The Longest Day

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

And what you'd find there would be an assessment of race relations in 1949 that remains true in 2002. You can look on a forgotten race riot from more than a half-century ago and see how it exposes the racial nightmare St. Louis continues to experience and continues to deny.Whites seldom venture beyond Delmar Boulevard into North St. Louis. A drive up Grand Boulevard leads into neighborhoods where almost all the faces are black -- an area of the city where, if whites do find themselves, they check to see that their car doors are securely locked. Blocks of buildings are burned out and crumbling into mounds for the brick-pickers to recover. Homes with broad porches and well-kept yards and backyard gardens stand proudly against the scars of time and indifference. Tax credits don't make their way into North St. Louis as they do to aid in the redevelopment of other parts of the city.

Expansive Fairgrounds Park is bordered by Grand Boulevard to the east, Kossuth Avenue to the north and Natural Bridge Road to the south. A fishing pond stocked with catfish and carp meanders along the park's west side. The maintenance shack is a garish pink building where the sounds of R&B are playing. There are tennis and basketball courts, baseball diamonds, new playground equipment with a swing set. A swimming-pool facility is set directly across from Beaumont High School, where, as classes let out in the afternoon, waves of teenagers emerge and start heading for home. Some walk by a small pink house on a corner lot, "WAKE UP BLACK PEOPLE!" spray-painted on its side.

Last summer, a series of killings here -- black-on-black violence that is paid little mind in St. Louis -- turned Fairgrounds Park into yet another symbol of racial fear.

Craig LaRotonda

Whites who may have taken a wrong turn on their way back to the county can tell themselves they have nothing to do with this. It's easier to blame the poor for their poverty.

But in 1949, the teenagers running from Beaumont were all white, a European ethnic mix, "a lunchpail neighborhood," recalls Jim Wilson, a retired lawyer and former city official who grew up on De Soto Avenue.

And just as whites rarely venture into this neighborhood today, the African-American population of St. Louis infrequently crossed the racial borders of the 1940s. Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr., who grew up in the Ville neighborhood, describes how fiercely those borders were protected: "I do remember that if you ever crossed St. Louis Avenue, boy, the white kids would whip your butt and run you back over into your neighborhood."

Rolland Erbar, retired and living in Spanish Lake, remembers that a white boy got similar treatment crossing from the other side: "I had a couple friends back there, years ago, when we were going to school. They lived on the other side of Cass Avenue, and I'd go over there, and I damn near had to fight my way back every time. They'd kick you in the butt and everything until you got to Cass Avenue. If you got across Cass Avenue, they wouldn't cross Cass."

On his own turf, Erbar and his white teenage friends could enjoy the Fairgrounds Park pool through St. Louis' notoriously sweltering summers. "At that time, we always went up there and went swimming," he remembers. "It's the only place to go."

The pool that now sits across from Beaumont would easily have fit inside the pool in which Erbar and his friends swam. Built in 1904, the Fairgrounds Park swimming pool was one of the largest in the Midwest. Don Clooney, who practices law in St. Louis, was the head lifeguard there in 1949, when he was 19. The pool was so large that it took 16 lifeguards to patrol it.

"The unfortunate part about that swimming complex was that when they came in, they had to stand in bullpens, which was hot sand," Clooney recalls. "We used to have, at the peak of the use of that pool, we would have almost 1,500 to 2,000 people come in every 45 minutes, and they would just go through showers to get sand off their feet. It was the most uncleanly situation you've ever seen in your life. You know how we put the chlorine in there? We would mix the chlorine [in machines like cement mixers], it was so concentrated, and pour it in the sides. The only way we could get it going was to get kids going in a circle to circulate the chlorine. Some of their suits would come out white."

The idea of integrating swimming pools incited racial fears in the 1940s. Maggie Dagen, who with her husband, Irv Dagen, founded the St. Louis branch of the Committee of Racial Equality in 1947, jokes, "After all, you and I know that [color] runs, and you might get stained."

Dagen -- whose Victory Without Violence: The First Ten Years of the St. Louis Committee of Racial Equality (CORE), 1947-1957, co-written with Mary Kimbrough, is a valuable record of the early years of civil-rights actions in the city -- accurately describes the irrationality segregation inspired: Get in the pool, and the water touching you is the same water touching everyone else. A black in the pool made it unclean, miscegenetic.

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