Michael Brown, outside the St Louis County Circuit Clerk building
"Show me" now means show the world black hands are in the air—and we will still be shot down in cold blood. Eyewitness Dorian Johnson, who was walking down the street with Mike Brown described the shooting of his friend in graphic detail. Other witnesses have verified his account.
Until last week, most of us had probably never heard of the town of Ferguson. Due to the death of Michael Brown, and the unprecedented display of police force, with Ferguson resembling a war zone—force leveled against a community protesting and demanding answers—the town is now part of the map of our minds and our hearts. Missouri has shown us what she is about.
Many of us were puzzled to learn that Ferguson has a majority black population, but has a white Republican mayor, an almost all white city council, and a police force with 47 white officers and only three black officers, headed by a white police chief, Thomas Jackson. How could this be?
Part of the answer is that the racial demographics of Ferguson have shifted quite rapidly. In 1990, the town was 73.8 percent white, and blacks were 25.1 percent. By the 2010 census, those numbers flipped and the town was 29.3 percent white, 67.4 percent black, with about the same number of inhabitants. Yet whites have continued to hold the key positions of power there. Part of the problem is low voter turnout in non-presidential election years—particularly in the African-American community in Ferguson, because the city of St. Louis does have black representation. The end result in Ferguson is an example of white power gone wild.
No state or geographical region of this country is immune to racism, which is built into the foundation stones of this nation. But Missouri, and the area of St. Louis, holds a peculiar place in both the history of slavery and in modern-day racial segregation.
Follow me below the fold for some of that history.
In an effort to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states, the Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820 admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Furthermore, with the exception of Missouri, this law prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line. In 1854, the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Three years later the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.Missouri then became the center of a firestorm between pro-slavery and abolition forces as the site of the legal battles of Dred Scott—cases fought in the Missouri courts that would end in a racist decision by the U.S. Supreme Court—Dred Scott v. Sandford:
"in which the Court held that African Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States."St. Louis was home to the largest slave market in Missouri.
Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states, yet no part of our slave-holding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis.Missouri, though a state in which slavery flourished, was embraced by President Lincoln and was part of the Union—sort of:
—William Wells Brown, former slave.
Missouri had two governments during the Civil War, one Confederate (under Gov. Claiborne F. Jackson) and the other Union (Gov. Hamilton Gamble). The Constitutionally elected government was driven into exile by Federal forces. This government in exile (under Gov. Jackson) would join the Confederacy. Although the U.S. military occupied Missouri, the pro-Union government under Gov. Gamble was staunchly pro-slavery. For this reason, most Missouri slave owners were at least nominally pro-Union in sentiment. They formed a very strained alliance with anti-slavery citizens. Because of the loyalty of Missouri's slave owners, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not pertain to Missouri's slaves. Slaves in Missouri would remain slaves until 1865. But the State was inundated by slaves from the Confederate States that were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Sorting runaway Missouri slaves from emancipated slaves was a big problem for Federal officials in St. Louis.After the Civil War, the black population of St. Louis was swelled by an influx of Exodusters.
Enforcement of these policies tended to vary depending on the general in charge of the Department of Missouri. For instance, Gen. Samuel Curtis, was fairly liberal with the issuance of "Certificates of Freedom" often simply based up "on the mere statements of slaves." Primarily due to protest by pro-slavery Unionists, President Lincoln removed Curtis from command and replaced him with slavery friendly Gen. John M. Schofield. (Curtis was in command from September 1862 to May 1863)
At the time of the Dred Scott case, about one person in twenty living in St. Louis was African-American, two-third of whom were slaves. The percentage of the population with African descent was about five percent until the late 1870s. The end of political Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the south compelled southern blacks to migrate north to cities such as St. Louis. Most famous, perhaps, were the Exodusters of 1879, so named for their exodus to what many of them thought was a sort of "promised land."The black population of St.Louis would swell again in 1917. Directly across the river in Illinois is the city of East St. Louis. In that year one of the bloodiest riots in U.S history would take place.
Like European immigrants, these Exodusters were both pushed and pulled north. Many feared the Reconstruction and the absence of U. S. troops would eliminate their rights or, worse yet, return them to slavery. The KKK gave added impetus to fear for safety and life. At the same time, they were attracted by the lure of land in the opening West. Migrating to form new black communities, mostly in Kansas, these former slaves arrived in St. Louis (and Kansas City) penniless on their trek to new lives in the West.
Local black leadership wanted to provide enough money and supplies to move these migrants out of St. Louis as quickly as possible. Some were concerned that these immigrants would become an economic drain on the African-American community's limited resources; others feared that increased numbers of poor blacks would confirm white stereotypes of racial inferiority. James Milton Turner, Moses Dickson, John Wheeler, and John Turner led the creation of the Committee of Twenty-Five in early March of 1879, to organize transportation and temporary housing for the 10,000 or so travelers. The Committee split in mid-April: the Colored Refugee Relief Board worked on finding housing and transportation, while the Colored Immigration Aid Society raised money to form new black colonies in the west. Most Exodusters moved to the plains of western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and southern Utah; others stopped in St. Louis. The city's black population increased by 1880 to 6.36 percent of the total, many of whom were migrants.
Racial tensions began to increase in February, 1917 when 470 African American workers were hired to replace white workers who had gone on strike against the Aluminum Ore Company. The violence started on May 28th, 1917, shortly after a city council meeting was called. Angry white workers lodged formal complaints against black migrations to the Mayor of East St. Louis. After the meeting had ended, news of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man began to circulate through the city. As a result of this news, white mobs formed and rampaged through downtown, beating all African Americans who were found. The mobs also stopped trolleys and streetcars, pulling black passengers out and beating them on the streets and sidewalks. Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden eventually called in the National Guard to quell the violence, and the mobs slowly dispersed. The May 28th disturbances were only a prelude to the violence that erupted on July 2, 1917.The riots across the river had a direct impact on St. Louis:
After the May 28th riots, little was done to prevent any further problems. No precautions were taken to ensure white job security or to grant union recognition. This further increased the already-high level of hostilities towards African Americans. No reforms were made in police force which did little to quell the violence in May. Governor Lowden ordered the National Guard out of the city on June 10th, leaving residents of East St. Louis in an uneasy state of high racial tension.
On July 2, 1917, the violence resumed. Men, women, and children were beaten and shot to death. Around six o’ clock that evening, white mobs began to set fire to the homes of black residents. Residents had to choose between burning alive in their homes, or run out of the burning houses, only to be met by gunfire. In other parts of the city, white mobs began to lynch African Americans against the backdrop of burning buildings. As darkness came and the National Guard returned, the violence began to wane, but did not come to a complete stop.
Despite segregationist and racist attitudes, St. Louis acted as a haven during the 1917 East St. Louis Riot, as St. Louis police shepherded fleeing blacks across the Eads Bridge to shelter and food provided by the city government and the American Red Cross. Leonidas C. Dyer, who represented part of St. Louis in the U.S. House, led a Congressional investigation into the events and eventually sponsored an anti-lynching bill in response.Due to an influx of refugees from East St. Louis and the general effects of the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to industrial cities, the black population of St. Louis increased more rapidly than the whole during the decade of 1910 to 1920.So where were all these black people going to live? The answer, of course, was in their own restricted areas of the city:
Segregated housing patterns were far from mere coincidence or happenstance. Who lived where reflected social attitudes about race. African-Americans lived in separate and discrete areas, even more accentuated than those of other recent urban arrivals living in Irish, German, Polish, or Italian neighborhoods. However, these Euro-American groups could eventually blend into the larger society. African-Americans' color always identified them as different from the prevailing white culture, making it easier to force them into separate areas.Fast forward to today, and the racial segregation—no longer the law—still exists.
Those areas tended to be similar to other tenement areas: substandard housing, overcrowded, unsanitary. This is not to say that all black neighborhoods were slums. Before the Civil War St. Louis boasted a "black aristocracy" of middle-class African-Americans. Eventually The Ville stood as the neighborhood for middle-class black families. These housing lines along racial boundaries held legal sway at times. By a three-to-one margin, voters enacted a segregation ordinance in 1916, holding that no one could move to a block on which more than 75 percent of the residents were of another race. The NAACP successfully fought the order in the courts. White separatists responded by creating associations of white residents living in neighborhoods near black residential areas to solidify segregated housing. The United Welfare Association, who orchestrated the ordinance based on such a law in Baltimore, continued with its support from the Real Estate Board of St. Louis. One member organization, the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association, sought to ban blacks from moving into an area bound by Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Newstead, and Easton. Each property had attached to it a fifty-year covenant forbidding sale of the house to "persons not of Caucasian race." The Ville stood as the primary neighborhood for middle class blacks.
J. D. Shelley and his family purchased a home at 4600 Labadie in 1939, within the boundaries set by the Association. Louis and Ethel Kraemer, a white couple who lived across the street at 4532 Labadie, filed a lawsuit against them to preclude their moving in. African-American Realtor James T. Bush, Sr., who sold the house to the Shelleys, promptly formed the Real Estate Brokers' Association of St. Louis and hired African-American attorney George Vaughn to represent the Shelleys. The St. Louis Circuit Court refused to recognize the covenant, but the state Supreme Court reversed the decision. Finally, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1948 decision that such covenants limiting access to or ownership of property due to race violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Shelley v. Kraemer remains a landmark case leading to lifting legal restrictions based on race. While the Shelleys were fighting to reverse segregated housing, other institutions were reinforcing it, whether by design or benign neglect. The most conspicuous were, ironically, funded with tax dollars: urban renewal and public housing.
The city of St Louis, Missouri, remains one of the most segregated cities in the US, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute. But one street in particular has been known to residents as the "dividing line".One of the most interesting St. Louis political/cultural issues, steeped in racism, revolved around The Veiled Prophet and the Veiled Prophet Ball.
Delmar Boulevard, which spans the city from east to west, features million-dollar mansions directly to the south, and poverty-stricken areas to its north. What separates rich and poor is sometimes just one street block.
The BBC's Franz Strasser talked to residents, business owners and pastors on both sides of the street about why things are the way they are.
The Veiled Prophet Ball (commonly referred to as the VP Ball) is a dance held each December in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, by a secret society named the "Veiled Prophet Organization" (often referred to as "the VP"), first founded by prominent St. Louisans in 1878, and originally part of the Veiled Prophet Fair (or "VP Fair"), which today is Fair St. Louis. The founders' intent was to create a local celebration in the likeness of Mardi Gras, eventually including pageantry and costuming as well as a parade with floats. Each year, one member of the Veiled Prophet Organization is chosen to serve as the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," donning a sheik-like garb to preside over the VP Ball. Five of the debutantes are chosen by secret process to form the "Veiled Prophet's Court of Honor," of which one is chosen to be crowned the "Queen of Love and Beauty" by the Veiled Prophet.Love and beauty that excluded black people and working class whites.
The original figure of the Veiled Prophet emphasized force, even violence, with shotgun and pistol in hand (and another shotgun at the ready); the Missouri Republican (October 6, 1878) commented "It will be readily observed from the accoutrements of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else." Historian Thomas M. Spencer remarked on the figure's Klansman-like appearance, in the context of the southern and classist origins of the fair, and interpreted "streetcars" as a reference to the previous year's labor strike. Ferriss, in her account of the event's origins, characterizes St. Louis as "the northwest outpost of the Confederacy." A few years later, the imagery (the one depicted here) was less overtly threatening, but still resolutely patriarchal.Longtime St.Louis activist Percy Green II talks about the issue here:
Percy Green II, a St. Louis native of the Compton Hill area, became widely known as an activist when he, along with Richard Daly, scaled the Gateway Arch in July of 1964. “The more progressive element of the organization [CORE-the Congress On Racial Equality] decided to do that because they protested that the city used federal money to build the monument without blacks getting a fair share of the contracts or the jobs.Landon Jones, a white native of St. Louis, wrote a reflective piece for The Atlantic this week, Echoes of Michael Brown's Death in St. Louis' Racially Charged Past, because, "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."
As the founder of ACTION, Green advocated for better jobs for African Americans. The group targeted companies such as Wonder Bread, Southwestern Bell, Laclede Gas and Union Electric (now Ameren UE). The CEOs of the organizations belonged to the exclusive Veiled Prophet organization and ACTION members set their sights on targeting and disrupting the elite at their own highly celebrated function.
“We thought that [the organization] was racist, sexist & elitist,” Green said in a newspaper interview. “If the city was going to truly integrate, they should not have a Ku Klux Klan-ish event. That’s why we attacked it.”
ACTION’s attack on the Veiled Prophet organization culminated with an infiltration of the segregated ball in December of 1972. Debutantes who were sympathetic with ACTION’s cause provided white ACTION members, Jane Sauer and Gina Scott, with tickets to the gathering. While Jane created a distraction by dropping pamphlets near the stage, Gina maneuvered behind the VP of that year-John K. Smith, then-VP of the Monsanto Corporation, and snatched the veil off his head from behind.
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.
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.After reading this, I wanted to also hear from a black person from St. Louis. Although there have been a stream of tweets, hashtags, Tumblr photos, and short interviews with residents on the news, the ethnographer in me wanted to hear from someone who was not a journalist, or a witness.
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.”
One of the marvels of modern internet technology is that every-day people can now have conversations with strangers via the use of webcams or video recorders on their cell phones. While searching YouTube, I happened upon a series of video conversations by a St. Louis sister who goes by the online name of SmokeBreak314. Several of her vlogs were about Michael Brown and what was going down in Ferguson. It was from listening to her that I found out that during the tumult, many area residents had their cable news channels cut off, or, as she put it "scrambled." She and her friends could get the Disney channel, but all the news channels—like CNN and MSNBC—were "unavailable." I didn't see this reported. I continued to listen, and she rapped about the history of racial neighborhood divisions in St. Louis, and the move of blacks into suburban counties.
She said, "As black people started seeing economic growth, we started moving into the North. As we gradually trickled into those areas, the white people moved further north."
She goes on to describe her family moving out of the city of St. Louis.
"My family moved to unincorporated North County in the mid '70s," she said. "We moved to North County in the summer time—we moved to a nice little suburb ….The summer we moved in, there was white people all around us … By the time school started, all of those white people was gone."
A perfect description of white flight.
"We've all shifted. As they shift, we shift," she says, describing how as whites move out blacks move in, and when blacks expand yet again into white suburban areas, the whites continue to flee. This is the story of Ferguson. She talks of the schools, and the school Michael Brown attended.
Give her a listen.
As Sister SmokeBreak asks, "Can this just be the last time?"
I wonder. How many more young black men do we have to see mowed down by police or police wannabes?
I concur with her chiding of the police she gives voice to. "How are you gonna try to dictate to me in my neighborhood? You are the guest. I live here. This is my domain."
As long as we have no political power in our own communities, these "incidents" will continue. I hope as Ferguson moves out of the nightmare of tear-gassed occupation into the next phase of pursuing justice—in the courtroom—that activists and citizens in the area will also redouble efforts to protest with their ballots and get more people registered and organized to vote.
To paraphrase Rev. William Barber, "if they ever needed to vote, they sure do need to vote now!"