Ten years after Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton opened fire at Kirkwood City Hall, some residents hope the city is learning to empathize with the experiences of non-white people and encourage understanding across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Thornton shot and killed five people and wounded others at Kirkwood City Hall on Feb. 7, 2008. Two police officers and two council members were among those killed. Police killed Thornton at the scene.
Census data estimates Kirkwood is about 90 percent white and 6 percent black. Years of segregation and unfair housing practices confined most black residents to the Meacham Park neighborhood, an area defined by Big Bend Boulevard to the north and Interstate 44 to the south.
The incident remains a sensitive matter for many Kirkwood residents a decade later. Even so, it causes some people to consider Kirkwood’s current social climate and discuss how to move forward. Young people in the city are at the center of those kinds of conversations.
Then and now
Clair Boysen, 16, recounted the events of the shooting in the student paper, The Kirkwood Call, for her peers at Kirkwood High School.
“They know it has happened, but they don’t know that Cookie lived in Meacham Park,” Boysen said. “They don’t know that when he came in, he had a sign that said something like 'the unrest in Meacham Park will continue unless everyone’s voice is heard.'”
She said administrators at the school are encouraging students to talk about race and inequality. Those talks have helped, she said, in a city that is mostly white and affluent.
Still, misinformation, stereotypes and misperceptions plague low-income and non-white areas.
"It's a nice community"
One Meacham Park resident wants people to know her community is not necessarily what outsiders may have heard about the neighborhood.
“It’s all black, but you can’t say it’s poverty and ghetto and people are starving. None of that’s here,” said lifelong Meacham Park resident Janet Jones. “So people see it as a whole different thing. It’s a nice community.”
Jones, known by residents as Miss Janet, has observed progress in her community. At 70, she remembers when neighborhood roads were unpaved dirt paths and most homes lacked indoor plumbing. Now, white families and St. Louis residents enter the mostly black enclave looking for safe, inexpensive, suburban living.
“People are attracted to come to this neighborhood because of the housing, because you're close to the school, you're close to everything. And that’s why they’re coming in here,” Jones said.
Tonyae Fuller, 13, and Lauren Hulsey, 14, gush over how friendly and inviting their community is. It’s hard for them to imagine some of the conditions Jones and other older residents describe.
“I like how it’s a family. Everyone knows each other,” said Hulsey. “I feel really comfortable around here, because everyone is friends.”
Hulsey and Fuller both said even though they’ve heard some stories about Kirkwood’s history, they don’t have personal experiences of racial bias, something older residents remember about Meacham Park’s relationship with the rest of the city.
A shared history
Leaders at Webster Arts, The Repertory Theatre and Springboard to Learning created an opportunity for longtime Meacham Park residents to share that history with the public through a grant-funded storytelling project.
Older Meacham residents told students at Nipher Middle School stories about growing up in Meacham Park. The students wrote reflections on what they heard for a book that included a number of these oral histories.
Jeane Vogel, Webster Arts executive director, says the purpose of the project was to educate people about an important part of Kirkwood’s history.
“We aren't these little tiny pockets," said Vogel, a white woman who lives in Olivette. "We’re a huge community, and there’s a lot of healing to be done and a lot of communication that needs to be made by people of all the communities so that we understand the history of Meacham Park is my history, too."
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.