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By Allison Babka
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Echols remembers the lines of separation around town where the racial divide manifested itself.
"When I was a kid, we couldn't play on this end of the park," he says, pointing out the back window from his modest second-floor mayoral office. "They had one softball diamond back on the northwestern edge. That's where you were supposed to be. At one point in time, most of the black people in that region lived in the west Madison area, which is right next door to north Venice. They slowly began to creep into north Venice but were not allowed across Meredocia Street. That was the dividing line, that street. One of the gentlemen that built his house there, old man Cross, they burned it to the ground. I never did forget it.
"I had a lot of traumatic experiences here," he continues. "I've been black all my life and I never used it as an excuse, but there were a lot of things that were not quite so acceptable that happened because of it."
Venice began in the early 1800s as a tiny community of whites around a ferry landing from which floated skiffs and barges, carrying livestock and produce across the Mississippi River into St. Louis. In 1845, the town was named Venice because the streets were frequently flooded; no levee existed. It grew organically as heavy industry cropped up to the north and east, in Granite City and Madison, and by the turn of the century, Venice had become a small nexus for the railroads, the roads and the river traffic. It survived the first half of the century as a modestly prosperous river town of 4,000-5,000 people, most of them white.
Even in the pre-civil-rights days, black kids had some advantages, Echols says: "The school system is a classic example. Most of the teachers don't live here. When I was a kid coming up, most of them did; they actually owned homes here they had more input, they could vote, they paid taxes. They were part of the community. At 4 o'clock, your involvement didn't stop. Somehow, I think maybe the kids turned out better, you know? I'm almost 62 years old I never went to jail."
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the '70s, the color of Venice changed, same as in East St. Louis and other neighboring towns. Echols is matter-of-fact about it all. "People laugh at me when I say to them even at a City Council meeting or something and we start talking about being "a black town' I say white people make a town black," he says with a smile. "There was always a saying in the black community that when the white people run away from something you may as well run away from it, 'cause there's nothing in it. Well, strangely enough, that has come true there's nothing here to fight over.
"And I saw it as the numbers changed. It was 70-30 (percent) white, and I watched it as it did this, and this, and this, and now it is 90-10 black."
Though political power was welcomed in the black community, as men like Echols became the city's first black mayors, it also became apparent that white flight also meant green flight the money followed the whites out of town. The lucky black towns were the ones with some source of taxes and jobs in their midst refineries, stockyards, steel mills or power plants.
Because none of those have been growth industries in the last quarter of the century, the black towns in the Metro East have taken on other vices that whites won't allow in their neighborhoods but will nevertheless patronize: sex and gambling.
Brooklyn, the smaller, blacker southern neighbor of Venice, has strip joints and massage parlors ("Adult Entertainment! ATM Inside!") that help sustain the town. Echols and the Venice City Council have declined the role of host to the sex business. Farther south stands East St. Louis, itself on the brink of disincorporation 10 years ago but saved by the Casino Queen, at its waterfront, which pumps around $10 million a year into the city coffers, more than double all the city's other revenue sources.
Echols' morality may make him decline the offer to profit from sex, but gambling is another thing altogether. He even attempted to work with Granite City and Madison to get the license for a casino boat, but East St. Louis got it. He says, only half-jokingly, that cities like Venice ought to get a cut even 1 percent would be a lot from East St. Louis' share of the Casino Queen revenue: "God knows there's enough people in Venice that go down there and lose their money including me!"
Though Venice is part of the heavily industrialized "tri-cities" area with Granite City and Madison, it gets very little of the tax base or the jobs. Most of the industry is outside Venice, and most of the employees are whites from outside Venice.
Echols tells an anecdote about his own first attempt, at the age of 18, to apply for a job at the Dow Chemical plant in town. "I went out there, and the guy let me sit there and fill out the application, and with a smile on his face he tore it up right in front of me and let the pieces fall down into the trash can," he says.