"You expected to die and have your funeral at St. Rita," says Phyllis Hoerchler, a parishioner since the 1960s. "I know that doesn't sound pleasant, but you did."

The city incorporated in 1941, and within the decade Missouri's residual Jim Crow housing laws and real estate practices that limited African American homeownership to certain parts of St. Louis were challenged and defeated. With a more open real estate market and a rapidly growing black middle class, north county towns like Vinita Park were attractive to young African American families looking to leave the city.

Alma Druhe, who was born in Vinita Park in the late '20s, remembers when the first black family moved in on her block in the early 1960s.

Richard Aites and Scot Haywood say they lost their jobs with the Vinita Park Police Department because they are white.
Jennifer Silverberg
Richard Aites and Scot Haywood say they lost their jobs with the Vinita Park Police Department because they are white.

"Some of my best friends moved away because blacks were moving in," Druhe recalls. "I remember a good friend saying, 'What do you think about all the blacks moving in?' I said, 'I think I'm going to have to start dressing up. They're dressing better than I do.'"

The same story was playing out all over north county, says Terry Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. "When black suburbanization starts — over a ten- to twenty-year period, municipalities were going from all white to all African American. The list of cities is a long one."

So-called white flight contributed to the shift in demographics, as did the growing numbers of whites who simply no longer wanted to move in. For Vinita Park, a major contributing factor was the closure of St. Rita's school in 1989. Without a means to attract new young families, there was no one to replace the aging generation of white homeowners.

"Many of our parishioners have died. We are a gray-haired community," says Sharon Jordan, St. Rita's secretary for the past fifteen years. "Young people don't want to live in a house with one bathroom. They want more. There are no stores, there's no shopping. They want to move west. "

The 2000 U.S. Census marked the first time that blacks outnumbered whites in Vinita Park. Today the town is 65 percent African American.

So when some voters looked at their choices for mayor in the 2010 mayoral election — Virginia Bira, a white woman in her late 70s, or James McGee, a black man promising "change" — they were looking at a direct reflection of 60 years worth of larger economic and societal forces at work in north St. Louis County.

"I think she had her moment. This is the 21st century," one long-time resident says of Bira, who was first elected mayor in 1984. "You got to change with the times. You got to be fair."

"Change" came to the Vinita Park Police Department in a wave of terminations.

Many people expected to see McGee — a former Pagedale police officer himself — clean house as soon as he took office, but for the first year things were relatively quiet. At the time, the Vinita Park Police Department had eight white, one Chinese and four black officers and was headed by a white police chief, Richard Fairman.

"[McGee] was really cool and calm to begin with: Called us in, told us everyone's keeping their jobs, he's a fair man," recalls former detective sergeant Scot Haywood.

But the April 2011 elections reconfigured the racial makeup of the six-member board of aldermen, unseating two of the town's four white office holders and replacing them with African Americans who were very supportive of the mayor. One of the incumbent aldermen, Celeste McGee, who was first elected in 2000, is the mayor's wife.

Some residents believe the McGees handpicked the newcomers to run in the tiny ward elections, where victory is often determined by just a handful of votes. They're likewise quick to point out that while the mayor's role in city government is limited — he only casts a vote in the event of a tie among the six aldermen — hiring and firing decisions are made by the board.

"He had it all in his favor, so whatever he wants now, he gets," says former Vinita Park police officer Thomas Atchison. "They cleaned house, pretty much."

The culling commenced when the board voted not to reappoint two white department heads: Police Chief Fairman and Patrick Godfrey, director of public works. In both instances, the aldermen installed African American replacements days later.

A month after that, the board terminated three non-black police officers, including Haywood, in one swing of the aldermanic ax. Two white officers, one of them Atchison, subsequently resigned. Another was fired, and two left for police departments in other municipalities.

In May 2012, five former members of the Vinita Park police filed suit against the city, alleging race discrimination and retaliation.

"Plaintiffs were systematically discharged by Defendant over a three month period, beginning in May of 2011. The evidence shows a pattern and practice of Defendant creating pre-textual reasons to terminate non-African American officers," reads the complaint, which St. Louis-based attorneys Kevin Dolley and Ryan Mielcarek filed on the officers' behalf.

By contrast, the plaintiffs alleged, African American officers were spared discipline for things like shopping at department stores, failing to respond to radio calls, sleeping or watching pornography on squad-room computers while on duty.

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