AFRICAN   AMERICANS   IN   ST.  LOUIS

 

First of all, the matter of labels: the polite, politically and culturally acceptable term in 1910 was Negro. In some writings, it was capitalized, but in others, including newspapers, it was lower case. Booker T. Washington said, in 1906, that he capitalized the word. The newspapers began to do so by 1930, generally. See Online Etymology. That site also says that “Negro” was being replaced by “black” around 1960.  

 

“Colored” was also apparently acceptable and considered “nicer” by some folks, possibly white folks.  Some blacks in 1910 didn’t like the word “colored,” which was falling out of favor on a larger scale by mid-century.  

 

If you’re wondering, African-American isn’t attested until 1969 and didn’t become common as a substitute for "black" until about 1980.  There were similar words, like “Africo-American” used in the abolitionist literature of the 19th century in the US and “Afro-American” in Canadian writings in the mid-19th century.  There is a report in 1921 that “Aframerican” was used in the Negro press.  Again, see Online Etymology for these dates and words.

 

In my writing, I use negro, lower case, because it was the most common, certainly where one would see it most frequently written, in newspapers. Here, to keep to the spirit of 1910, I will use Negro, but it offends my own education not to capitalize the word.

 

In the 1910 census, there were 43,960 Negroes living in the City of St. Louis, up from 35,518 in 1900, and 28,895 in 1890.  That meant that the Negro population was about 6.3 to 6.4 % of the population in each of those years. That is certainly less than in the US as a whole, where the percentage in 1910 was 10.7%.  However, there was large variation across the state.  Some counties and towns had large Negro populations.  For example, Fulton is a town I mention frequently.  It is located in Callaway County, roughly halfway across the state as the Missouri River runs from Kansas City to St. Louis.  It is part of what some Missourians once called “Little Dixie” because of the large number of migrants from the South who had settled there in the early 19th century.  In 1910, there were 5,228 people in Fulton.  “Native-whites" accounted for 3,630, while there were 250 first generation whites, 214 foreign-born immigrants, and 1,134 Negroes. A much larger town, a small city at the time, was Joplin, in the southwest corner of the state.  (And my hometown.)  It had, in 1910, 32,073 people, of which 801 were Negro.  So, you see the large variation across the state of Missouri.  

 

Where did Negroes live in St. Louis? The following descriptions of neighborhoods comes from John Wright’s wonderful resource, Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites, by John A. Wright Sr. (In fact, Wright is the source for all sorts of good information on Negro history in St. Louis. Three “picture books” in the Black America Series are from Wright, one on African Americans in downtown St. Louis, one on the Ville, specifically, and one on disappearing black communities.) In 1910, Negroes were spread across parts of downtown St. Louis,  through the area known as the Mill Creek Valley, and in two neighborhoods northwest of central corridor that runs from the river to Forest Park.  Those neighborhoods were the Finney District and the Ville. The latter is the most famous of the neighborhoods, its residents likely being a bit more prosperous than the downtown Negroes.  The Ville was the home of a number of famous folks, including Rock and Roll Hall Fame legend Chuck Berry and a number of others who were nationally known in their day.

 

The Ville originally centered on a large plant nursery and was a mostly white neighborhood. Negroes moved there early in the century, but the big push came in the 1910s. There would have been fewer Negroes in the Ville in 1910, the year I use the neighborhood prominently in a novel, than a few years later.  But the neighborhood is so special that I couldn’t resist. And, 1910 was the year that Sumner High School moved to the Ville.

 

Sumner was the first Negro high school west of the Mississippi and featured a normal school that trained teachers. Whatever the original site of Sumner in downtown St. Louis must have looked like, the 1910—and current—site is surely better, clean and modern.

 

During the 1910s, housing segregation became an issue in St. Louis. In 1916 voters approved legal segregation. But the Ville’s legal covenant had no restrictions on sales to Negroes so that the neighborhood became the destination of choice for Negroes who could afford to move out of the slums of downtown. The Ville still exists as a neighborhood today, although many of its middle class residents moved on after housing segregation became illegal. Like middle class whites, those families were able to move west, sometimes beyond the St. Louis city limits. 

 

The slums were mostly in wards five and six downtown. See the section on neighborhoods.  The Finney District adjoined the Ville to the south. The other neighborhoods of interest were in the 16th, 17th, and 19th wards.  The Mill Creek Valley was largely in the 16th ward and was defined by 20th street and Grand, Olive Street and the railroad tracks to the south. There was indeed once a Mill Creek which had been dammed up to form Chouteau’s Pond in the early19th century and then drained. Here is part of Wright’s description:

 

Beginning in the 1950s, Mill Creek Valley was home to a large African American population. Along with the substantial housing and the cheap tenements that housed black laborers, the area supported Chestnut Valley, a thriving honky-tonk district along Chestnut and Market Streets near Twentieth. Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and other musicians played ragtime and jazz music at Thomas Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe and other nightspots. (page 22)

 

See the section The Tunes of 1910 for a discussion of Joplin and Turpin’s music.

 

Housing is one part of the answer to the question as to what life was like in St. Louis for Negroes in 1910.  The positive side is that Jim Crow wasn’t quite as pervasive in St. Louis as in some cities—in almost all cities further south. The negative side, of course, is that discrimination was still rampant, mostly particularly in the job market. Negroes were generally restricted, by common white consent, from getting good jobs.  While the Ville may have had the Negro physicians, teachers, and other professionals, most Negro men were laborers and many Negro women were laundresses and household help. 

 

Roy Wilkins, who headed up the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) beginning in 1955, was born in St. Louis, moving to Minnesota after his mother died.  He describes his parents’ arrival in St. Louis in 1900, in his autobiography Standing Fast. (1982, with Tom Mathews) This is so interesting that I quote it here, as presented in the book Ain’t But a Place: An Anthology of African American Writings about St. Louis, by Gerald Early. (Missouri Historical Society, 1998)  Wilkins is talking about his parents “escape” from Mississippi, as the young married couple arrive by train in St. Louis. 

 

The train deposited my parents in Union Station in St. Louis. . . . The first thing they did was set off to find the colored washroom. Much to their surprise, they couldn’t locate it. Puzzled, they then began to look for the colored waiting room. It was missing, too. Jim Crow had reached the schools, hotels, restaurants, and theaters of St. Louis, but hadn’t bothered with the railroad depot. The white people of the city still found it possible to share the soap, basins, and toilets at the train station with black folks. The change was small enough, but my father used to say that to him it looked like a miracle.  (page 65)

 

The young couple then try to make their way to an acquaintance’s house on Papin Street, find no help from a black janitor, but get travel assistance from an elderly white man, who leads them to a street car and gives the conductor directions on where to drop them off close to the address. Wilkins records his parents’ reaction to the “trolley.”

 

They climbed aboard the trolley and moved toward the rear, only to discover that  the car was full of black people sitting wherever they pleased. A few white people were sitting on the back seat. The strange sight made them laugh out loud. Mississippi was obviously a long way behind them.  (page 65)

 

However, when Wilkins’ father sought work, he “found out soon enough that St. Louis did indeed have a color line.  It began at the payroll office . . .”  The older Wilkins finally found work at a brick manufacturing across the river in East St. Louis, a low-paying job that strapped his strength and his morale.  (pages 65 and 66)  (Wilkins was born a year after their arrival.  When their mother died leaving three young children, the children were sent to Minnesota to live with their mother’s sister.)

 

Another look at life in St. Louis early in the century is from Gail Milissa Grant, who describes her parents’ and grandparents’ lives in early twentieth century St. Louis in At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family’s Journey Toward Civil Rights.  (2008 Missouri History Museum)  Grant’s father, aunt and uncles lived in a part of Mill Creek Valley that was mostly white around 1910, but were prohibited from attending the nearby white school. The school board gave them street car transfers to travel to a Negro school some distance away.  Grant also says that most Negroes in the early twentieth century lived in the northeast quadrant of St. Louis and hesitated to ride streetcar south of Chouteau, the dividing line between midtown St. Louis and the southside “although public transportation in St. Louis was never restricted by race.”  (Chapter One.)  So, it is possible that were perceived restrictions.  

 

Why Negroes in St. Louis were allowed to ride street cars while there were restrictions in so much of the country is due to a major turn of the century figure, Captain Charlton Tandy (1836 to 1919 and a captain in St. Louis’ Negro state militia unit during the Civil War.)  John Wright tells this story as he lists the location of Tandy’s home.

 

During the 1880s, he worked to enforce an 1867 court order allowing blacks to ride inside public transportation vehicles. To prevent drivers from passing up black passengers, he grabbed the reins and held the horse until passengers—black and white alike—were allowed to board.  Tandy was arrested for this action, but he was supported by Erastus Wells (1839-1944), the street-car line owner, who paid his fine and said that blacks should be permitted to sit anywhere on the streetcars.  (page 54 of Discovering African American St. Louis)

 

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