By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
"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.
"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.
So where are the ACLU? and the other do-gooders who would be swinging from the trees if it was all the black officers hat were fired? I guess in Osama's America white do NOT have civil rights.
As being that little girls mom and watching the things he done to her just to keep her job is horrible and the harrassment i went through after this came out because what people dont know is that it has been out in the opening for over a year and Vinita Park has been hiding it we have recorded this man on several occassions and we went to record him on something else and just so happen he started going on and on avoiding what we where talking about and went off onto to racial sayings and it doesnt matter if you are black,white,purple,blue he had no right to do what he did and its way more to this then what you are reading on here he has done worst and i pray for him because my daughter is mentally damaged after this all she wanted to do is work and take care of her son she didnt want to sleep with him and he kept forcing his self on her and when he seen it was working he started questioning her sexuality,really? His wife knows she sent text messages out to some people saying how they have to get rid of JaCola because if it gets out Mayor will be out and that means they will be out and how if another white person get in the city will go down I mean its so much to this that it will piss alot of people off the things this man has done is sad and people actually fear him but I didnt he kept telling me i need to let her grow up she is not my baby anymore I told him anybody that survived inside of me for 9months will always belong to me and be my baby. And to see a innocent girl that didnt want any problems and just wanted to work go through what she did is a pitiful shame. I can recall him kissing her on her forehead and she came home and wouldnt stop scrubbing her face, how she would cry and beg me to go talk to him, how she had to type letters for him firing the white people a month before he actually fired them, and trying to convince her that white people are no good and how the did blacks back in the days now we are talking a century ago and he just trying to get blacks on the same page. The man is really sick in the head.
This is so sad the Mayor needs to be out of office i know some people out there and they are scared of him because if you dont bide by his rules he puts your head on the chopping block and he has a mental problem what Mayor shows off a gun and says if someone pop at him i can only imagine what else comes out his mouth
I have to agree with dsn9 about retaining police officers that have been well trained. I live in Vinita Park and I am white. I inherited a house there two years ago and did not even see the Mayor 'till last summer when he drove past on his golf cart while I was doing yard work after two weeks of heavy rain. I went inside for a bit and when I came back outside, there was a ticket on my door for the grass. He saw me working in the yard.
What annoys me is that Mr. Mayor propositioned a young woman working at a city job. This is a big no-no in my book. I wonder what his wife thinks of that. Seems the Mayor may be trying to build up the community but is falling short. All I ever hear about is Normandy Schools being so wonderful. I wouldn't send my dog there let alone my kids. I have to drive mine to Maryland Heights to attend parochial school as my community falls short in that department. I have not had issues with police officers, but do strongly question the dismissal of so many that were doing a good job in the first place.
This Mayor did not think pass his ?? nose. Does he realize how
fortunate the City was to have officers that have stayed with Vinita Park for a long time.
I'm talking anywhere from five to almost twenty years, small municipalities usually see a big turnover of officers in their police departments, plus usually get officers that other cities have gotten rid of because they don't meet the standards, Kind of the bottom of the barrel type of cop.
The City of Vinita Park sent many of these dismissed officers to various schools over the years to make sure Vinita Park had the best of the best. So again, this Mayor and board totally disregarded the amount of money the city has paid out over the years to send their police officers to different schools.
These schools are not free, add the pay for the officer attending the school and the officer covering the first officer's shift.
I could go on and on about wasted money but the most important problem Vinita Park has, is electing people to a board of aldermen, who actually don't have a background in running a City, never went to a Municipal League Meeting to learn about the position they where elected for or know Roberts Rules of Order, who come in and take well educated, State of Missouri Certified in Law Enforcement Officers and fired them, causing these men to not have medical insurance for themselves and their family. The hardship financially on these men and their families, dismiss them because of the color of their skin.
I would like to see each person that voted for dismissal of these officers sued individually . In my opinion I take issue with the Mayor comparing himself to President Obama, unless one of his parents and his grandparents are Caucasian .
Just as nothing should be "all white" nothing should be "all black" either. Missouri needs to stop with the racial crap. It's old and has gotten this state nowhere. Diversity and education is the way to a better state. McGee sounds like he means well, just going about it the wrong way. Then again, St. Louis politicians are rather sneaky!