Black families in St. Louis are leaving in droves. What’s causing the mass exodus?
Fred Jamison is a St. Louis native who lived in various states as a child. After college in Mississippi, he moved back to the St. Louis region for work and to be close to family.
The 42-year-old lived in a few neighborhoods in St. Louis and other parts of the region for some time, but he ultimately returned to the Walnut Park area around 2009. After living there for a decade, he noticed the neighborhood was plagued by constant gun violence. That persuaded him to leave for good.
“The closer I got to moving, is the closer I thought that I wasn't going to make it up out of there because of the gunshots and people dying,” Jamison said. “Our street was good, but you still heard gunshots every night.”
Many other African American families are moving out of the city. According to the 2020 census, 27,396 Black people left St. Louis over the past decade and moved to other counties in the region or to other states. During that same period, the city lost 5,334 white residents. St. Louis County picked up 13,367 Black residents, and St. Charles County gained 5,845 Black residents.
The last time St. Louis saw a decline in its Black population was in the 1970s. Today, the number of Black residents in St. Louis is smaller than the Black population in the 1950s.
Today, many are leaving St. Louis for better schools, lower crime rates and greater property values. Jamison moved to St. Peters because he wanted a shorter commute to his job at General Motors in Wentzville, where he has worked in various positions for 21 years and is president of Local 2250.
The pattern of Black families leaving St. Louis is not new, because parts of St. Louis are historically economically marginalized, said Ness Sandoval, demographer and a St. Louis University sociology professor.
“We’re talking about blocks that for many decades where you’ve seen whether it's crime, vacant property, it's property being used as waste stations for garbage,” Sandoval said.
From the early 1990s to the late 2010s, St. Louis had more Black people living in the city than whites. Today, Black residents make up 42.8% of the population, and white residents make up 42.9% of the population.
Sandoval said this mass exodus should be concerning to city officials.
"I don't understand if this trend is allowed to continue, how can you say you are a major city if one of the largest populations is leaving,” Sandoval said. “We are a growing city, yet one of the most important elements of the city is leaving.”
He said if Black families continue to leave, the makeup of the city will eventually change.
“If these trends continue over the next decade it is possible … that whites would be the majority in the city,” Sandoval said.
According to a recent study by the Iowa Policy Project, some Black families are leaving Midwest cities plagued by systemic racism and discrimination.
Many African Americans moved to Midwestern or Northern cities because they were tired of the racism in the South, but they were met with greatly reinforced forms of Jim Crow, Sandoval said.
“This racial inequality in these cities contributes to many African Americans saying, ‘I'm done, I want my children to have equal access to opportunity,’” Sandoval said.
In the 1980s, Rashonda Alexander’s parents moved their family from St. Louis to a predominantly white neighborhood in St. Peters for better schools and a larger, more affordable home. Alexander said she returned to the city around 2006 so her kids could interact with diverse groups of children.
In 2020, Alexander moved her family from the West End neighborhood in north St. Louis to the Central West End area. Like Jamison, she wanted her children to be safe and free from nightly echoes of gunshots.
This past August, Alexander left St. Louis altogether. Now, the 42-year-old mother of two lives in Katy, Texas — a fast-growing suburb of Houston.
“The opportunities in Houston are so plentiful, the cost of living is comparable but you get more house for your dollar. ... And then I chose this suburb because it's the No. 1 one school district in Houston,” Alexander said.
Education is another priority for many Black parents in St. Louis.
When middle-class Black families leave St. Louis, it affects the entire school system because they are no longer advocating for students and making greater demands of the institution, said Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools.
“I think it just really impacts the entire region in a negative way because you don't have those advocacies, you don't have those persons making statements for what needs to happen across the board,” Adams said.
He said the departure of Black families also hurts enrollment. Because of the lack of residents in north St. Louis, the district was forced to close six schools in the area this year. It also closed one in south St. Louis.
In September 2010, the district had 25,810 students enrolled in schools across the city. As of September 2021, there are 18,907 students attending St. Louis Public Schools.
Adams said many Black parents whose children are still in the district are dealing with other issues, including housing and crime, and their jobs don’t allow them to deeply engage in their children’s education.
“The school district has some responsibility to support the neighborhood that that school is in, but we can't create the neighborhoods. We can't build homes. We can't put apartments here,” Adams said.
North St. Louis’s historic Ville area is one that lost a number of Black residents over the past decade. The Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods lost more than a fourth of their residents between 2010 and 2020, leaving fewer than 6,000 Black people remaining.
Alderwoman Dwinderlin Evans, D-4th Ward, is disappointed that so many people have left the Ville area, where she has lived for more than four decades. However, she thinks there are more Black people living in the city than the census counted.
“Sometimes some of the people that are in my ward don't want to be on paper, so it depends on how determined the person that was doing the census was,” Evans said. “It could be they may have gone by there one time and if no one was there, whether they were working or whatever, and they may not have ever followed up on another return.”
Sandoval said the Census Bureau tries to obtain information on people who did not respond by collecting information on property taxes, Social Security numbers, Medicaid and Medicare.
Evans knows a few people who have left the city for better schools or jobs, but she said to keep Black families in the city, the city will need to provide residents with more resources for home improvements and to start businesses.
The St. Louis Development Corporation is working on an Economic Justice Action Plan to help those families.
The only way to address systemic racism is to start talking about justice and fair treatment and then create opportunities, said Neal Richardson, the executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation.
“We're making strategic investments in how we rebuild those neighborhoods,” Richardson said. “Attacking many of the vacant dilapidated homes, rebuilding those commercial corridors, as well as ensuring that the residents in those areas have access to economic empowerment.”
He said to attract more Black families, St. Louis must create higher-paying jobs and hire Black people from the area to work at new workforce sites like the National Geospatial Agency.
“We have to be very intentional now not to say we want to introduce STEM and other geospatial skills later in high school or in college,” Richardson said. “We need to be talking K-12 and how do we build those relationships with the St. Louis Public Schools to help create pathways and pipelines of prosperity rather than poverty. And so that's how we keep people in St. Louis.”
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