THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

A City Divided, Part I

Why did Eugene Gordon choose St. Louis for the Heart of America Project?  Apart from being a resident, it can be argued — as Gene does — that no place needs it more.  In St. Louis, segregation, whether geographic, cultural, or economic, is normal. The typical descendant of American slaves lives in a neighborhood that is 45 percent black, 35 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian.


North of Delmar Boulevard., St. Louis neighborhoods are about 95 percent black. South of Delmar, neighborhoods are almost two-thirds white, and the median household income is $25,000 higher. White flight and black flight adhered to the pattern: Whites wound up in South County, and blacks in North County.

What’s unusual about St. Louis — and what goes a long way towards explaining the tension of the Ferguson protests of a few years back — is not racism per se.  Rather, it is the way the metropolitan area has divided itself into pieces, remaining socially and economically segregated long after racist laws were erased from the books.


There are neighborhoods where people live their entire lives and keep strangers out with stone-pillared gates that seal off mansion-lined private avenues. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers have been used as racial divides. And artificial boundaries carve St. Louis County into 90 separate municipalities, many of which can’t afford good schools and representative, highly trained police departments. Yet the municipalities refuse unification with one another and the city of St. Louis.

Ferguson is “a postage stamp municipality in which the white population still clings to the levers of power,” despite a population that has shifted from about 25 percent black to 66 percent black in just two decades. It’s part of a crescent of municipalities between the city and the airport that are not really suburbs. They look much more like the city in the size of the lots and the mix of the land use. When flight begins, this becomes a zone of transition, because it’s the sole pocket of affordable housing. Transition is a point-in-time measurement. It doesn’t necessarily signal healthy integration.


Nor is transition easy in a city that’s been finding ways to control blacks’ movements since the 1700s. Today’s rules are about curfews, sagging pants, and evening protests. In the late 1770s, Spanish colonial ordinances restricted slaves from holding nocturnal assemblies, dressing “in barbarous fashion” and leaving their cabins.

During the Civil War, St. Louis was a tense place. Many of its white residents came from the upland South, and the Mississippi river kept alive cultural and economic ties to the South. After the war, the black population stayed a stable 6 percent for several decades, concentrated in wards by the river and on the edge of downtown. But then came the Great Migration, a huge influx of Southern freed slaves heading north. They reached St. Louis just after a wave of Italian, Greek, and Polish immigration – and a decrease in jobs.


In February 1915, a letter went out to white homeowners: “Dear Neighbor: DO YOU REALIZE that at any time you are liable to suffer an irreparable loss, due to the coming of NEGROES into the block in which you live or in which you own property?”

A group of St. Louisans wanted to use the reform provision in the city’s newly revised charter to enforce racial segregation. Despite opposition from the mayor and vocal politicians and church leaders, St. Louisans voted — 3 to 1 — to prevent blacks from moving into any neighborhood that was already 75 percent whites (or vice versa).

In 1916, St. Louis became the first city in the nation to pass a segregation ordinance by referendum. A 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision made that ordinance illegal. So white St. Louis homeowners began using racial covenants, securing promises from all neighborhood residents never to sell to a black person.


In 1948 the Supreme Court made the racial covenants illegal. So, suburbs quickly put exclusive zoning restrictions into place that required lots to be “large single-family.” Banks made mortgage policies accordingly. Developers learned about blockbusting, and real estate agents learned to steer their clients’ flight from the city.

In the 1960s, before his rise to St. Louis’ police chief and then mayor, Clarence Harmon tried to move into a new development, (very well known to Gene Gordon because his parents moved there in 1985), Paddock Woods, in North County’s Florissant municipality. He said he was told politely, “Well, sir, we’re not selling homes to Negroes up here.” The case that went before the Supreme Court” — Jones v. Mayer, resulting from Joseph Jones’ unsuccessful attempt to buy a house in Paddock Woods — and that will determine whether we do. Jones won his case, and Harmon moved in.

Years later, a friend of Harmon’s, an FBI agent, was planning to move to St. Louis. He called a real estate agent about a house in Florissant. Not realizing he was black, she murmured, “Oh, you don’t want to live up there. All the blacks live there.”

John Wright, former assistant superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant school district, remembers a chain stretched across a road to prevent access from the black city of Kinloch to then-white Ferguson. Wright is now retired and is a cultural ambassador to Senegal. “I tell people I grew up in an apartheid town (St. Louis),” he said. “The only two places I remember being able to go were the public library and the St. Louis Zoo. Everything else was determined by where you lived and your skin color.”