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

The shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old by police on Saturday is part of a long history of violence toward African Americans in the Midwestern city.
Courtesy of the St. Louis Mercantile Library

When I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, my friends and I were willfully blind to everything but baseball. Our holy place was Sportsman’s Park, the brooding, gothic pile of steel on St. Louis's North Side, where the city’s two professional baseball teams, the Cardinals and the Browns, played. From the outside on a dark night, the ballpark loomed up like a cathedral, a study in hooded arches. At first you glimpsed only flashes of green sliced by rusting steel columns. It took a minute to adjust to this—baseball was still in black and white on television, and here was a new world of blinding whites and greens. The chalky basepaths and the balls themselves seemed to be an unworldly, incandescent white.

The crowd was white, too—except for one section, the pavilion in right field. There, a phalanx of black faces looked back at us with what I imagined to be stony stares, pebbles on a green lawn, facing the concrete of all colors. Black people were limited first by law and then by custom to sitting only in the right-field stands. I remember wondering what they thought of this arrangement. Perhaps they did not find it unusual. St. Louis was then—and still is—one of the most segregated cities in America.

This sad history came to mind this week as St. Louis erupted in protests and looting following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the North Side suburb of Ferguson. Brown, a college-bound student, was shot to death by a police officer even though he was apparently unarmed. Soon after the shooting, the protestors were squaring off against police lines; after lining up, the protestors turned their backs on the officers in a symbolic gesture. It was like being in Sportsman’s Park, with black and white crowds facing off across an abyss.

There is no large city in America more burdened by racial tension and mutual suspicion than St. Louis. The racial and economic problems that have beset America’s cities are particularly intense in my hometown. Despite the city’s large black population, the single black person I met during my childhood in the 1950s was my parents’ housekeeper, Willie Brown. She would arrive at our house once a week and go to the basement to change into her maid’s dress. St. Louis is the city that produced Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and Josephine Baker. Yet when Michael Brown died, white and black residents quickly drew back to their default positions of mutual distrust: Black people took to the streets to express their anger, while white citizens expressed dismay at the chaos.

Black people took to the streets to express their anger, while white citizens expressed dismay at the chaos.

There are echoes of this throughout the city’s history. Almost a century ago, on July 2, 1917, the Illinois city of East St. Louis erupted into a week-long race riot—the worst in American history, with an estimated 300 deaths. The precipitating event was a rumor that a white man had been killed by a black man—a mirror of Michael Brown’s death.

In 1949, just a few blocks from my beloved Sportsman’s Park, the echo appeared again. Here stood the largest public swimming pool in the nation: Fairground Park Pool, opened in 1913. It had limestone-and-brick bathhouses and a circular pool that was 440 feet across. Nineteen lifeguards watched over the thousands of swimmers who came every day.

In those sweltering, fetid summers before air-conditioning, the pools were always crowded. Though it was a municipal facility and theoretically open to all, Fairground Pool was in practice an all-white, segregated preserve. But as the city's black population slowly began to expand into the North Side, pressure built to allow access for all. In 1949, a new Democratic mayor, Joseph Darst, took office in St. Louis. Elected on the coattails of another popular Missourian, Harry Truman, Darst put his campaign manager, John O'Toole, in charge of the city's pools and parks. O'Toole said he "could see no basis for keeping Negroes out of the pools. They are citizens like everybody else and have every legal right to enter any public facility." O'Toole announced that Fairground Park Pool would be open to all on the first day of the season, June 21.

Belatedly recognizing the potential for tension, Darst attempted to convince the city's TV stations and newspapers to play down the story. The Post-Dispatch buried it, but the Globe-Democrat splashed the news across its front page: "Pools and Playgrounds Opened to Both Races." When the pool opened that afternoon, about 30 black and 200 white swimmers lined up, eyeing each other nervously. As the swimmers entered and played uneasily in the water, maintaining careful distance from one another, a large, unruly crowd of white people gathered outside the gates of the pool, "nearly all of them carrying baseball bats, sticks, and clubs,” according to an oral history of St. Louis in the collection of the city’s Mercantile Library. A half-dozen police officers arrived and began escorting away the black people who were leaving the pool. But they made no effort to disperse the crowd. A few older men began haranguing the teenagers: "You want to know how to take care of them niggers? Get bricks and smash their heads." As evening approached, groups of white people began threatening black people who approached the pool and randomly beating those who were leaving, chasing them and shouting, "There're some niggers!" One besieged black youth pulled a knife and beat a 20-year-old white cement-company worker. Police rushed to his rescue.

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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