Dear St. Louis | James Hooks

Dear St. Louis:

I look at you and see the birthplace of my father. Where my grandparents rest. Where my parents met and were eventually joined in union.

I was not born in St. Louis, but I am a son of it. I visited your stores where my cousin worked, and where my grandmother shopped, and where my aunts and uncles walked past on their way to worship. I have seen the community that was built by my extended family and their extended family, the structures of history and the tensions that hope tends to bring for those who may not have the world to count on, but at least have themselves.

Today I look at you and see the tears of my family, and the ghosts of my blood shaking their heads in disappointment.

When our parents and grandparents faced death on a daily basis, they did not use violence to strike at their oppressors. They marched with their hands held together, with fists kept in check, with anger expressed through words of peace and understanding. They formed groups to make systemic changes through education and legislation. They became leaders who risked and lost everything merely by speaking. They walked and bled and died with their heads held high and integrity in check, just for an opportunity to matter in this adopted home.

St. Louis mirrored the national experience of injustice for African-Americans. “Free” blacks of antebellum St. Louis needed licenses to live in the city, and were banned from voting. While a black aristocracy of merchants and professionals existed in St. Louis as early as the late 1850s, their lives were far more restrictive than those of their white counterparts. Housing restrictions, curfews, bans on education, and prohibition from testifying in court against whites all prevailed.

On a visit to St. Louis in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the church remained the most segregated institution in America. The earliest church for blacks in St. Louis, First Baptist, opened in 1818. Others from the African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist denominations followed, expanding in the 1840s. St. Paul’s AME grew out of the African Methodist Church, erecting its new building in 1872 at 11th and Lucas in St. Louis. It was the first church building constructed by and for an African-American congregation. The church moved to Lawton and Leffingwell in 1890. Later, the Laclede Town development in the 1960s took the site, so the church moved to 1260 Hamilton Avenue. The first Roman Catholic church for a black congregation, St. Elizabeth’s, opened the following year in the former Vinegar Hill Hall at 14th and Gay.

The Committee for Social Services Among Colored People organized in 1910–the same year as the Urban League nationally–as the first interracial group in the city. Growing out of a desire for a more integrated St. Louis, the March on Washington Movement began work in 1943 for jobs and access. It organized pickets of Southwestern Bell, lobbying for jobs for black operators whose applications the company had turned down. After some 200 black members paid their phone bills in pennies at the downtown office on September 18, Bell agreed to open an office in a black neighborhood with African-American employees.

The Movement then turned its attention to lunch counters. A letter campaign led by Alderman Jasper Caston led to a city ordinance in April, 1944, desegregating lunch rooms in City Hall and all other municipal buildings. In May, the newly formed Citizens Civil Rights Commission set its sights on department store lunch counters, which were always closed to black shoppers and diners. Stix, Baer, and Fuller refused service to three black diners on May 15, with management offering to start serving blacks if other department stores did so. Forty black and fifteen white women tried to be served at counters at Stix and Famous-Barr July 8; the stores closed the lunch counters. Finally, Scruggs, Vandevoort, and Barney gave in and opened its lunch counter to blacks in 1945-but not its more posh main dining room. All eating establishments in department stores were gradually desegregated during the 1950s with help from the Congress of Racial Equality.

These were small battles amidst the national stage, but they were fought–peacefully–at home in St. Louis. While I am not born of St. Louis, I will forever remain its son. I share in the anger and frustration that police brutality and institutional discrimination continue to reign fifty years after we were recognized as equal citizens in a country we did not choose to be a part of. However, burning down the communities that provide food, employment, and shelter to your neighbors only destroys us.

Rioting and looting do nothing but make things significantly worse in the fight against injustice. Destroying the places where my cousin may still work, where my grandmother might have shopped, or where my aunts may walk past on their way to worship strikes at the very soul of the only home they knew.

Protest peacefully. Get angry through words. Use logic to pick the battles that need to be fought, and demonstrate your right to live by acting like responsible human beings.

When the fires die and the tears dry, the ashes will remain our own.