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 press reports of the riot, the Star-Times' coverage stands out. One of the paper's scribes came upon two middle-aged white men as they held the attention of a group of 15 white boys, none older than 14.

"You want to know how to take care of them niggers?" the older man exhorted the youths. "Get bricks and smash their heads, the dirty, filthy _____." The reporter omitted the expletive.

"Kill a nigger and make a name for yourself," the other man said. "Kill the black bastards."

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

The white ethnic mix of North St. Louis began to converge on Natural Bridge Road. A Star-Times photo shows mothers carrying their infant children along as if there was no way they were going to miss the excitement. Teenagers roamed with baseball bats and broomsticks. A 65-year-old woman patrolled the park with a junior-sized baseball bat. The scene held the intensity of a mythic last stand.

Teenagers huddled around the pool as 7 p.m. approached. "This is a waiting party. Waiting until it gets dark," a reporter overheard one of them say.

"I'll kill the bastards," another boy replied.

Suddenly a shout rose up from the crowd: "There's some niggers!"

Like a vengeful wave, the crowd surged from the east to the south side of the pool, encircling three African-American boys. One of the boys pulled a knife.

A rain of blows fell on him. Clubs, bats, sticks, fists battered his body. He fell. A policeman tried to come between the mob and the boy, but he fell as well, landing on top of the boy he was trying to protect.

The whites kept kicking the boy as he lay on the ground.

His friends were receiving their own punishment.

An African-American man got off the streetcar at Natural Bridge and Grand. By the time his feet touched the street, he was being beaten.

Twelve policemen were attempting to quell a mob of thousands.

A cry went up: A white boy lay bleeding, stabbed by a black. The rumor spread that he was dead.

Don Clooney, the head lifeguard, stood inside the fence surrounding the pool. "This was the first time in my life that I saw how quickly a crowd could be roused up into a frenzy," he recalls. "It was scary. I'll always remember how spontaneous it was, how mob psychology can just catch on fire so quickly."

Clooney watched in horror as the three African-Americans approached the pool, walking beside the fence along Natural Bridge. "They must have come from Cass Avenue and walked down Vandeventer," he recalls.

"They got viciously beat up. A knife came out. It was so fast. I think one of the white boys was stabbed. I saw him lunging forward. Then I saw someone come forward with a bat and hit the black assailant, and they all started jumping on top of him." There were hundreds of whites, mostly teenagers, he says, and only the three blacks. "And they had their backs to the fence. I was standing right in back of them. It happened so quickly, and so spontaneous. Somebody made a lunge -- I couldn't blame anybody for protecting himself. I hated to see that knife come out."

Rolland Erbar, 20 years old, lay on the ground, bleeding. A Life magazine photo shows him on his back, a crowd encircling him.

Erbar was the most severely injured in the riot. From his home in Spanish Lake, he recalls the stabbing.

Working as a cement finisher in 1949, he says, the assault "put me out of work for about six, eight weeks. I was in the hospital seven days. They operated on me and opened me up all the way from my solar plexus down to about my kidney, to patch that up, you know.

"It was before anybody really was thinking much about segregation, you know. And we was all young and dumb, you know. We all thought it was our own thing and they was infringing on it. It was a different time, different place. Things entirely different today.

"Well, not really. Some cases, they are. Some cases, they aren't. I know a lot of the younger ones -- I don't have any young ones in school -- but they say it's pretty rough. I've been out here [Spanish Lake] for about 35 years. All the people that I moved in here with 35 years ago got young ones and moved out -- not on account of the neighborhood so much as it was the schools. A lot of aggravation there in school, I guess, tension and everything, which echoes on both sides, you know. Everybody is trying to stay out of problems, I guess.

"I don't know if there's much I can tell you, except that it was a hell of a time and we was all young and dumb. I don't think anybody got killed, but a lot of them got their head split -- a few cuts. Everybody was thinking they were doing the right thing at the time, you know.

"I hope it's straightening out. I think it's going to take a few years. Maybe the older generation got to die off or something," Erbar laughs. "It's not so much that you are really prejudiced as it was the way we were raised. The old-timers, the guys when I started to work, the guys were 45 and 50 years old, and I was only 17. They all had their own way of thinking. Nigger was nigger, you know."

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