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Culture & History

East St. Louis was home to a pioneering Black construction company. Few know about it today

Elise Preston Mallory smiles for a portrait at a desk in the crowded office of her late father, Janfrey Preston.
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Elise Preston Mallory sits in the office of her late father, Janfrey Preston. Elise is working on a project to display the collections of her father. Janfrey Preston was an artist and construction manager that worked on many significant projects in the city of East St. Louis.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

A group of cousins, known as the Prestons, often text each other with pictures or documents related to their late uncles and fathers.

The family group chat has made the cousins closer since the deaths of the men who raised them, while fostering a deep appreciation for the legacy they left in East St. Louis. The cousins are beginning to understand that a group text isn’t capacious enough to store their family’s history.

But understanding a family’s history is difficult when forced to learn about it on your own instead of hearing from the relatives who lived it.

“They were big family men, and I think I had the best father,” Patrice Preston Rogers, one of the cousins, said. “I think the problem is they were focused on family, so they really didn’t make a big deal out of what they did, so they really didn’t talk about it. It was more of just this is a job, and all of them kind of fell into it because that’s what their dad did, so I don’t know if they had much of a choice.”

Preston Rogers’ grandfather, Joseph Preston, Sr., established one of the first Black-owned construction companies in the region, Preston Construction. Not many people know about it today.

The family is working on ways for younger generations in the city to know about the construction company’s significance to East St. Louis as they attempt to piece its history together. They think their family’s legacy is especially essential during Black History Month.

History Preston Construction

The Great Migration, one of the largest movements of Black people in the United States, can be described as both a physical journey and an emotional one.

Black families from the South trying to build new lives in the North, searching for opportunities where their race would be more accepted than where they had just left—only to come to the hasty realization that their new home is just as racist as the former one—was an unnerving experience. There’s both pain and hope. Both struggle and survival.

Between 1910-1970, nearly 6 million Black people from the South embarked on that journey. And some of them came to East St. Louis.

“A lot of people who came to East St. Louis were from Mississippi,” Donnie Brooks, an East St. Louis native with roots in Tennessee and Arkansas, said. “A lot of Mississippians, (people from) Arkansas. You follow the Mississippi River up North to St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, etc—that’s how they did it. A lot of Blacks from Mississippi also came to Chicago.”

Joseph Preston Sr. was born in Greenville, Texas, in 1907 and migrated to East St. Louis with his family as a child. In the 1930s, Preston Sr. founded Preston Construction in East St. Louis. Along with his four sons, the family is responsible for building or remodeling multiple projects in East St. Louis, including Officer Funeral Home, Mary Brown Center and several churches and schools in the city.

A pioneer for Black contractors in the area at the time, Joseph Preston Sr. was the president of the Illinois Craftsmen Association and regularly trained prospective contractors in East St. Louis.

A sepia-toned family photo of Joseph Preston, Sr., at middle, with his mother Summers Preston to his left and his father Ada Gee to his right.
Provided via Belleville News-Democrat
Joseph Preston, Sr. (middle) was born in 1907 in Greenville, Texas, to Summers Preston (left) and Ada Gee (right). The family later moved to East St. Louis where Joseph founded Preston Construction.

Preston Sr.’s construction work spans roughly nine decades as his sons continued their father’s legacy by forming their own or joining other construction companies that worked in East St. Louis (Preston & Associates, Fleming Corporation, FlemCo), ending in 2012 with the retirement of his son, Janfrey Preston.

Donnie Brooks grew up with Preston Sr.’s sons. He said Preston Construction built his family’s home and his father’s former barbecue stand and pool room that was on Broadway Avenue.

“I think that inspired me and my dad,” Brooks, 78, said. “Those guys, they were just proud Black men— capable, talented, smart and they were role models for all of us. That’s what I learned from the Prestons. They were able to sustain a business and got enough business to stay afloat.”

A ‘new frontier’

Brooks said thriving Black-owned businesses were indicative of East St. Louis in the 1940s and 1950s. It was all that they knew while living in a segregated city. They needed to survive.

Brooks and the Prestons lived in the east end of the city, which was one of the only neighborhoods in a predominantly white East St. Louis where Black people could live. The area was also known for its Polish population.

“That was the new frontier because most people were living downtown on the south end of East St. Louis near Lincoln High School, and so migration was coming from that part of downtown to the eastern part of town…..and that was the place to be,” Brooks, who now lives in Washington D.C., said. “You had to get a home in [there]. We had police captains, we had painters and bricklayers and teachers, a lot of people worked for the post offices, so that was pretty much the middle class in East St. Louis.”

An artist sketch of the domed Mary Brown Center, one of the projects the Prestons worked on.
Collection of Janfrey Preston
An artist sketch of the Mary Brown Center, one of the projects the Prestons worked on.

“This was the Black part of town and we had the liquor stores and the bars and the lounges and the restaurants and all centered around 14th and Broadway. That was the corner, OK. That’s where the action was, especially in the evenings. People were just on the sidewalk all the time, meeting each other, greeting each other.”

Brooks didn’t understand the significance of the construction company at that time because of how insulated his community in East St. Louis was due to segregation. They weren’t exposed to much outside of their own environment, and that wasn’t by choice.

The dividing line, as I recall it, was State Street. You stay on this side of State Street, you’re in [our] town. You stay on the other side, and you’re in their area.
Donnie Brooks, an East St. Louis native

“We just took it for granted because I didn’t know,” Brooks said. “At the time, we kind of stayed in our neighborhood, in our community. We didn’t go out to the other parts of town, at least I didn’t as a kid, until I got to St. Joseph’s when I got to the sixth grade….and that was the first encounter I had with other folk in the community–white folk–and it was not a problem. Our family was middle class and we kind of just stayed in our community pretty much.”

Daniel Youngblood, 73, agrees. He also grew up in the same neighborhood as the Prestons.

“We didn’t really associate with white folks,” Youngblood, who lives in Belleville, said. “We knew exactly where we could go. We knew exactly where we couldn’t go, just like the white folks did. The dividing line, as I recall it, was State Street. You stay on this side of State Street, you’re in [our] town. You stay on the other side, and you’re in their area.”

East St. Louis historian Reginald Petty remembers the area as “the place where Black people began to move in and Polish people began to move out.”

“When people ask me where I was born, I have to say I was born in St. Louis,” said Petty, 86. “You had two hospitals [in East St. Louis] and they both were white-only, so most of us at the time were either born at home or in St. Louis, and I was born at a hospital in St. Louis.”

He added: “There were Black areas and there were white areas. For example, [there was] an area they called Stockyards. East St. Louis, at that time, had the second-largest stockyards in the United States, second to Chicago, but the area around Stockyards was a Black area and there were certain areas that you simply couldn’t move across. The area that I lived in and the area the Prestons were living in, about a half a block from there, was white-only.”

Carl Officer, former East St. Louis mayor and co-owner of Officer Funeral Home, has vivid memories about the white-only areas. The Prestons remodeled his funeral home and built the house he currently lives in, both of which are in the east end of the city. He said racism “was alive and well and going full blast” at the inception of Preston Construction.

“I remember when I was no more than 5 years old in East St. Louis and walking down Collinsville Avenue which was the major shopping area in southern Illinois, and I was with my father and my sister,” Officer, 69, said. “We wanted to go see a movie called ‘Ben-Hur,’ and it was at the Majestic Theater. I asked my father if we could see it and he started crying because they would not allow Black people to go to the movie in East St. Louis because of segregation.”

Experiences like that are why Officer now realizes how instrumental the Prestons were for Black people at that time.

“It gave a source of employment to a considerable amount of men who would not have been able to work in that same environment with that same kind of wages and have that same kind of pride,” Officer said. “Back in the 40’s and the 50’s and the 60’s and 70’s, that’s one of the things that I think that’s immeasurable in terms of Black history to them. It meant something to them emotionally, mentally and I think psychologically, but it also meant something very practical–they had a paycheck every week and they had master crafters whether it was the plumbers, whether it was the carpenters, whether it was the bricklayers, whether it was the laborers, the electricians. You name it.”

“All that worked for Preston Construction were all Black men.”

“I don’t think they realized how instrumental or significant they were."
Preston Rogers

Daniel Youngblood said seeing the success of Preston Construction is part of what made him want to start his own construction company in the 1980s, Youngblood Builders. He said the Prestons were adamant about ensuring Black people had opportunities to succeed.

“Mr. Preston would hire guys in the summertime,” Youngblood said. “He would have all of his lumber out there on his property. He would hire kids to pull nails out of them. I asked Sonny [Preston’s Sr’s son], almost 20 years later, and said ‘Hey what happened to all of those nails your dad used to have? Did y’all use those nails?’ He said, ‘No, we never did use them. He was just giving them something to do to keep them out of trouble.’”

The Prestons were also instrumental in being responsible for the vibrant church community in East St. Louis. Officer, who attended St. Luke A.M.E. church with the Prestons, said they built St. Paul Church, Greater New Hope Baptist Church, Trinity United Methodist Church and several others.

“They were highly regarded in the scene in the community, and their prestige just went up every building that they put up,” Officer said. “That was a time when the Black church was very prominent in East St. Louis like it was in places like Atlanta, Chicago, Springfield, St. Louis and to have a Black person to build a church in the quality that they built meant a lot.”

Legacy

Not many further details are known about Preston Construction. It’s unclear when it officially ended, and there isn’t a definitive list of buildings it worked on, given that all of Preston Sr.’s children are dead.

But the third generation of Prestons is trying to weave different items that their fathers left together to learn more about their history.

Patrice Preston Rogers, the granddaughter of Preston Sr., said the younger generation didn’t really understand the significance of their family’s construction company until her father and uncles died.

“My father passed in (20)19 and Janfrey, who was the last of the siblings, passed in (20)20, so it was almost like `Wow, there’s no more siblings,’ and all of us had to kind of go through their things and go to the house and clean up, and we started sharing things,” Preston Rogers, 49, said. “To us, that was my uncle, that was my father, that was my grandfather, but when we started going through things, we thought this is pretty remarkable in what they did.”

The impact her family had on the community is what prompted her to start a community garden in East St. Louis in 2020. She wants to give back to the city her family appreciated so much.

“[My dad] was so protective of East St. Louis, and I wanted to do something that was productive and beneficial to the people in the city that he loved, and a community garden just made sense,” Preston Rogers said.

Preston Community Garden is located on 11th and St. Clair Avenue in East St. Louis---land that Preston Rogers inherited from her father. For her, the garden is a form of honoring her family in ways that they weren’t while they were living.

“I don’t think they realized how instrumental or significant they were,” Preston Rogers said. “To them, it was just a job that they did because their dad did it. It’s no other Black-owned construction companies at this time, but they didn’t look at it like that. It was just work. They just needed to survive.”

The difficulty to survive and succeed as a Black-owned company in the pre-Civil Rights era is partially why the second generations mainly kept quiet about their experiences.

Elise Preston Mallory, another granddaughter of Preston Sr., said her father, Janfrey, did not like to speak about the family’s history before he passed away from cancer in 2020.

“He did not want to recount the stories because to recount them meant to relive them,” Preston Mallory, 58, said. “He did not want to relive the stories because it was not an easy journey, but he did what he needed to do.”

She said she’s enthralled by her family’s perseverance, given everything that they likely endured at that time.

“You look at the craft that they were doing,” Preston Mallory said. “That was all union jobs, and you have all these Black people and from a white perspective, you were taking away their work. They would go to the union meetings and they would have to be ready to be locked and loaded. They persevered through an environment that was not friendly to people that looked like us and they persevered and freely gave to those around us to bring people forward.”

Preston Mallory hopes to have an art exhibit in the city this year that will inform East St. Louis residents and beyond about just how monumental her family was. The exhibit, which she wants to be on display at East St. Louis Senior High School, will include blueprints, drawings and other documentation related to Preston Construction, along with artwork created by her father, Janfrey.

“There’s a story to be told, there’s history to be shared,” she said. “The city that is there now is so much different than what it was when I was growing up and way different than when my parents were growing, and we need to talk about what was, especially so people that are there now can see what possibly can be.”

DeAsia Page is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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