This is the fourth and final part of an unpublished essay on African American history in St. Louis that I wrote in the late 1990s.
Encouraged by the newly formed group Civic Progress, voters in 1955 approved the $110.6 million bond issue needed for the Mill Creek Valley project and twenty-two others. Again, African American voters passed the issue, this time by a vote of 15,243 to 878. The area in question—454 acres roughly bordered by Lindell/Olive on the north, Scott on the south, Grand on the west, and Twentieth on the east—had concerned city and county residents for years.
In the eyes of most St. Louisans, Mill Creek Valley was a slum; Mayor Raymond Tucker described it as “acre after acre of rat-infested firetraps.” “Many homes lacked hot running water, outdoor privies were common, and it was not unusual to read of children being bitten by rats as they slept,” the mayor continued. “Disease rates were high. Tax delinquency was high. This, in short, is what we lost by clearing Mill Creek.”
Historians and former residents have argued ever since that a lot more was lost with the clearing of Mill Creek Valley. African Americans had lived in the area since the 1850s, and they developed a unique culture in the neighborhood. Several notable African Americans, including entertainer Josephine Baker and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, were born there, while Albert Britt (“Johnny” of “Frankie and Johnny” fame) was killed nearby. In addition, most St. Louisans encountered Scott Joplin’s ragtime for the first time at Thomas Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe on Market Street; African Americans worshiped in the many churches that sprang up in the area, such as St. Paul AME and St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church; and young children played at the Pine Street Y and attended Waring or Johnson Elementary Schools, later moving on to Sumner or Booker T. Washington Vocational High School.
Nevertheless, neither the Mill Creek Valley’s culture nor the NAACP’s condemnation of the project as “Negro Removal” could keep the clearance from proceeding as planned. By the mid-1960s, 1,772 families and 610 individuals had been forced to move out, moving either to public housing projects such as the notorious Pruitt-Igoe buildings built fifteen years earlier or to other parts of the city: northwest to the area between Delmar and Natural Bridge, or south along Chouteau Avenue. As the African American population from Mill Creek Valley moved into these areas, white homeowners fled further west—a migration made easier by new federal highway projects, also part of the 1955 bond issue.
The story of Mill Creek Valley serves as a good example of the connections between St. Louis’s “black history” and its “white history.” Whites and blacks today are deeply concerned with “urban sprawl,” but rarely is the issue directly linked to the legacy of segregated housing patterns and neglected city schools, both of which were dramatically affected by the clearance project. Instead, a code language is used— “good neighborhoods,” “good schools.” Just like the phrase “good hair,” the word good in these contexts is often a synonym for white. What happened to black families who were forced from Mill Creek Valley, placed in other aging parts of the city or public housing, and bused out oftheir neighborhoods for school is considered part of their history, not part of our history.
More than forty years ago, in an essay titled “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” Alice Walker wondered why so many “white liberals” were ready to declare the death of the Civil Rights movement. “The Movement is dead to the white man because it no longer interests him,” Walker wrote. “And it no longer interests him because he can afford to be uninterested: he does not have to live by it, with it, or for it, as Negroes must. . . . Negroes cannot now and will never be able to take a rest from the injustices that plague them, for they—not the white man—are the target.”
As recent history shows, the time is long past for black history to matter to white people–in St. Louis and beyond.