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Former mayor Swoboda's death casts pall on Kirkwood healing meeting

A film on white privilege had just concluded and the 140 people at Saturday's meeting of the Community for Understanding and Healing were about to break into discussion groups when they received the shocking news. Former Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda had died earlier in the morning. Swoboda had been gravely wounded in the Feb. 7 City Hall shootings at which five city officials had been killed by Charles L. "Cookie" Thornton. The killings had led to the formation of the community group.

Mayor Art McDonnell told the people assembled at St. Peter Catholic Church that Swoboda had not only been suffering from the effects of the shooting, but also from cancer. McDonnell led the group in silent prayer. Then the group's discussions about healing resumed after a summer's hiatus. The themes of racial mistrust that emerged during four meetings last winter and spring reemerged Saturday as African-Americans told of feeling afraid when they walk into Plaza Frontenac.

Early in the discussions last spring, Harriet Patton and Mayor McDonnell were in a group together. Patton, an African-American, is president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association.  McDonnell, who is white, runs a small grocery and was elected mayor in an election last spring after the City Hall shootings. 

For Patton the discussion of race and privilege in Kirkwood brought back a bitter memory from school days. She had worked hard with a tutor on an essay for class. "I was so happy the day I went to turn it in," said Patton. Happiness and pride turned instantly into sadness and tears when the teacher tore up the paper and told her she never could have written such a good essay without cheating.

Across the meeting room in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church,  McDonnell recounted an old memory from a different vantage point. One summer vacation when he was a teenager in the 1960s, McDonnell and a buddy were driving a couple of African-American women to a summer camp in Colorado, where the women were on staff. At a lunch stop, a group of young men confronted McDonnell when he went to the restroom, threatening him and accusing him of transporting the women for immoral reasons. For the rest of the trip, McDonnell got a glimpse of what was routine for blacks during segregation: He and the women bought lunch meat from grocery stores so they wouldn't have to go into restaurants.

Community meetings open up dialogue

Patton's and McDonnell's stories were two of many told during the four months of community meetings that followed the Feb. 7 attack in which Thornton murdered five city officials, gravely wounded Mayor Swoboda and then was shot to death. Thornton, who was African-American, had a long-running conflict with city officials, and had accused them of racism.

Kirkwood's ministers and churches have been influential in the community meetings, each of which has been attended by 150-250 residents. The Rev. Scott Stearman and his wife Cecelia, who leads a gospel choir, offered the Baptist Church for the first meeting on Feb. 23, when feelings still were raw. The Rev. David Bennett, who had made available his Kirkwood United Methodist Church for Thornton's funeral, hosted the April 12 session. Also active in the group were Tresa McCallie, former head of the Parents as Teachers program in Kirkwood, and her husband Franklin, the former principal at Kirkwood High School.

The group's mission is "to transform the Kirkwood area into a prejudice-free community of highly respectful individuals" through "ongoing dialogue and social interaction to create an environment of understanding and healing."

The smaller discussion groups of about 15 each had two or three African-Americans. Many people had graduated from Kirkwood High School two, three or four decades ago or lived in Kirkwood all their lives. And there were some "newcomers" who had been around only a decade or two.

Not all of the discussion has been about race. But as winter turned to spring, the group's discussions focused on the racial divide -- the racial divide that Cookie Thornton had once been so adept at bridging, the racial divide that eventually left Thornton railing against the city's "plantation mentality."

Some in the community discussions called Feb. 7 Kirkwood's 9/11. Life in Kirkwood never could be the same after 2/7, just like life in the United States never could be the same after 9/11.

Others called it Kirkwood's O.J. Simpson moment when blacks and whites who had lived in Kirkwood all their lives realized that their perceptions of this integrationist turned murderer were hopelessly bound up by race. Many Meacham Park residents believed that wrong as Thornton's act was, he had gone down fighting for what he believed in. On the playgrounds of Meacham Park, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, his name was taking on almost a folk-hero status. Whites shook their heads in incomprehension at this notion.

Memories of prejudice

Alex Manse, who is African-American, understands the different perceptions of race in Kirkwood.  His own perceptions of Kirkwood are full of paradoxes.  "We all believe that there is something amiss about race in Kirkwood, and that it had something to do with what happened that night," he said last spring. Manse is president of Manse & Associates, a real estate development firm and was involved with a firm that developed Kirkwood Station Plaza.

"I lovingly referred to Kirkwood as the perfect place -- my Camelot," said Manse, a 1985 Kirkwood High School graduate who was also a high school football star and senior class president. Maybe it wasn't perfect, Manse allowed. He looked across the room at Patty Hargrove, who is white and who had been student council president, and said, "I couldn't ask her to the prom."

When Manse came back to the St. Louis area a few years ago after traveling widely, he and his wife were looking for a house. The real estate person, when showing Manse's wife a home in Kirkwood, remarked -- because she is not African-American -- that the location was a good one because it wasn't close to Meacham Park. Manse decided to move to Town and Country instead of the Camelot of his memory.

On Saturday, Manse understood a story told by the Rev. Jeffrey Croft, an African-American who leads the Harrison Avenue Mission Baptist church.  The Rev. Croft, a tall, impressive man, told of dressing up in a suit and tie to apply for a job at Plaza Frontenac.  He got out of the car, realized he was being watched by security, turned around and drove away.

Manse chimed in: "The way that women feel walking on a dark street is the way I feel walking in Frontenac."

Paul Ward agreed.  Ward is an African-American who, along with brother Wallace, has worked effectively across racial lines. Paul recently won a seat on the city council, and Wallace served for years on the school board. The stories about Frontenac reminded Paul of a time when Frontenac security guards saw a gun in the purse of an African-American shopper.  They called for Ward's help thinking a black man would know what to do about a black shopper.  When Ward asked the shopper about the gun, she apologized and showed him her badge. She was a St. Louis police officer.

Both Wards tried a decade ago to help Thornton win demolition contracts during the redevelopment of Meacham Park. But Thornton didn't get as many contracts as he thought he had been promised and then lashed out at the developer, ensuring he would not get more.

The Ward family has long lived near Kirkwood Park. Like other blacks who live outside Meacham Park, they didn't always see eye-to-eye with Meacham Park's residents. Paul and Wallace remember that during a childhood visit to a family in Meacham Park, Wallace fell into one of the open sewers that lined the mud roads in the community as late as the 1960s. The Wards' father, who worked in St. Louis County government, vowed to get then St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence Roos to pave the roads and install sewers. Ward noted that the country had sent a man to the moon twice before it got the roads and sewers fixed in Meacham Park.

Another searing childhood memory for Paul Ward was when his sister was arrested at Spencer's Grill, the popular diner just south of City Hall, after trying to be served. "Mr. Spencer wouldn't serve her, so even today when I go into Spencer's Grill, I won't eat anything or even drink the water.

Even though the Wards negotiate the racial divide with ease, Paul says that white friends from high school no longer invite him to their homes. At a recent high school reunion, a good friend who was white didn't invite him to the after-reunion party. "As soon as a friend moves to Town & Country, or takes over daddy's business, they don't invite me over."

Kirsten Austin-Bolten, a white woman who adopted an African-American girl 12 years ago when the girl was 7, said both blacks and whites have said nasty things about the interracial adoption.

She has learned to keep her own stereotypes in check. On a camping trip to rural Missouri, her active daughter, Jasmine, was racing ahead across a slippery passage along a stream.  Austin-Bolton saw a white skinhead with a swastika tatoo approaching Jasmine. Her fear melted in an instant as the skinhead helped the girl across the stream.

Do blacks in Kirkwood still face prejudice? Ronald Patton, Harriet's husband, says they do. He told of recently going to a busy Kirkwood restaurant.  Two white couples, who came into the restaurant after the Pattons, were seated ahead of them.  The manager apologized when the Pattons complained.

Lives of racial separation

At the April session at the Methodist church, the participants talked about feelings of racial separation. One white man remarked that he never went to school with blacks and never thought about the notion of "white privilege." That surprised Clifford Drummond, who is African-American, a few seats away. Drummond remembered that the Kirkwood football coach in the early 1970s insisted he switch from quarterback to another position because of stereotypes. He also remembered that white friends sometimes couldn't invite him into their homes for parties because of parental objections. He would be stuck outside in the cold. Even now, Drummond gets stopped by the Kirkwood police for no reason, like a recent night when he was leaving the Walgreens around 4:30 a.m.

Many of the whites around the circle acknowledged they never had a black to the house for dinner or to stay over. Mayor McDonnell said he had wonderful black customers and remarked that he had loved an older woman like a grandmother, but added that he'd never had one of his black friends to his home.

Cecelia Stearman, who is white and the wife of Rev. Stearman of the Baptist church, spoke movingly of how she felt when she arrived at the Kirkwood church from a previous posting in Paris where the congregation had been multi-ethnic. She looked out into the Kirkwood church to see "there was not a dark face, not a different face" in the audience. "I was looking at a sea of whiteness. I cried. It was heartbreaking."

Harriet Patton said that "some people" in Meacham Park think that "Kirkwood is very racist" hiring few black city workers except in the sanitation department.

McDonnell responded by noting that Mark Petty, director of Kirkwood Electric, is a dynamic black leader in city government.

Patton said she never had heard of Petty. "Strange that people in Meacham Park never had met him," she said.

Police Chief Jack Plummer broke in, saying he "works hard to hire more minorities" along with quality applicants of all races. "I've hired more minorities than have been hired in the past. I've also lost more minorities. They move on to larger departments and federal agencies." I put the first black in as a detective and I pulled out the first black detective" because of performance issues. "I have been bitten in the behind two out of three times on minority hires, but I'm still going to go ahead and try."

Plummer explained later that he had at times "taken a chance on a minority candidates who appeared to have potential to become a good police officers, even if their background was not what I would like it to have been. The majority of those attempts have been unsuccessful. I believe in a diverse workforce, particularly in law enforcement, where the ability to communicate with people is essential, although I have become more cautious than in the past."

Chief Plummer, who is white, met with Thornton in local restaurants on several occasions trying to find a way to defuse his anger. He encouraged him to seek a career in sales given his personality and "gift for gab." When he saw Thornton at city council meetings he would talk to him before the meeting to lessen the tension.

The Wards and Franklin McCallie spoke too about trying to persuade Thornton to work out his problem with the city council without the angry theatrics or to let go of his dispute and to join his wonderful wife, who was a principal in Florida. The last time the Wards saw Thornton was at Denny's restaurant shortly before the killings. Thornton gave them his usual "praise the Lord" greeting and they bantered back and forth. When the Wards left, they found that Thornton had paid their check.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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