The Kings of Kingshighway

The Roberts brothers fight to bring back life to north St. Louis

"The question is: Can the private sector, banks and private developers, local residents and the city work to bring an entire neighborhood back together comprehensively -- not just tearing down a building here and there?" Steve Roberts asks. "We have to expand the horizon. If we don't do this, if we don't encourage people to open their perspectives, then frankly, it may never get done."

The north St. Louis boyhood home of Mike and Steve Roberts still stands at 4641 Vernon Avenue, a red-brick two-story flat with burglar bars on its front door. Trash collects on the vacant lot across the street from the rental home and junk cars fill a neighbor's backyard.

Victor and Delores Roberts still live in the north St. 
Louis ranch home they moved into in 1958. The 
brothers credit their success to their parents.
Jennifer Silverberg
Victor and Delores Roberts still live in the north St. Louis ranch home they moved into in 1958. The brothers credit their success to their parents.
Mike and Steve Roberts study plans for the $17 million 
renovation of the Mayfair Hotel, one block from the Old 
Post Office downtown.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike and Steve Roberts study plans for the $17 million renovation of the Mayfair Hotel, one block from the Old Post Office downtown.

From the beginning, the brothers were close, devoted to and protective of each other. Steve remembers sitting on a rocking horse inside their living room when he was three years old. Six-year-old Mike sensed something was wrong and pushed his little brother off and out of harm's way, just as the heavy plaster ceiling caved in. "I've been saving him ever since," Mike jokes.

When Steve smiles, which he does often, laugh lines form around his brown eyes and his face looks young, even though his hairline is retreating. His complexion is cinnamon, his build slim. He and Mike both stand six-foot-one, but Mike has broad shoulders, lighter skin, emerald-green eyes and a graceful white streak that parts his black hair on the right.

"When you look at pictures of the kids in my grandmother's side of the family, they are every size, shape and color of the spectrum," Steve says, explaining that his mother's ancestors were African, American Indian and white.

Just three months ago, on a business trip to Mississippi, the Roberts brothers learned that their father's grandfather was Wright Roberts, the son of an African woman and a white plantation owner. It seems that Wright inherited land from his white father and established a prominent family farm near West Point, Mississippi. He also was able to send his son, Squire Victor Roberts, to medical school. That son later moved to St. Louis during the 1920s, where he worked as a physician in the African-American neighborhood near Market and Jefferson.

In 1922 Dr. Roberts' son, Victor, was born in the Ville, a thriving African-American neighborhood northeast of Martin Luther King and Taylor. "We had doctors, lawyers, grocery stores, cleaners, taxi cabs," remembers 81-year-old Victor Roberts. "We couldn't go to Grand Avenue, to the movies or restaurants, but we had all that in our neighborhood -- bowling, dance halls, the YMCA. Everybody worked together and lived next to each other -- janitors and teachers and doctors."

After his father died, Victor went to work for the U.S. Postal Service before joining the 92nd Infantry Division, one of only two African-American infantry units in World War II. When he returned from Europe, he married Delores Talley, whose family had migrated to St. Louis from the Missouri boot heel.

"We were pretty much sheltered as a middle-class African-American family," Mike explains. "We were taught traditional work habits and values. We were altar boys in the Episcopal Church."

Delores made sure her children were exposed to the arts and cultural activities. Steve remembers being dragged out of bed on Saturday mornings to take science classes at Oak Knoll Park in Clayton and trying out for a play in the dead of winter at the American Theatre. "We were never bored," Mike says, "because Mom would always have some interesting project for us to do."

The Roberts family lived with Victor's mother in the two-family home on Vernon until their third son, Mark, was born in 1958. They then moved to a new, segregated neighborhood of fourteen ranch-style houses that had just been built northeast of Natural Bridge Road and North Kingshighway. Everyone who lived in the houses surrounding the new subdivision was white.

"That's the first time I knew I was even black," Steve recalls. "One time I was playing baseball with these kids who were white. We were in my backyard and there was this big redneck-looking guy who came out of this four-family flat behind our home.

"He comes out and grabs his son and says, 'You can't play with him because he's a nigger.' I didn't even know what a nigger was at six years old."

Steve went inside and asked his mom. "She told me how when she was a kid, she and her friends would go to the Fox Theatre with her sister, who was darker, and she couldn't get in. But my mom was fair-complected, so she would beat the system by sneaking in without them knowing. This was the first time I realized that there was a discrepancy in the way citizens of this country were treated."

As more middle-class black families moved to the tidy new neighborhood, whites began moving out. "They block-busted the place," Mike explains. "The realtors courted white people, saying, 'You have black people in the neighborhood, your prices are going to go down.'

"And as a result, they ran at cheap prices and these Realtors would pick up the properties and turn around and sell them to black families for a lot more than they paid for them."

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