital down on the south end of green could expand.
But I think it made me a lot more sensitive to the needs of those folks who are being affected, and really just to try to make sure that they were treated right and their needs were being met. Now I'm finding myself again — it seems like I can't get away from this eminent domain process — here we are again with eminent domain affecting us, in an indirect way, at the Griot.
I understand you've collected some items from the NGA displacement for the exhibition. What sort of things do you have?
Conley: One was what looked to be a homemade trunk out of real solid wood, and it was still filled with personal items.
There is a particular dress that looked like it might have been somebody's prom dress … it's a fancy silk dress with flouncy covering over it and pretty silk buttons. Shoes and purses things like that, that just tell a story about the people who lived in that house. And one of the items in there is a dish towel that is a calendar and has 1962 on it so it had been in there at least that long.
Do you see, and if so how do you see, the issue of eminent domain tied up in some of the issues that the protesters right now are putting a spotlight on?
Conley: I think you know the eminent domain process is not new; it ... came down to us from the Constitution. So it's been around forever. But it just seems that whenever it is practiced [it is] most frequently, and most prominently, in marginalized neighborhoods particularly urban neighborhoods … where black folks or centered.
And so I think that is just consistent with what is happening in our in our city and in our country these days. Black folks, marginalized people, just seem to get the worst of the stick no matter what. And it's seemingly just total disregard for the human aspect of who we are. And I think that has to change.
How is The Griot doing? What is new in terms of support and what are you looking at, as far as the future?
Conley: Well, after four or five really, really, really rough years, our attendance has been consistently on the rise. We’re getting some smaller memberships again ... [and] the number of people taking out annual memberships is increasing.
We have been able to negotiate a first-step collaboration with the Urban League in that we've become the curator now for the Vaughn Cultural Center, which generates a little income.
And I'm really, really pleased about the fact that we've been identified by the Regional Arts Commission as one of the institutions that they have committed to helping with capacity building. Because of that, we were able to hire a part-time staff person.
People are telling us when they come that they've driven down from places like Minnesota just to visit The Griot. They’re saying, “I saw it on a Facebook page,” and they were inspired to come down and visit and they're bringing their families.
And they're going through the museum in a different way. They're actually looking, they're reading, they're asking questions. So it's a different attitude about the experience as well. I think that has to be a direct result of not only Michael Brown, but of all of the unrest that's going on around our country.
If you go:
'Eminent Domain/Displaced' exhibition
Where: The Griot Museum of Black History, 2505 St. Louis Ave.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday, through Dec. 15
Admission: $7.40 adults; $3.75 ages 5-12
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL