Kirkwood's Journey | St. Louis Public Radio

Kirkwood's Journey

Paul Sableman

Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., are still waiting to bury their son, who was shot and killed on Aug. 9, by a Ferguson police officer. For them, healing probably seems like something that’s still a long way off.

But for the people of Ferguson, where peaceful protests turned violent in the week since Brown’s death, steps toward healing should begin as soon as possible.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Writing about Kirkwood after the City Hall shootings has been intensely personal. My wife and I grew up in Kirkwood, live there now and have lived there a majority of our lives.

People I've interviewed for this and previous stories are friends. David Holley, the principal at Kirkwood High School until recently, was on my Khoury League team.  First his dad was coach, then mine. We'd always lose to another team whose pitcher, the older brother of Charles "Cookie" Thornton, pitched the ball about twice as hard as I. (Click here to read the story about the fifth anniversary of the shooting in Kirkwood.)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, challenged Kirkwood to do "three big things" to help heal the community from the wound of the deadly Feb. 7, 2008 shootings at city hall.

Charles "Cookie" Thornton's attack left five city officials dead before police killed Thornton. Mayor Mike Swoboda was gravely wounded and died seven months later. Thornton was black and the city officials white.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Almost three years have passed since Charles "Cookie" Thornton attacked the Kirkwood City Council in one of the deadliest assaults on a government body in modern American history.

In a two-minute fusillade on the evening of Feb. 7, 2008, the high school track star turned charismatic community leader turned town pariah murdered five city officials before he was killed. A sixth official, Mayor Mike Swoboda, was critically injured and died several months later.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Early in 2007, Mayor Mike Swoboda delivered a candid warning to the Kirkwood Ministerial Alliance: Meacham Park, the mostly African-American neighborhood on the edge of town, was on the verge of exploding, he said, and the white ministers needed to reach out to defuse the situation.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Assistant Principal Romona Miller and walking counselor Donald Smith are the two African-American authority figures at Kirkwood High School with the most contact with black students. Miller, the only black administrator at the high school, heads the Black Achievement and Culture Club, while Smith mentors a group of African-American boys called My Brothers' Keeper.

Both Miller and Smith have proud accomplishments. This spring, Miller led about 40 students on the annual college trip, this one focusing on traditionally black colleges in the South. Meanwhile, Smith's decision to mentor one student led to requests for help from others. Now more than 70 students, including many of the school's top athletes, are in the peer mentoring group that he has organized.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When two gangs of African-American girls began fighting in the halls of Kirkwood High School this spring, Robyn Jordan, Monica Gibbs and a group of their high-achieving African-American friends got fed up. They organized to combat racial stereotypes and visited middle schools to urge girls to avoid fights when they get to high school.

Jordan and Gibbs found themselves dealing with negative stereotypes among some teachers and other students even as they wrestle with what it takes for an African-American student to achieve in a predominantly white school in a predominantly white town where they feel as though they are expected to fail.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: About 300 people gathered on the front lawn of Kirkwood City Hall on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon to dedicate a new memorial walkway to the six city officials who died as a result of the Feb. 7, 2008, attack on the city council.

Mayor Art McDonnell said no memorial could "replace what we lost," but that the walkway would remind people "every day to work as they did ... for a better community."

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Patrick Jackson stood alone on the stage of the packed Keating Theater at Kirkwood High School last Dec. 22, with just his double bass in his arms, playing an idiosyncratic and difficult solo called "Failing."

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The relationship between Kirkwood and its predominantly African-American neighborhood of Meacham Park plays out daily in the public schools, where decades of attention to race-related issues have yielded both success and frustration.

At Kirkwood High School, African-American students have made major improvements in their graduation rate and other measures of achievement. But the number of African-American teachers has shrunk to two on a faculty of 118. Some current and former African-American faculty complain about being treated disrespectfully.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The main focus of Kirkwood's new racial mediation agreement is improving the difficult, sometimes deadly relationship between the mostly African-American Meacham Park neighborhood and the mostly white Kirkwood Police Department. But Meacham Park leaders doubt the proposed steps will resolve their complaints that police bully neighborhood residents. And police officers remain wary in the aftermath of three officers' killings by Meacham Park residents.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I didn't grow up in Kirkwood. So that's the first strike against me. And I'm not white, so that's the second strike.

But even with two strikes against me, today, Kirkwood is my home. And for the most part, I love it.

I grew up in working-class neighborhoods in north St. Louis. My father was a special delivery driver for the Post Office, and my mother worked in clerical and secretarial jobs.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I entered Frank P. Tillman elementary school in Kirkwood in 1954, the first year that the Kirkwood public schools desegregated. That didn't mean there were any black students. There weren't.

Kirkwood was desegregating not because it chose to, but because it was the law of the land. Before Brown vs. Board of Education was announced that spring, Kirkwood had been fighting a group of black parents who had gone to federal court to force desegregation. After Brown, a federal court ordered Kirkwood desegregated.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Two men walked on the moon before Meacham Park had paved roads and modern sewers. Public services were so poor in 1966 that five children died in a Meacham Park house fire after the community's volunteer fire department's engine wouldn't start.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Perception often collides with facts when it comes to race. That is especially true in the intertwined story of Kirkwood's redevelopment of its Meacham Park neighborhood and Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton's deadly assault at City Hall on Feb. 7, 2008.

Thornton, a resident of Meacham Park, was once a leading supporter of the redevelopment in the predominantly African-American neighborhood, but he became disaffected. He killed five city officials and shot Mayor Mike Swoboda, who died later that year. Thornton was killed by police.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sometimes, in his dreams, Kirkwood City Attorney John Hessel is back in City Hall. He is reading exhibits into the record when the commotion starts.

He runs, only this time maybe he runs toward a different door. Maybe he can't get to it in time. Maybe the man holding two guns cuts him off. In every dream, he does something just a little different.

In every dream, he dies.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Kirkwood City Council voted Thursday night to adopt a mediation agreement committing it to improve its human rights commission and to expand police involvement with young people in the Meacham Park neighborhood. But even before the council voted, some leaders in Meacham Park accused the mediation process of failing to face up to Kirkwood's racial problem.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Officials from the city of Kirkwood and the U.S. Department of Justice will sign a formal agreement Thursday, completing a two-year racial mediation process that followed the killings on Feb. 7, 2008, in the Kirkwood City Hall. Five city officials and the gunman were killed. A sixth official, Mayor Mike Swoboda, was critically injured in the shootings and died later that year.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association has resigned from the Justice Department Mediation Team that was appointed in the wake of the Feb. 7, 2008, Kirkwood City Hall murders that left five city officials dead. The team is preparing to deliver its report next month.

Harriet Patton, a long-time activist in Meacham Park, said she resigned last month because city officials on the team kept saying, in her words, "Kirkwood does not have a racial problem. There is nothing broken, nothing needs to be fixed." Meacham Park is a mostly African-American neighborhood in Kirkwood.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The people of Kirkwood came together Saturday night. On a springlike evening, a large crowd came to pay tribute to five men and one woman who died last year.

Kirkwood police officers William Biggs and Tom Ballman; Council members Connie Karr and Mike Lynch; and the city’s public works director Ken Yost died on Feb. 7, 2008, after they were shot by Charles “Cookie” Thornton. Thornton was well known inside City Hall and throughout Kirkwood as a businessman who tried to help others and as an annoyance who frequently disrupted the city’s business. He was killed by police who responded to a distress call from Biggs just after he had been shot.

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