Should I take my boyfriend's parents to East St. Louis?

Week of October 12, 2006

East St. Louis

Hey Joe: My boyfriend's parents are coming into town for a week. They've never been to St. Louis, and I'm trying to think of things to do with them. Any ideas? Would a trip to East St. Louis be worthwhile?

Sally O'Single, St. Louis

Being that blacks and whites are products of a so-called separate-but-equal society, it would be difficult for me to answer this question without some form of clarification. Based upon the way it is asked, I take for granted you are white. The reason being is that, historically, Missouri has been in the limelight as a so-called slave state. And seemingly you feel more comfortable about your boyfriend's parents coming to St. Louis, although you say they've never been there before. In reference to East St. Louis, because of it being predominately black, you seem to feel a bit doubtful about it.

However, prior to East St. Louis becoming a mostly black community, it was like any other city or town in both the North or South regarding treatment of blacks. Those in East St. Louis, who lived in areas called the "colored section," were forbidden to patronize white movies or hotels, couldn't patronize yellow cabs or, in short, anything that intermingled the two races. The only difference between the North and the South was that blacks in the South knew where they stood regarding public transportation and the like, but most places in the North, they had to guess. Politically, as far back as I can recall in East St. Louis, blacks could only get as high as precinct committeemen for both national parties. But it must be remembered that this city was the scene of the 1917 Race Riot.

During the '60s, however, when blacks started moving from the colored section into areas previously dominated by whites, "white flight" took place. By the time the city elected its first black mayor in the early 1970s, it was financially strapped. From this point on, it continued to spiral downward. Though at the time East St. Louis upheld the separate-but-equal law, other towns in Illinois, such as Anna, Red Bud and Granite City, had their own ways of dealing with blacks.

The name "Anna," it is said, is an abbreviation for "Ain't No Niggers Allowed!" In Red Bud, a sign was supposedly posted bearing the words, "Niggers, if you can! If you can't anyway!" Although blacks shopped and did domestic work in Granite City, they went there with the idea of not letting dark catch them there. Regarding the part of your question which asked if a trip to East St. Louis be worthwhile — well, East St. Louis would be just as worthwhile as St. Louis, because both have tourist attractions. Gateway Racetrack and the Casino Queen are both on the east side. In fact, one is located in East St. Louis and the other is partially located there. And don't overlook the golf course, which is located nearby in Madison, Illinois.

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn't know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman's Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry's most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they'd arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to [email protected]. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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