Local teen shares his discoveries about 'a girl named Geneva Abbott' and the 1st St. Louis arch | St. Louis Public Radio

Local teen shares his discoveries about 'a girl named Geneva Abbott' and the 1st St. Louis arch

Nov 20, 2018

St. Louis teenager Abdullah Brown-El was reading a book on the history of the St. Louis riverfront when a particular tidbit piqued his interest and he decided to dig a bit deeper.

“It was just a little blurb on [one] page of the book – about a girl named Geneva Abbott who had the idea for an arch on the riverfront,” Brown-El said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “She quoted Alfred [Lord] Tennyson saying, ‘All experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move’ … I thought that was really cool, because [Abbott’s 1933 arch drawing] was obviously before Eero Saarinen thought of that, too.”

Brown-El, who recently completed the Missouri History Museum's Teens Make History apprenticeship program and is now a freshman at Amherst College, talked about the discovery with host Don Marsh while back home in St. Louis over Thanksgiving break.

Also participating in the conversation was Elizabeth Pickard, director of education and interpretation for the history museum.

Brown-El’s search for more information about Abbott, whose arch drawing appeared in the 1933 edition of Central High School’s yearbook, led him to the Missouri Historical Society’s Library and Research Center. There he was able to continue learning about the futuristic vision of a St. Louis student who attended high school 80-some years before he did.

Abdullah Brown-El (at left) explored Geneva Abbott and her peers' early visions for the future of St. Louis while doing research in the Missouri Historical Society's Library and Research Center. Elizabeth Pickard (at right) is director of education and interpretation.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

“That [copy of the] yearbook actually didn’t have the picture in it, so the staff there – they were wonderful – and they were able to track down another original copy of the yearbook from the St. Louis Public Schools,” Brown-El explained.

In addition to Abbott’s prescient two-page spread, Brown-El was impressed by the many other forward-looking ideas of Abbott’s classmates, who were living through the Great Depression at the time. He also saw connections to teenagers today.

“There was plenty of room for them to look down upon things or see the future as bleak,” Brown-El said of Abbott and her peers. “But they instead decided to be optimistic. That kind of reminded me of a youth movement today – and never to discount the voices of the young and what they [see] for a better St. Louis for us all.”

For Pickard, Brown-El’s research experience –part of preparations toward a spring 2020 museum exhibit focused on the civic identity of St. Louis over time – is a Teens Make History success story.

“One of the things we always hope for is for [our] Teens Make History students to make personal connections to history,” Pickard said. “And so we were thrilled to find this story of teenagers during the Great Depression dreaming of what the future of St. Louis would be.

“And this was Geneva’s incredible vision. So of course we’re very proud, and Abdullah had always been a very thorough researcher [during his paid apprenticeship]. So we were really excited for him to find something … you can spend hours and hours and hours and not track down what you’re looking for. He struck upon a pot of gold this time.”

Brown-El’s blog post about his findings has been published on the Missouri Historical Society’s website.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.