The history of the Ville neighborhood has been told through books and film. Now the community's story will be told through opera.
In honor of St. Louis’ 250th birthday, St. Louis ArtWorks commissioned “On Whose Shoulders We Stand: An Opera,” which focuses on the Ville.
It will be performed this weekend by students in the ArtWorks program.
Juwaun Crawford is one of the teens in the program. With his sailor hat and shiny gold guitar crafted from cardboard and foil, he plays a magnetic Chuck Berry.
“You know me and Chuck Berry’s got a lot in common,” Juwaun said. “You know we like rock-n-roll and everything. He’s good with the ladies, you know. Just like me.
Although Juwaun seems to have found a kindred spirit in Chuck Berry, prior to working on the opera he knew little about the guitarist.
“I box in the Ville,” said Juwaun. “So, I didn’t even know that Chuck Berry came from Sumner High School until now. So it’s a good experience. I’m learning new things here.”
Learning is one of the fundamental parts of St. Louis ArtWorks, a nonprofit that offers art-centric job training to teens in underserved communities. For the past five weeks, nearly 20 students from around St. Louis have worked with a professional lead artist to create and perform the opera that highlights the history of the Ville neighborhood.
Priscilla Block, executive director of St. Louis ArtWorks, said “I felt that a lot of the kids and adults in this community don’t know the history of the Ville and the background of how important it was at one time.”
A rich but overlooked past
In the mid-1800s the residents of the small settlement of Elleardsville, northwest of downtown St. Louis, were mostly German and Irish immigrants. But a small African-American population was also there; and in the early 1900s the community’s demographics started to shift.
As more blacks moved into the neighborhood, white residents fled and created restrictive covenants in the new areas that kept African Americans from following them.
The Ville is bound by Martin Luther King Drive on the south and St. Louis Avenue on the north. Taylor Avenue and Sarah Street mark the Ville’s western and eastern edges.
Within these enforced boundaries, the African American community prospered.
John Wright is a retired educator and author who grew up in the Ville. One of his books details the community’s past.
Wright said the Ville was one of the few places a person could receive an education spanning from kindergarten to professional school.
In 1875, Sumner High School became the first black high school west of the Mississippi. In the early 1900s, residents of the Ville successfully lobbied to have Sumner moved to the neighborhood.
“Sumner had a great reputation. It attracted outstanding faculty because they were not accepted at other institutions,” Wright said. “Many people heard about Sumner and sent their kids and moved to St. Louis so they could get that type of education from those individuals. So I think gradually, because of race-restricted housing and race-restricted employment, the community developed.”
Another major part of the community was Homer G. Phillips Hospital. The state-of-the-art facility was built in 1937. As Wright noted, it was the city’s only hospital for blacks and it was one of the few institutions to offer medical training for African Americans.
The Ville was also home to Poro College, a beauty school and manufacturing plant established in 1917 by Annie Malone. Malone was not only one of the first black female millionaires the United States, but a very giving person, according to Wright. She used her money to found a children’s home in the Ville.
The Ville was also home to Tandy Community Center, Stowe Teachers College and countless other black businesses.
Wright said that, in under a square mile, the Ville offered limitless opportunities.
“The teachers, many of them who taught in the school lived in the Ville, so when you walked out you saw … the doctors and lawyers … you saw role models. So it wasn't a question could you grow up to be a doctor as an African American, because you saw doctors ... It wasn't a matter of ‘can we,’ but ‘why can’t we' do things; and I think that penetrated the entire community.”
While Wright lived these valuable life lessons, Zacchaeus Windham, who plays Dick Gregory in the opera, is realizing he cannot even find these lessons in his textbooks.
“I’m starting to figure out that most schools don’t teach other kids about black history, that the greater Ville is a part of our black history,” he said. “And I think it’s important that people, even kids in school, should know that it’s a part of our black history.”
Mark Clark is the lead artist on the Ville opera project in conjunction with Opera Theatre of St. Louis. He says he’s really seen a change in his students.
“From the first day when we were talking about the different players and people in the neighborhood and their significance, they were like,‘Oh what, wow. I had no idea,’ Clark said. "It’s been really neat seeing them change before my eyes.”
A Different World
The Ville neighborhood is not what it used to be. Wright says that, when housing restrictions were removed, people left the neighborhood.
“A few years ago the 9th Ward New Orleans looked better,” said Wright. “I mean it’s deserted for the most part.”
The hospital is now a retirement home; the Poro facilities are gone. Many of the schools are closed. Sumner High School is still open, but the threat of closing has been looming.
Destiny Mayes plays a grandmother in The Ville Opera. She says she wants the opera to inspire people to restore the Ville to its past glory. “I think it could create hope for people, saying I want the Ville to look like that again or even so much better.”
But as Wright notes, the Ville is not just a place that can be restored. The Ville is also a time.
“I think once upon a time. There was a special place in time where this happened. It may not happen again. And you may not get the Ville, but people can work together to build a better community and better city. And it’s unlimited potential if you work together.”
“On Whose Shoulders We Stand: An Opera” premieres Friday, July 18 at 6 p.m. at the Centene Center for the Arts.