Echoes of Michael Brown's Death in St. Louis's Racially Charged Past

By the evening, the crowd had grown to 5,000, swollen by baseball fans arriving for the Cardinals' game against the Giants that night. The riots only got worse—they did not stop until after midnight. Miraculously, no one died—though ten black people and two white people had been hospitalized.

One of the African American swimmers at Fairground Pool that day, Walter Hayes, later recalled, "I never knew that hatred actually traveled in waves. I could feel and see those hate waves, similar to heat waves coming at you on a hot, sunny day in a desert, coming from the crowd. It was an eerie feeling."

Then, and now, the root cause of the violence was segregation. During and after the Depression, thousands of African American families had migrated up the Mississippi to St. Louis. The New York Times editor Gerald Boyd, who grew up in the city, remembered, “Blacks filed off the highways and out of the train depots into slums that were already brimming with new transplants. Jobs were plentiful in huge plants producing everything from beer to bricks, from shoes to steel. But not everyone found work, and in close quarters, crime and illness were on the rise.” 

Then, and now, the root cause of the violence was segregation.

Virtually all of the area's major retail businesses were downtown—retailers had not yet followed the white community to the suburbs—so the center city was the only place to shop. But black people were routinely refused service at the lunch counters at department stores, dime stores, and drugstores. At some places, African Americans were allowed to eat—but only if they were standing up. They called it “vertical segregation."

At movie theatres like the rococo Fox Theatre, black people were allowed in only one week a year, called Brotherhood Week. Blacks were not welcome at all in the Forest Park Highlands, the amusement park where my friends and I spent summer afternoons. They could ride city buses, but the schools were segregated. The ballpark itself was an island of green surrounded by one of the largest pockets of poverty in the city. When the young piano prodigy Bobby Short first played for a week at the St. Louis Theatre in 1937, he had to eat in his dressing room because the nearby restaurants would not serve him. When I met Short years later, and we talked about his time in St. Louis, he did not mention this experience.

In recent years, African-Americans have slowly moved out of the inner city into the ring of suburbs that surrounds St. Louis. But even there, the city’s historical pattern of racial separation prevails in the rigidly monochromatic suburbs. Michael Brown died in Ferguson, where blacks represent two-thirds of the population of 21,000—but only three of the 53 police officers.

This is what race looks like in the usually warm-hearted city where I grew up, what race has looked like for decades. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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Landon Jones is a writer and the former managing editor of People and Money magazines. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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