The Kings of Kingshighway

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

Like Victor and Delores Roberts, many middle-class black families stayed in the well-to-do neighborhoods of north St. Louis. But over the years, plenty of others moved to the suburbs, just as whites did in the 1960s.

Many feel the black middle-class migration was due largely to a misguided development plan dubbed the Team 4 Report, a city-sponsored consultant's study that advocated withholding city services from mostly African-American and low-income neighborhoods. The idea was to make living conditions so bad that black people would eventually move from the city.

Steve Roberts practices his stroke while his brother, 
Mike, gives him pointers on their private putting green 
inside their North Kingshighway corporate offices.
Jennifer Silverberg
Steve Roberts practices his stroke while his brother, Mike, gives him pointers on their private putting green inside their North Kingshighway corporate offices.
The Roberts want to revive the stately neighborhood 
around Fountain Park, just a few blocks north of the 
Central West End.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Roberts want to revive the stately neighborhood around Fountain Park, just a few blocks north of the Central West End.

On a summer morning in 1976, Mike and Steve Roberts were in New York City attending the Democratic National Convention as delegates from Missouri. Mike, who was Jimmy Carter's campaign manager in St. Louis, had recently become the first African American admitted to the Missouri Athletic Club, the swank downtown haunt of high-rolling attorneys. So when the Roberts brothers went to New York, they chose to stay at the nation's oldest and best Athletic Club.

Steve recalls going downstairs to the club's laundry to pick up his and Mike's shirts. The manager told him, "You make sure you go deliver them to these people directly. Don't lollygag or anything." Steve explained to the manager that the shirts were for himself and his brother, who was a member. "I don't believe you," Steve recalls the man saying.

He took the shirts and left. "Of course, we reported it later," he says. "Anytime we would get challenges like that, we'd bring it to the attention of the leadership of the organizations so it wouldn't happen again."

By then Mike was working as a lawyer on anti-discrimination cases with Margaret Bush Wilson, one of the first female African-American attorneys in Missouri and, at the time, the chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mike graduated from Northwest High School, St. Louis' first desegregated high school, in 1967, then went to Forest Park Community College where he met Virvus Jones. There the two young activists mourned the death of Martin Luther King Jr., marched against the Vietnam War, formed the Black Student Association and fought to bring black-studies programs to colleges. Later, they worked together in HOME (Help Other Men Emerge), a civil-rights organization that preached economic empowerment for black men.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mike graduated from law school at Saint Louis University in 1974 with the help of a grant from the Danforth Foundation and money he earned selling dashikis. Steve attended Clark College in Massachusetts and law school at Washington University as a Danforth scholar.

Fresh out of law school, the brothers launched a consulting firm that over the years has spearheaded increased minority participation in multimillion-dollar capital construction projects for Anheuser-Busch, Dulles and National airports in Washington, D.C., and Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

In 1974 Mike talked his dad into getting a $7,000 loan from the post office credit union to buy a house. He lived in it while he fixed it up, then resold it for a profit and started buying more properties.

He also flung himself into politics. In 1977, at the age of 26, Mike became the youngest person ever elected to the city's board of aldermen -- that is, until Steve was elected two years later at age 25.

As part of the Black Aldermanic Caucus in the early 1980s, Steve and Mike Roberts, Wayman Smith, Mike Jones and Virvus Jones wrote legislation that required contractors on city-funded projects to hire minority- and women-owned businesses. "Some of the large contractors certainly felt that was radical, that it was un-American, socialist," Steve remembers.

The Robertses also met the city's most powerful developers and learned how to use incentives such as tax-increment financing and tax abatements to lure investors. Steve sponsored redevelopment legislation for Union Station, St. Louis Center and Laclede's Landing.

"Had I not been on the board of aldermen, I would have never met these folks," Steve explains. "I didn't run in their social cadre. I didn't attend their country clubs."

It dismayed some members of the black community, however, when Steve in 1994 joined the board of the Veiled Prophet Fair at the urging of the late businessman Bill Maritz. Though the organization was integrated in 1979 and has since changed its name to Fair St. Louis, many blacks remember it for what it was: an all-white, all-male society of the super-rich. "Being inside an organization, you can influence change," Steve says of his decision to join.

Mike and Steve concede they've been criticized for "not being black enough." But the notion that light-skinned blacks faced less racism and received greater opportunities is "slave mentality," says Mike.

In January 1989, after a decade as an alderman, Mike Roberts decided to challenge incumbent Mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr. for the party's Democratic nomination. He narrowly lost the race, in part because former U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay Sr., the era's most powerful African-American politician, supported Schoemehl, who is white. The mayor had agreed to appoint Virvus Jones to the comptroller's job in exchange for Clay's nod.

In 1993, when Steve made his mayoral bid, Clay shunned him as well and threw his support to Freeman Bosley Jr. Steve lost in a landslide to Bosley, who became St. Louis' first black mayor.

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