The Longest Day

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

In the summer of '49, racial violence flared in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Youngstown, Ohio, when African-Americans entered public pools. But none of those skirmishes came close to the cataclysm that took place at Fairgrounds Park, nor did any other capture national and international attention.

Life magazine devoted two pages to the riot in its July 4, 1949, issue, including a full-page photo of an African-American being savagely kicked by a group of whites. Barely on his knees, he holds his head in agony, his mouth open. The teenagers surround him, grinning as if they're having the night of their lives.

"In St. Louis, where the Dred Scott case was tried, the cause of racial tolerance seemed to be looking up last week," the Life article begins. "A Negro police judge took office for the first time, and the Post-Dispatch hired its first Negro reporter. But when the city opened all its swimming pools to Negroes on June 21 for the first time in history, progress stopped. That afternoon police had to escort 40 Negro swimmers through a wall of 200 sullen whites at the Fairgrounds Park pool. After nightfall bands of white hoodlums took after any Negroes found anywhere near the park, beating and kicking them. It was 2 a.m. before police got things under control. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but 15 persons were hospitalized, 10 of them Negroes. It was St. Louis' first serious race riot, and it underscored the inflexibility of the color-line barrier.... Mayor Joseph Darst quickly took what for practical reasons was perhaps the only possible action. Segregation was restored in St. Louis swimming pools."

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

John O'Toole, the director of public welfare, got his job the way politicos still do: He helped the mayor get elected, serving as campaign manager for Democrat Joseph Darst in 1948. Today, if Darst is remembered at all it's because his named was affixed to the Darst-Webbe housing project, which was razed ignominiously a couple of years ago.

However O'Toole's position figured in the spoils of party politics, he could not have foreseen the enormous responsibilities of his job. It wasn't too long before the director of parks and recreation, with the unfortunately assonant name of Palmer Baumers, began asking his new boss what he was going to do about the pools.

Baumers was one of those City Hall lifers -- they're still there -- who worked to maintain the status quo. But that had grown increasingly difficult in postwar St. Louis. In 1946, African-Americans succeeded in forcing the integration of Buder Park after a series of protests. In the wake of their achievement, a cross was burned on the park grounds.

In previous summers, pickets had appeared at Fairgounds Park, protesting the segregation of the pool. Federal law did not support segregation of public facilities, yet St. Louis chose to neglect such directives.

Had O'Toole met with Lee Tyson back in 1949, he might have put more care into his decision-making process. But in St. Louis in 1949, there was little chance for O'Toole and Tyson to meet.

Tyson punctuates his sentences with "This is the way it was. I'm not lying" and "You wouldn't know it, because you're white and you didn't have the experience."

Tyson moved up from Memphis during the Depression, joined the Army during World War II and returned, a veteran, to Jim Crow St. Louis: "You be away from the thing for two-and-a-half years, you forget what it's all about, you know. You got all those good ideas -- you're fighting for your country, this is your country and blah, blah, blah."

In 1946 or 1947, Tyson says, an incident caused more "ill feelings that never went away" around Fairgrounds Park.

An African-American cab driver, Eddie Smith, thought it was foolish to take the long way home one day after dropping off a fare on North Broadway. He chose to cut through the park, along Vandeventer Avenue. "They just stopped the car and beat him up," says Tyson. "This happened.

"The word got around: 'Man, they just beat up a black fellow.' I didn't know it was Eddie Smith, but we just got together and we were gone. Myself, my brother and some more dudes, we got our guns and ammunition. We were going over, and this was it. This was war. We knew what war was, so that's what it was going to be."

He remembers seeing every African-American policeman on the force that day, talking him and his friends down. Across the street, white policemen were doing the same, encouraging the whites who had assembled to calm down and go home.

The war didn't happen that day.

O'Toole remained noncommittal in response to Baumer's queries until the weekend before public pools officially opened in the city -- the first day of summer, the longest day of the year -- June 21.

Even if O'Toole was unaware of the standoff that had taken place a couple of years before, he would have known of an event that occurred just the week before, when African-Americans were turned away from a public pool in Webster Groves. In the early civil-rights struggles of the time, such an action meant there would be further protests, legal battles or both.

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