Three of us on the wrestling team were headed to a downtown Turkish sauna to sweat off a few pounds before the next day’s weigh-in. It was after dark, cold, early December. We knew we’d have to pass through some rough neighborhoods to reach our destination.
We were Ritenour High School kids, our district a couple of miles south of the airport in suburban St. Louis. Ferguson, directly east of the airport was nearby and on our route. Just beyond was the nasty stretch.
On a poorly-lit street we were suddenly bombarded with bricks. Young black kids were pitching them at our car from both sides of the street. One of our guys, riding shotgun, rolled down his window and flipped them off. “Fucking Niggers!” he yelled. In the back seat, I cringed.
That was the social landscape of north suburban St. Louis in late 1963.
That year there had been rallies against school segregation, the elitism of the white-only Veiled Prophet Ball and demonstrations against the anti-black hiring practices at Jefferson Bank. Some protesters ended up behind bars.
Watching what is happening in Ferguson today, I can’t help but think there is a deep and lingering divide in that community that goes back to my day and beyond.
The first chance I got to escape St. Louis was in the fall of 1964 when I went off to college in Columbia, Missouri. I never again called St. Louis home. Much of what drove me away was the racial animosity I’d grown up with. My father was certainly infected with it and, truth be told, I was not totally immune.
After living in Kansas City at the tail end of the civil rights era, going to after-hours jazz clubs in which a white face was a rarity, and after a two-year hitch in the Marine Corps sharing living quarters with blacks and Hispanics, my views began to change. More toward enlightenment, I liked to think.
Then when I moved to Denver in 1975, it became vividly apparent that different folks could live in something that approached harmony. All it took was one visit to an East Colfax barbecue joint to drive the point home. Two couples, one black, one white, were sitting at table together, sharing ribs and a pitcher of beer. Laughing. And there was no tension in the room. I was happily stunned.
That’s not to say that Denver is racial utopia. Far from it. But it stands in stark contrast to St. Louis then, and now.
I’ve gone back a few times over the years. Once, driving across an east-west swath of the city, from the airport to the Mississippi, I passed through a five-mile stretch of boarded-up brownstones and demolished shops. I thought of Belfast and the “Troubles,” Beirut, Baghdad.
When I met with some old acquaintances who’d never left town as I had, I found the conversation drifting uncomfortably to the “black problem.” While I didn’t hear the “N-word,” I might as well have. Attitudes had not changed much.
Ask someone in Denver where they were born, where they came from, the answer is practically never “Denver,” or “Colorado.” Whereas, in St. Louis, everyone seems to be from St. Louis. And so were their parents and their grandparents.
There are folks who still fondly remember the Bob Gibson-era Cardinals, even the great Red Bird teams of the forties. (Interestingly, that is something that unites the community — Michael Brown, the 18-year-old black youth shot by a white police officer in Ferguson two weeks ago, was reportedly wearing a Cardinals baseball cap.)
According to the Arch that frames the downtown skyline, St. Louis is the “Gateway to the West.” It is also considered by some the northernmost Southern city. Many blacks from Dixie, seeking jobs up north after the Civil War, never quite made it all the way to Chicago or Detroit. Others who got there and became disillusioned turned around to settle in St. Louis.
St. Louis has history. White families of privilege go back generations and are still among the city’s powerbrokers. Ferguson, a largely black suburb, is grossly underrepresented in local government. Folks are frustrated with their political leaders — and with the cops, who are overwhelmingly white. For many decades the economy has been stagnant in the region. The black community has suffered the most. The rage in the streets is not surprising. Decades of bottled discontent ignited by the death of a young, unarmed black man.
Social conditions have certainly shifted since 1963. Unfortunately, recent events indicate that shift has been far short of adequate.
My 50th high school reunion takes place in suburban St. Louis this coming October. As my old wrestling teammates get together and swap tales, one story is inevitable. The same old story.
[Photo of protesters at Jefferson Bank in St. Louis on Aug. 30, 1963, via St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune.]