The Longest Day

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

Nigger isn't nigger anymore in St. Louis. The city has grown more sophisticated.

Race relations may have been "strained" -- as Bosley puts it -- back when white folks were taking 2-by-4's upside the heads of black folks, but those times were "not as bad as they are today. The racism is more subtle now," says Bosley. "Back in those days, the racism was physical, and nowadays the racism is more mental and economic, which is more harmful than it was back there. Somebody could take a lick and at least you knew who hit you."

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

The subtler racism of St. Louis is outlined in Wells and Crain's Stepping Over the Color Line. The transformation of North St. Louis into a poor, crime-ridden ghetto is shown to be directly related to the suburbanization of St. Louis County as it grew into a middle- and upper-middle-class white enclave. Whites suburbanized as blacks urbanized, goes the equation.

As George Schermer's report on the Fairgrounds Park race riot noted in 1949, the migration to the county was already taking place in the 1940s: "The older middle-class white families, as they improve their economic situation, are moving to the suburbs. The poorer immigrating, laboring class, a large part of which is Negro, is filling up the old housing which the whites are vacating,"

St. Louis County doubled in population from 1930-40. From 1935-40, 80 percent of new construction in the metropolitan area was being built outside the city.

In 1945, African-Americans accounted for 13 percent of the city's population. By 1957, 30 percent of St. Louis was African-American.

Whites moved out, and they had lots of help doing it. "It is, therefore, important to locate the foundation of today's white middle class in the post-World War II housing boom," Wells and Crain argue, "a boom from which blacks were systematically excluded."

Billions of dollars in low-interest home loans and federally insured mortgages built the suburbs. A pittance was spent on "urban renewal," with its notorious public-housing projects, such as Pruitt-Igoe. Few acknowledge the government handouts white people received to move to St. Charles. "Federal policies that fostered home ownership were race-specific," write Wells and Crain, "designed almost exclusively to benefit white families and exclude blacks."

The summer Fairgrounds Park ignited, the legislation to fund Pruitt-Igoe was moving through the Congress, backed by the Truman administration. Norman Seay, who became active with CORE in the 1940s and is now a special-projects coordinator at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, remembers, "When [Pruitt-Igoe] was constructed, I went there with my grandfather to watch them do the groundbreaking, because that was the panacea. We were going to live in good housing, and you had to know somebody to live in those areas."

Completed in 1954, Pruitt-Igoe was a vertical ghetto, with elevators that only stopped on three of its floors, no restrooms on the main floor and little play space for the thousands of children who lived there. In the supposed "slums" where African-Americans had lived previously -- which were destroyed for highway construction -- were the businesses that supplied the community.

But Pruitt-Igoe isolated its residents. "In order to have a community," says historian Mary Seematter, "you have to have a community with basic necessities: cleaners and hardware stores and grocery stores and drugstores and playgrounds -- these were not part of the plan. You put a bunch of poor people in situations where they don't have much alternative to what they are able to do.... " Her voice trails off toward the obvious.

The creation of the ghetto was profitable. Bosley describes the practice of blockbusting, which began after African-Americans were able to move outside formerly segregated zones. "What would happen," Bosley explains, "white speculators would come into neighborhoods where there were empty nests, when the children had grown up and had moved off and were out on their own. These white people were still in those neighborhoods; then, white speculators would say to these people, 'You better get out of here, because the niggers are coming,' and take their homes for little or nothing, sell it to black people for the highest interest rate that the law will allow, knowing good and well they left very little there for black people to be able to do repairs and to be able to keep up with that piece of property. All they wanted to do was make some money.

"The neighborhood started changing," Bosley recalls. "All the black people started moving in. There was a lot of white people on that block, and then white people started disappearing, almost like a domino effect. The next thing you look up, the whole neighborhood is black."

Insidious a practice as blockbusting was, Wells and Crain observe, it "would not have proved nearly as profitable had whites not been so resistant to having black neighbors."

Two hundred and fifty million federal dollars was spent building highways white people now use to drive from county to city without passing through poor neighborhoods, the old neighborhoods they abandoned. To make way for this highway construction, 36,000 homes were demolished, which forced thousands of poor families, the vast majority of them African-American, to relocate.

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