EAST ST. LOUIS — Reginald Petty knows the stereotypes of East St. Louis well. A native of the city, he has heard the way many people talk about it.
“'Oh, it’s a high crime rate,'” he said. “'Don’t go to East St. Louis. Be careful.'”
He admits the city has its issues but said crime rates don’t define the city. Petty prefers to focus on East St. Louis’ positive narratives as a city rich with black cultural heritage. After all, he says, the “City of Champions” produced famous athletes, musicians and other celebrities.
At 84 years old, Petty has his own fascinating history. He involved himself in civil rights activities in the 1960s, organizing for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi. He later was a Peace Corps director in Africa from 1966 to 1983, developing education and training programs in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, Ghana and the Seychelles.
“It was just an amazing experience,” he said.
Petty went on to serve as a consultant on vocational and technical training education to several U.S. presidents. He also consulted for federal agencies, foreign governments, the United Nations and many other national and international organizations.
The East St. Louis man now has a new focus: his city’s cultural and historic significance.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Eric Schmid: Why is knowing your personal history and local history important?
Reginald Petty: I think a lot of people’s sense of who they are as individuals is really based to some extent on self-esteem, how they see themselves, or how they have seen themselves or their families. I know when I was growing up, the people who I knew were important to me and I was able to try and imitate their lives or who they were. East St. Louis is such a unique community, and there are so many unique people there, I think it’s of value of people growing up now to know who these people are and their backgrounds and how they became who they are.
Schmid: People who grew up here now — maybe they’re 30, and they grew up here 15 or 20 years ago — what is the extent of their knowledge of the region? Of the local history?
Petty: I think many people do not really know much about the real history of East St. Louis and this area. They may know a little bit about the 1917 race riots, which was one of the largest riots in the history of the U.S. They certainly don’t know the early history of the African Americans who lived in this area and the things they went through.
Schmid: What is lost when we only cover the very specific points of history in East St. Louis? What’s lost when we don’t get the rest of the picture?
Petty: The image that East St. Louis has had over time is a very negative image. It’s a place with a high crime rate. People know that Ike and Tina Turner and Chuck Berry got their musical starts in East St. Louis. There is just so much individual history that is simply a part of East St. Louis. With the organization we’re creating now, we hope to make the positive parts and of East St. Louis available.
Schmid: It sounds like people are missing out on a lot of the cultural impact this city has had when you reduce it to, “Oh, don’t go to East St. Louis.”
Petty: Exactly. We’re trying to establish some institutions, some buildings where people could come and actually see East St. Louis’ past.
Schmid: What is the form that this society takes?
Petty: We’re in the process of setting up the routine 501(c)(3) everyone has to have. We’re still looking for documents of all kinds, going back to the 1700s on East St. Louis and its history. We want to make those available to the people in two buildings we’re looking at right now. We want to tie the impact East St. Louis has had into the history of the United States of America.
Schmid: Can you tell me about your work in Africa with the Peace Corps? What were some of the similarities and differences coming from here and going there?
Petty: It was just an amazing experience. For example, in the evenings listening to the elders tell their stories and seeing the young people listen to those stories. Seeing how important the historical knowledge was to the various tribes, how important it was that the young people respected the elders. The respect was just tremendous, much more than I had seen here.
Schmid: Do you apply the lessons from the many years you spent overseas in your work now with this project?
Petty: I do certainly in terms of the importance of history and the importance of how information can be disbursed. We want to take the documents we have and identify the most critical bits of information that we’d like to see all students in school have. We want to be sure certain basic information regarding East St. Louis and its past is in the school system.
Schmid: Are kids right now getting that information?
Petty: No. Nothing regarding East St. Louis is included in our school systems. The problem is a lot of the information simply isn’t known, it hasn’t been gathered.
Schmid: What’s the one thing people should know about the East St. Louis Historical Society?
Petty: It is something that is critically important. We’re talking about something that I think will be a model for other cities around the country. I think this is something a lot of people in the black community, in their black communities should know. They should know their history, and they don’t. I think we are doing something that is unique, and there will be documents created about the ways of doing this.
Schmid: So you want to give other communities a road map for how they can do it themselves?
If you would like to get involved in the East St. Louis Historical Society or have historical documents to share, contact organizers by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone, 618-234-0600.
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