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Editor's weekly: Kirkwood Roots are black and white

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 23, 2011 - Kirkwood Roots, a multimedia presentation that explores the history of African Americans in my hometown, opened at the Missouri History Museum Saturday.

Through vintage photos and vivid recollections, the installation captures what many white suburbanites like me sometimes overlook: African Americans have a legacy as long and varied as that of whites in the communities that ring St. Louis.

Images of farms and school classes flash by on a giant screen as Kirkwood residents and their descendants share memories. Some day soon, I'll go back to catch the details that I missed Saturday amid the hubbub of an enthusiastic crowd.

What I did focus on Saturday was the map that shows Kirkwood's 11 historically black neighborhoods. That includes Meacham Park -- the biggest and perhaps best known. It also includes enclaves of a block or two, sometimes more, in many other parts of town.

Some of these neighborhoods were adjacent to Norton Avenue, where I grew up -- hence my fascination with the map. Norton was an architectural hodgepodge on the south side of town where our brick two-story sat third from the railroad tracks. We learned to ignore the rumble of freight trains except when they startled unsuspecting visitors or drowned out the crucial moments of our favorite TV shows.

I loved Norton's steep slope - a challenge to bike up in summer, a thrill to slide down in winter - and the abundance of neighborhood pals. On our block, urban legend held, kids had once lain down in front of the snow plow to prevent it from wrecking the fun. More likely, our deadend street (not to be confused with a cul-de-sac) was a low priority for attention. We kids liked it that way.

Across the railroad tracks lay woods and a cemetery - and beyond them, Meacham Park, then part of the Kirkwood School District but not yet part of the municipality. Annexation would happen later, solving some problems and exacerbating others in a relationship that has always been fraught with issues of race, class and economics.

Closer to home lay Norton Place, a true cul-de-sac just north of our block. As a kid in the 1950s, I don't remember questioning why Norton Avenue was all white while Norton Place was all African American.

But I do remember the African-American gentleman who lived on the corner. On Christmas Eve, our caroling route would take us to his lawn. He would invariably join in, throwing open his front door and playing the organ he had built into his house. His deft playing dwarfed our tentative singing. I heard he was an undertaker or pastor. Perhaps my parents knew, but I never did - nor anything else about him - though his music was the highlight of our yearly holiday ritual.

Two blocks farther along Fillmore lay a larger African-American neighborhood where the houses ranged from cozy to meager. I sometimes walked down Fillmore on my way to The Little Store for penny candy. I did not think to wonder why I never saw the Fillmore residents at the store.

Since that time, I've learned that living in the same place, does not equate to living in the same world. In my world at that time, white people felt free to take interest in or ignore our African American neighbors. African Americans had no such option to ignore the white-dominated society that surrounded them.

Yet the Kirkwood that I live in now, for better or worse, reflects the experiences and contributions of us all. Perhaps through Kirkwood Roots I can learn some answers to questions I did not think to ask.Margaret Wolf Freivogel Editor

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