“Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs,” by Colin Gordon, U Chicago Press, Chicago, 2019. This 200-page hardback tells the story of segregation and racism in the St. Louis metropolitan area that resulted in the shooting of Michael Brown in the inner suburb of Ferguson in 2014. The mass shooting in Kirkwood City Hall by a disgruntled Meacham Park resident in 2008 is also described. We also read about a fatal fire in Meacham Park in 1965 which burned while the Meacham Volunteer Firetruck could not be started.
The City of St. Louis separated from St. Louis County in 1876. The author describes that boundary as the “Berlin Wall.” Only metropolitan sewer district, junior college district, and the museum/zoo district crossed the wall according to the author. Black areas in the city were traditionally surrounded by restrictive covenants in deeds that prevented non-whites and others from living in white areas. That practice was begun during the great migration when blacks moved from the South to settle in northern cities–especially around World War I when jobs were plentiful. The Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants were unenforceable in 1948. That allowed African Americans to move throughout the city. Most blacks lived north of Delmar Blvd. The decision also caused white flight to the suburbs beginning in the 1940s. That was followed by black flight due to deterioration of the city a generation later.
The northern suburbs, often called North County, were a frequent destination. They were nearby, offered good schools, and had less crime. Ferguson was one of those. It had older homes on small lots making them affordable. It also allowed apartment buildings. In the 50 years after Brown vs Education, the African American population of St. Louis county increased from 19,000 in 1960 to over 193,000 in 2000. By 2000, Ferguson’s population was over half African American.
The state legislature made it easy to form new cities in mostly rural St. Louis County once they had a population of 5000. Usually they were built by developers. Deed restrictions and lot size was used to maintain segregation by class and race. Their purpose was insulation from local costs, industrial land use, multifamily housing, and African American occupancy. The result was hundreds of small communities by the 1950s.
Black communities were also developed. They usually were sold as vacant lots often near industries that needed workers in clay, brick plants, maintenance, etc. The book focuses on Meacham Park near Kirkwood, Elmwood Park, between Olivette and Overland and Kinloch between Ferguson and Berkeley as examples, but also mentioned were Prospect Hill, Robertson, South Maryland Heights, South Richmond Heights, North Olivette, North Webster Groves, Wellston, and University City. As population increased, the black enclaves were surrounded and isolated. They lacked sewers, water, paved streets, fire protection and city services. In 1920, most Elmwood Park homes had cisterns that were filled by a water service. In 1970, half of Meacham Park residences still had privies. One quarter lacked adequate water supply. Meacham Park was rural. Residents had chickens, smokehouses, and some cows. Kinloch got sewers from a federal grant in 1971, but funds were not provided for the laterals that connect homes to the mains. Borders often included physical barricades. Schools were segregated and remarkably unequal.
The primitive nature of the black enclaves made them attractive for annexation. In both Meacham Park and Elmwood Park this was done in stages and promised to provide improved housing for the residents. Cities found that increased tax base paid for sewers and other services. Homeowners suspected the goal was removal of Negoes and resisted. Many homes were lost. Much of Meacham Park became a shopping center; much of Elmwood Park became industrial. Construction delays had residents paying rent for their own property. Residents relocated elsewhere and the sense of neighborhood and community was lost.
Beginning in 1920, Meacham Park students could attend high school at Sumner High in St. Louis or Douglass High in Webster Groves. The Elmwood Park School remained all black until 1974. Other districts bused their black students to Elmwood Park. The school was closed only in 1976. In Kinloch, high school students attended Sumner.
In 2016, in Ferguson-Florissant, almost all African-American children attended public schools, but barely one third of white children did. The author does not examine parochial or private schools in the area.
Schools in the area remained mostly segregated after Brown vs Education. In 1983, a settlement was reached requiring busing to provide equal education. Schools were to increase black enrollment by 15%. Magnet schools were created to attract white volunteers. The program lasted until 1999. In the suburbs, African American children found themselves “out of place.”
Gordon notes that blacks are often associated with crime. People see them as threats or interlopers. They receive additional police attention. Is that for their protection or to protect someone else from them? Fear of crime is the most common reason for segregated communities. Policing is a mechanism for sorting and segregating local citizens and to protect property values.
In 1966, the mayor of Kirkwood invited County Executive Lawrence Roos to visit Meacham Park. The battery was stolen from the county limousine.
In the 1970s, many black families left the city because they felt vulnerable and unprotected. In the county neighborhoods, they were the threat. In the county, cars driven by blacks were searched twice as often as those of whites. Black motorists were arrested three times more often. Municipal codes were often used for enforcement. Michael Brown was arrested for Municipal Code 44-344, Manner of Walking along Roadway. He was walking in the middle of the street rather than on the sidewalk. The ordinances were used to enforce boundaries and as a source of municipal revenue. Fines for broken taillights, sagging pants, improperly stored drywall, insufficient window coverings, and jaywalking were used.
City services are a common aspect of segregation. Streets on the wrong side of the tracks are unpaved, undrained, poorly lit, and often rely on wood stoves, wells, and outdoor privies.
Gordon makes clear that urban redevelopment became popular after World War II. The funds often went for sports stadiums, convention centers, downtown parking lots, and university or hospital expansions. Often these programs were used to clear slums. This displaced blacks from their homes and put pressure on other areas. Low income housing or public housing was seen as an improvement, but such housing was strongly resisted in St. Louis County. Virtually all public housing was built in the city. High rise developments like Pruit Igoe were built, but they were crime ridden and were torn down in 1972.
Federal funds for urban redevelopment became available in 1954. Black enclaves were targeted. Between 1958 and 1968, federal redevelopment projects cleared 750,000 housing units, and built only 300,000. Only half of the new units were for low income families. The result was much less housing. Later programs required that residents be provided with relocation assistance, but the programs were sparse and often the housing offered was substandard, almost unliveable.
It’s not land clearance, it’s race clearance. Negro families were displaced 99% of the time in St. Louis area projects.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church sponsored a federal application that resulted in Primm Gardens in the former Elmwood Park in 1972. It had three bedroom apartments for under $150/month and a 600 family waiting list. There were only three such complexes in all of St. Louis County. A proposal to build public housing in Jefferson Barracks failed.
Racism is a major contributor to the wealth gap. The median black worker earns about 75% of the wages of a white worker. But his wealth stands at about 10% of that of a white worker. Home ownership incentives did not extend to blacks. Fewer became home owners.
Emerson Electric headquarters are in Ferguson.
This book makes it clear that racism is deeply ingrained in the St. Louis area. Especially in real estate. But extends to education, utilities, and numerous city services. Lack of public housing is a major problem, complicated by efforts at urban renewal. Lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness. The author is thorough in his research. References. Maps. Index.