This is the third part of an unpublished essay on African American history in St. Louis that I wrote in the late 1990s. The final part will be published on The Write Fox Blog soon.
As even more African Americans moved to St. Louis in the early twentieth century, they quickly learned that they could only live in certain areas, separate from whites.
Significantly, these geographic boundaries would not increase in proportion to the swelling numbers, so overcrowding and poor conditions became a fact of life. Blacks in the early twentieth century congregated near the riverfront, in the older parts of downtown, and between Union Station and Grand Avenue.
The congested black neighborhoods outside of Union Station were particularly vexing to the white community in the years leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. “The proposition to condemn the unsightly first view, as strangers immerge [sic] from Union Station, should be all means carry,” the World’s Fair Bulletin wrote in 1901, imagining the poor first impression the city would present to its guests. “The ugly catch penny buildings that have sprung up around the Depot are like weeds around a flower bed and only municipal action will ever eradicate them.”
St. Louis would have to wait several more decades to thoroughly clean up its municipal “flower bed”; meanwhile, informal segregation ruled the day. The city could not legally prevent blacks and whites from living together—a 1916 housing segregation ordinance became a “dead letter” after a similar ordinance in Kentucky was ruled unconstitutional—but it didn’t need to. Restrictive covenants, private places, and custom did the job.
Ironically, housing segregation played an important role in the formation of St. Louis’s most famous African American community, the middle-class community known as the Ville. Bounded roughly by Taylor, St. Louis Avenue, Sarah, and Easton (Martin Luther King Drive), the Ville was open to African American settlement. As a result, the percentage of blacks living in the neighborhood increased from 8 to 95 percent over a thirty-year period, 1920–50.
However, the twentieth-century growth of the Ville does not indicate that class distinctions among the African American community were a new phenomenon. Judith Gilbert has described the many eighteenth-century “free women of color” in St. Louis who amassed property through marriage, then proceeded to manage their sizable holdings well. “For them,” Gilbert writes, “property ownership represented security: a home that could not be taken away, a stable environment for their children, a base of operations for various kinds of work, an opportunity to supplement their income with boarders, a capital asset that lenders would accept as collateral.”
In the nineteenth-century, Pelagie Aillotte Rutgers was among the dozens of wealthy free blacks listed in Cyprian Clamorgan’s Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. Published in 1858, it testified to the many African Americans in St. Louis who inherited property, then used their holdings to generate greater wealth. St. Louis’s African American community, just like African American communities across the nation, have long been more varied and complex than has been acknowledged.
A chronic shortage of funds had prevented the cleanup of the area in time for the world’s fair, but Progressive reformers knew that beautifying the city would have to happen eventually, world’s fair or not. Unfortunately, clearing the area in front of Union Station would displace the thousands of people—mostly poor and black—who lived there. A group called the United Welfare Association (UWA) eagerly exploited this fact, playing on white fears of a displaced black lower class fleeing to white enclaves. Meanwhile, in 1913, the City Plan Commission drew up plans for a “Central Traffic Parkway” on Market Street between Twelfth and Jefferson.
“When work on the parkway is commenced,” UWA president Wayne Wheeler wrote in a letter to potential supporters, “some 15000 negroes who now live in that district will be forced to find other quarters, and some of them may move next door to you.” The work of the UWA, combined with controversy over city charter reform, led to the failure of the Central Parkway plan at the hands of St. Louis voters.
Significantly, the parkway did not fail at the hands of all St. Louis voters—in the Seventeenth Ward, whose population was 25 percent black, the proposal passed. The city’s black press boasted that this proved the city’s African Americans supported the city’s future, setting the black community in line with the city’s Progressive element and against the regressive UWA. The election also proved that the city’s growing and enfranchised black community was a political force to be reckoned with.
Throughout the 1920s, St. Louis’s African Americans became more politically aware and active, thanks in part to the presence of two black newspapers, the American and the Argus. In the wake of the Great Depression, black political allegiances shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats, affecting local as well as national politics. “We had 24 years of promises from the Republicans,” the Negro Division of Democratic Campaign Headquarters declared in a pamphlet. “We Got 4 Years Of Action!! From the Dickmann Administration.” “Vote Democratic April 6!” the pamphlet urged, calling for the reelection of Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann. The remainder of the pamphlet praised Dickmann’s many African American political appointments, his support of Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the Ville, and his plans for the Tandy Community Center. The African American community was beginning to realize its power to effect change, and the white community knew it.
The gulf between white and black St. Louis is deep and strong. It has been at times violent, of course, but more often it has been very subtle. A furtive glance in a department store, a tone of voice, a silently closed door—racism in St. Louis frequently took the form of slurs felt but not spoken, sensed but not sensational. Even dramatic events, such as the clearing of the black “slum” district known as the Mill Creek Valley that began in 1959, carefully concealed their racist overtones and implications.