The Longest Day

The Fairgrounds Park race riot of 1949 has been forgotten, just as racism in St. Louis continues to be denied

Shortly before 9 p.m. the crowd spread out in an extended 'company front,' stretching from west to east, and moved on the run northward to Kossuth Avenue as another shout went up that a Negro had been seen near Kossuth....

A reporter who reached the scene almost with the crowd found another Negro being attacked from all sides. He was beaten on a sidewalk leading to a residence in the 3700 block of Kossuth. Pushed, shoved, kicked, struck with clubs, he finally sought refuge on a porch. He was rescued by the police and taken to Homer G. Phillips Hospital.

As police drove off with the man there were numerous expressions of amazement from the crowd that he could live after the punishment he had received. "Why I kicked him twice in the head myself," a 16-year-old boy remarked, incredulously.

Through scratched microfiche, that desperate man is illuminated dully, standing on that porch, his shirt stained darkly by his own blood. The white mob stands in the foreground, their backs to the viewer, ready to inflict greater harm.

The night was June 21, 1949. The account comes from a newspaper that no longer exists, the St. Louis Star-Times. The place is Fairgrounds Park in North St. Louis, the scene of a race riot that has been erased from the city's collective memory.

One of the myths of St. Louis is that it never went through the crucible of violence that other cities suffered in the death throes of Jim Crow. John Berg, the austere, silver-haired bartender at Dressel's Pub, witnessed the riot as a boy of 9. Now, on those rare occasions when he brings it up, St. Louisans look at him skeptically: It was never that bad here, was it?

It is so easy to forget, or disbelieve, that on one night as many as 4,000 to 5,000 whites roamed the grounds of their park, assaulting any African-American unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. As the myth goes, it wasn't as if this were Alabama or Mississippi.

So, too, St. Louisans cling to a myth of the present. Mary Seematter, who teaches a course on the history of African-Americans in St. Louis for Washington University, describes the city's complacency. "People in St. Louis really like to believe that we're pretty decent about race relations," she says wryly. "'We've made a few mistakes, but we've tried real hard to do something about it.' We're very, very good in this city at studying things and talking about them and saying many of the right things."

Racism has deep roots in this city. In 1916, white citizens, by a 3-to-1 margin, passed a referendum to keep black citizens in their place, segregated in a growing urban ghetto down by the river. In 1917, in East St. Louis, whites killed blacks in one of the most violent race riots in this nation's history.

By the middle of the century, as the African-American population of St. Louis grew by an astounding 234 percent, St. Louis was one of the most segregated cities in America. "In 1945," write Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain in Stepping Over the Color Line: African-American Students in White Suburban Schools, which explores the history of racism in St. Louis, "blacks comprised 13 percent of the population in the City of St. Louis, but they had access to only 7 percent of the housing stock."

A landmark Supreme Court decision -- Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948 -- worked to break the pattern of residential segregation in St. Louis, prohibiting the enforcement of restrictive covenants, contracts between white homeowners and neighborhood associations agreeing never to sell to black families.

Some cause-and-effect relationships are too obvious to see, but once African-Americans were able to move into white neighborhoods, the whites vacated the city. Although white folks like to tell themselves it was about better schools, a bigger house and a bigger yard, since 1950, when the city's population peaked, St. Louis has lost half-a-million people, and they left as the black folks started moving in.

Where there's a problem in St. Louis, there's a report, or miles of reports. There have been plenty of them on race: reports from the Mayor's Interracial Committee and the Urban League in the 1940s; the Human Development Corp. in the 1960s; the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Rand Corp. in the 1970s; the Community Advisory Committee in the 1980s; St. Louis 2004 in the 1990s -- and many more.

You could stumble over reports written on race and St. Louis until you were exhausted, as if running a marathon that never ends. And every step of the way you would find a study followed by inaction.

You could find yet another committee, its name obscured by time, the St. Louis Council on Human Relations, and its report on "The Fairgrounds Park Incident" in 1949. George Schermer, a man from Detroit who served as the director and author of that report, won't be found in many history books. You could read his "indictment of this community," as one St. Louisan described the document after it was released.

You could read the result of the two-week investigation into "the actual course of events which caused some several hundred St. Louis citizens to momentarily lose their self-control and to engage in the brutal beating of a number of innocent and defenseless fellow citizens," which is how Schermer described his mission.

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