The Longest Day

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

The battle for civil rights did not begin with Martin Luther King Jr. or the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1947, CORE formed in St. Louis, only the second chapter in the nation after Chicago's. Maggie Dagen says with some chagrin that even though St. Louis CORE held sit-ins at the downtown Woolworth's in the late 1940s, it's the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., that is exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution. The Greensboro protest took place more than a decade later, in 1960.

CORE actions didn't make it into the three white-owned newspapers, however, for fear that press coverage might increase racial tensions. It was the black-owned St. Louis Argus that reported the stories the others feared to publish.

Even though a "civil-rights movement" had yet to be acknowledged, O'Toole had to be aware of the frustrations of the African-Americans and the fears of whites. However seriously O'Toole considered the actions in Webster Groves, he came to the conclusion that the city's public swimming pools could not legally remain segregated.

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

He decided this on Friday, June 17, 1949. In the days that followed, however, O'Toole failed to consult with parks staff or the city police on how to best proceed. All the police knew was what they read in the paper. "If the colored apply for admittance to a swimming facility," O'Toole told the Star-Times, "my order is to admit them. I can't lawfully refuse them. I'm not going to be a party to an unlawful gentlemen's agreement. I can't oppose anyone lawfully using a swimming pool. They are taxpayers and citizens, too."

O'Toole's announcement ran on the front page of all three daily newspapers and was broadcast over the radio waves on Tuesday, June 21.

Jim Wilson was 10 years old, and he was playing baseball in the street that day. It was the warmest day of the year so far, and in pre-air-conditioned St. Louis, families were outside.

Wilson remembers: "There was anticipation ahead of time there was going to be trouble."

The pool opened at 2 p.m. An estimated 40 African-American children swam in Fairgrounds Pool in mid-afternoon, keeping to themselves, apart from the white children, without incident.

Within the hour, however, teenagers began to arrive, white adolescent males in T-shirts and jeans coming to protect their turf. They leaned against the fence surrounding the pool, jeering, shouting racial slurs. Before long, they were a mob of 200.

A 16-year-old African-American, Sherman Lee White, was also standing by the fence. Soon he was on the ground, beaten over the head with a pipe or stick, his injuries severe enough that he had to be admitted to Homer G. Phillips Hospital, a few blocks away.

The African-American boys in the pool looked out on a wall of hatred. After their swim, a custodian kept them together inside the changing rooms until all were dressed. The few police on the grounds came to escort the boys out of the park. The white mob followed. As the group crossed the broad park, a white boy would gain some nerve and dart past a policeman, strike an African-American boy, then return to the crowd. In this way they followed, like wolves beleaguering their prey.

The nightmare was happening -- the nightmare that caused the whites of North St. Louis to flee the city, the nightmare that, says Lee Tyson, "didn't let you sleep easy at night." In St. Louis' summer heat, blacks and whites crashed the racial borders to battle with fists and bats and clubs.

Four African-American men came to the pool and angrily demanded to see the manager. One of them told a policeman he was a war veteran. "If they want trouble, they can have it," he warned. "My kid brother just got beat up by some hoodlums.... If you want a race riot, you'll have one." It was around 4:30 in the afternoon.

The pool closed at 5 p.m., to be reopened again for evening swimming at 7 p.m. On De Soto, Jim Wilson was still playing ball. He remembers, "like it was yesterday," a rumor spreading in his neighborhood that "blacks were coming over Vandeventer Avenue in trucks. The bigger kids grabbed baseball bats, and there was movement of people running toward Fairgrounds Park."

John Berg, 9 years old, was playing in the park with his father. He describes a surreal scene: thousands of whites streaming into the park, many clutching baseball bats. Along Natural Bridge, teenagers ripped limbs from trees to use as clubs.

An African-American boy was surrounded. One of the whites took a 2-by-4, one end carved into a handle, and smacked the boy's head like a baseball. Berg was sure the boy had been killed.

The juncture between dream and memory is a frail one, but on the list of injured was 15-year-old Samuel Williams, admitted to Homer G. Phillips with a possible skull fracture. Williams could have been the boy Berg saw assaulted.

"I remember," recalls Bosley, "my [future] wife [Marjorie], who did not live very far from there, she lived over on Whittier, went home and got a knife and came back." She and her sister, Gloria Reeves, were stopped by police. Reeves carried a hammer. The girls spent some time at the police station until their parents arrived. Today, Reeves laughs, "We got a whuppin' when we got home."

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