This new East St. Louis festival hopes to restore a fountain and pride in a changing city
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
A family foundation in East St. Louis hopes a new festival will help not only bring more people to the city but ensure that they don’t leave.
“We want to give them the opportunity to see the beauty of the city and also feel the beauty of the city and all it has to offer and we want them to stay there,” said Renee King-Jacobs, event coordinator for the foundation.
The Emma L. Wilson King Foundation will host its first East St. Louis Family Fall Fun Festival at Jones Park Boat Pavillion on Saturday, October 9. The festival will feature food, music and about 30 community vendors.
Saturday’s event will be the first festival that the foundation has sponsored. Along with wanting to create a positive event in the city, leaders of the nonprofit also wanted to bring more awareness to the foundation, which was launched in 2005.
“It also gives us an opportunity to keep the foundation front and center to show the community what we’re doing in the community … To give us an opportunity to talk about the lily pond fountain, to show them where our projects will take place and what the goal is for,” King-Jacobs said.
The foundation is a civic and educational organization that aims to improve the community of East St Louis through initiatives like enhancing parks in the area and furthering educational endeavors of students in the city.
Signature fountain project
Three main projects of the foundation are restoring the fountain at Jones Park, distributing coats to local school districts and giving scholarships to recent high school graduates.
Restoring the fountain in Jones Park is the foundation’s signature project.
The 90-year-old fountain is one of the oldest and largest fountains with a lily pond in the metro-east, according to the foundation leaders. The group’s goal is to raise $1.6 million by 2023 to complete a total overhaul of the fountain, which hasn’t been operational since the 1970’s. The foundation has raised $350,000 so far.
The fountain is especially significant for Black residents in the area.
“East St. Louis in its heyday was a major city of southern Illinois, actually -- second to St. Louis in the region -- and it was a segregated city when we were growing up as kids,” Jerome King, the foundation’s secretary, said. “Jones Park was generally the white park whereas Lincoln Park, on the south side of town, it was basically for African-Americans.”
Not the city it used to be
Willa King-Allen, the treasurer for the foundation, said the East St. Louis that she grew up in is a lot different from the city today because of segregation.
“I remember when, in the area, we had lunch counters that were (for) whites on one side and (for) Blacks on the other side,” said King-Allen, 79. “In downtown East St. Louis, they had no Black salespeople or anything and we just kind of, at first, took those for granted. As we said, East St. Louis was thriving in the 50’s and first part of the 60’s. Before all of the packing houses left, it was the third-largest railroad city in packing houses, but when all of the packing houses left, of course, then white flight (happened). A lot of people left and followed their jobs.”
She added: “We went from over 70,000 residents in East St. Louis to around 20,000. It’s a big difference.”
That number has dropped even lower over the past decade, according to 2020 Census results. East St. Louis has a population of 18,469, a striking decrease from 27,006 that was reported in 2010.
Even so, Jerome King said the white flight that contributed to the city’s population loss has created a tight-knit Black community.
“Even growing up in the 60’s and 70’s...there was a lot of pride in the Black community but it was because of segregation,” King, 63, said. “Despite the segregation and the changes that were taking place in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a wonderful opportunity for African-Americans moving into various positions of authority.”
A mother for the community
The Emma L. Wilson King Foundation hopes Saturday’s festival revives some of that pride. It’s what the foundation’s namesake would’ve wanted.
Wilson King, who died in 2004 at the age of 82, was an active member in the East St. Louis community. She was a mother of 12 who had a deep appreciation for parks in the community. The restored fountain will be renamed in her honor. Jerome, Renee and Willa are three of her 12 children.
“We called her a community mom because even though she had 12 children, if anybody in the neighborhood was hungry or needed clothes, somehow she always found a way to help,” Willa said.
That’s what the group plans to do with the foundation. Saturday’s event will start at 10:30 a.m. with a parade from 25th and State Street to Argonne Drive, where the festival will be held from 12:30 to 6 p.m. Admission is free and wearing masks is highly recommended
“(We want people) to have a fun, festive day in their own park,” Jerome said. “They don’t have to go to a park in Belleville or a park in O’Fallon, but they’re in a park in East St. Louis in a safe environment with good food and good people.”
Donations to the foundation can be made via its website. During the festival, the foundation will also try to sell bricks for its buy-a-brick campaign that will result in bricks adorning the restored fountain’s plaza grounds.
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.