Facing History and Ourselves
Tabscott, Robert, St. Louis Journalism Review
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore, And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over, Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags, Like a heavy load. Or does it explode? --Langston Hughes
On the Sunday following the tragedy at the Kirkwood City Hall, I attended a service at the local Presbyterian church on Adams Avenue. There was a dignified silence, a solemnization of grief. The minister spoke softly, "We must not close this wound too quickly ... We must love our neighbors as ourselves. It will take time for us to heal, and we must listen and learn from each other. We must eat our grief."
Following the service, I drove to a small church on Attucks Street in Meacham Park. The road is named for the first black patriot to die at the Boston Massacre in 1770.
I had spoken to the congregation on previous occasions observing Black History Month. I was the only white person in the audience, "I hope you understand," I said to the minister, "I had to come."
Not much was said about the tragic events that had occurred the previous week, but everyone was aware that the world had changed for them, and a dark cloud hung over the entire city of Kirkwood.
There was a lot of praying and singing, "Have your way Lord," someone offered "cause we need you here."
The choir sang: "I've grown up on the rough side of the mountain, and I'm doin' the best that I can do."
Later they offered an old hymn written by a former slave ship captain in the 19th century that has a universal appeal:
"Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found; blind, but now I see."
Just down the street from the church a flag was at half-mast at the home of Charles Thornton. Silent visitors had left mementos of flowers and stuffed animals on the lawn. The day was bright and calm, and I realized that I had straddled two worlds.
I have spent three decades researching the divide between Meacham Park, an impoverished black enclave, and Kirkwood, the comfortable, prosperous, mostly white suburb that annexed the Park 16 years ago.
There were pockets of blacks in Kirkwood since the early years; most of these residents worked as domestics and hired hands. The Park settlement took root in 1892 when developer Elzey E. Meacham bought up about 160 acres and sold lots, some as narrow as 25 feet, for an average of $15. The lots were affordable, and blacks bought most of them to build small homes.
The Park lies like a beached whale between Interstate 44 and Big Bend Boulevard, in a corridor that connects Webster Groves and Kirkwood. It had been considered prime real estate by developers and as the poor neighbor that detracted from Kirkwood's affluent image.
Meacham Park has long been a suburban stepchild with substandard sewer and water service. It was not until 1997 that the Metropolitan Sewer District extended its services into the community. Police protection was under the surveillance of St. Louis County, and fires were fought, if they were fought at all, by surrounding jurisdictions. It remained an unincorporated part of St. Louis County until 1992 when voters in Kirkwood and Meacham Park voted for incorporation into the city limits.
The Meacham Park Redevelopment Plan was approved in 1994, using Tax Increment Financing for new commercial and residential development. Change was under way for a place that had resisted urbanization. Sixty-two homeowners had to relocate to make way for new homes, condos, Lowe's, Wad-Mart and Target. Even so, deep in the minds of most whites, Meacham Park was a place to stay out of.
If there are any answers to the tragedy that occurred in Kirkwood, it will help to understand the history of African Americans, who many whites still regard as second-class citizens. …