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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
The woman in the black-and-white photograph is off to the right, head tilted, smiling. She’s leaning on the snack counter, her striped skirt reflected in the glass. You can see bottles of soda neatly stacked behind her, posters for Coca-Cola and Chesterfields, a cold meat case, bottles of pickles, candy jars.
Her name is Lillie Pearson. Her husband, Charlie, passed away in October, not long before the photo was taken. Charlie had worked at the steel foundry, she as a seamstress. A 33-year-old widow with six kids, Lillie lives on Third Street in Carondelet, near the river. She’d considered taking a well-paying job with the post office, praying about it because she didn’t want to be away from her kids. When her brother told her there were some men at the corner of Garrison and Sheridan avenues selling a failing grocery store, though, she withdrew $247 from savings, took the streetcar to North City, and bought the business outright. This store. Now it’s hers. Despite all of the sadness, that’s the reason for the smile. Three years later, in 1951, she’ll be doing so well, she’ll be able to buy the building at 1351 Sheridan. Eventually, she’ll purchase 1353 and 1349, too.
Forty years later, when Pearson’s rheumatoid arthritis makes it impossible for her to keep running the store, everyone in JeffVanderLou will know her as “Granny” or “Miss Tillie” (Tillie was actually her daughter Glendora’s nickname). By then, the buildings filled for so many decades by Pearson’s family and tenants will be known simply as Tillie’s Corner.
For years, Pearson fired up her station wagon at 2 a.m., drove to Produce Row to pick up vegetables, and opened the shop at 5 a.m. She stayed open till 11 p.m., to accommodate people coming home late from work.
First, she painted the walls bright blue; later, pink. She delivered groceries and extended credit, sometimes a full month out. Her kids and later her grandkids worked in the store, learning their figures by counting out change and stamping prices in purple ink on the tops of cans.
“Sweet potatoes, white potatoes—oh my Lord, you name it, she had it,” remembers Robenia Harris, who moved in around the corner with her family in 1957 and still lives in the same house. “Cabbage, salt pork—all of that kind of stuff. She would have the nicest pork steaks. She had T-bone steaks. She had the nicest meat, the nicest vegetables. Mustard greens, turnips, spinach…”
There were a lot of stores in the neighborhood then, Harris says. In the late ’50s, because she competed with small grocery stores and chains, Pearson had to stock the best stuff to “keep the neighbors satisfied.” But by the ’70s and ’80s, the neighborhood had emptied out. Shops shuttered; crime rose. (Tillie’s was robbed only once, in the 1970s. “It was four of them. I’m sort of glad I didn’t have my pistol,” Pearson once recalled. When the largest man hit her with a stick, she “threw cans at him, and all of ’em ran out.” She never pressed charges.) Pearson stayed—and continued to stock the nicest meat and vegetables—because she felt an obligation to her neighbors; nowhere else nearby sold good food.
Pearson became an informal neighborhood activist, volunteering for the Dunbar Elementary School PTA and the NAACP. She held quiet political sway—customers used to ask, “Well, what do you think, Miss Tillie?” She also fed and cared for local kids, hiring them to sweep gum wrappers off the sidewalk for pocket change. When Harris was working as a health aide at Barnes-Jewish Hospital (“back when it was just Jewish,” she says), Harris knew her son Duary was safe because he would go to Pearson’s.
“The reason I call her Granny is because when my baby was like 5 or 6, and was going to school right here at Dunbar, he’d play with her grandchildren,” she says. “She’d always tell him, ‘Now go home, and put on your play clothes, and then come back, and I’ll have your sandwich fixed for you.’ He said, ‘Mom, don’t call her Miss Tillie.’ I said, ‘Well, then what must I call her?’ And he said, ‘Call her Granny, ’cause she’s so good to me.’”
One of Pearson’s grandchildren was Carla Pearson Alexander, who until recently lived with her husband, Miguel, in the house along Sheridan Avenue where she grew up. She was raised on this block, helping her grandmother in the store.
“Miss Leatha, Mister Jeffrey, and Mister Harvey,” Alexander says, remembering the upstairs tenants. “Yep. We would get out of school, when I was in elementary school and part of high school, and there were trays on the kitchen table—she cooked for them! She’d lay out the lil’ green beans in a bowl…and we delivered the trays.”
Alexander and Granny were always close; the only time they were really apart was when Alexander went off to college in the ’80s. After Tillie’s closed in 1988, they talked of resurrecting the store, if not as a shop, then as a nonprofit. Granny jotted down notes, which Alexander still has: swings on a big lot, an after-school program for kids, “little bushes around the fence”…
Before Pearson’s death in 2006, at age 91, Alexander appealed to ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but the network never called back. “We tried a lot of stuff before Granny passed,” Alexander says. “We used to drive by, just so she could see how Tillie’s Corner was doing.”
Today, Alexander is determined to realize her grandmother’s vision. She imagines a tutoring center, a place to do history presentations, apartments for older tenants and caregivers. She and Miguel have been chipping away at tuck-pointing and roof reconstruction, but they don’t have the estimated $750,000 needed to fully restore the site.
Alexander’s tireless footwork led her to Sonia Lee, a professor at Washington University. Starting in 2010, Lee’s students spent two semesters combing through city directories and census records, as well as collecting oral histories from neighbors. Their work helped inform preservation specialist Karen Bode Baxter, who wrote the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the site, in the hope of getting tax credits to rehab the buildings. City and state review boards unanimously approved the nomination last summer. All that remained was federal approval.
On August 26, however, the southernmost building—which shares a wall with the building that once housed Tillie’s Food Shop—partially collapsed after a storm. “Between the time that it was presented to the advisory council on historic preservation for its formal review at the state level, that’s when the south town house started collapsing,” Baxter says. “So we had to make some adjustments to the original nomination.”
Alexander had already assembled a mini museum in her town house, with a mechanical slicer, bread trays, a gumball machine, an old-fashioned cash register, ice tongs, a rotary-dial phone. There was a curio case that held her grandmother’s sparkly cat-eye glasses, a box of Lady Esther face powder, NAACP buttons, the old skeleton key to the front door of Tillie’s Food Shop. And there was a portrait by artist Billyo O’Donnell, who drew Pearson surrounded by her favorite things, including a TV tuned to The Price Is Right. (“That was her favorite show,” Alexander remembers. “That, and Wheel of Fortune.”)
Then, on December 20, as the National Register finalized a few minor details—word is, the listing was about to be approved—a freezing storm descended on the city. The center building, the one that had held Tillie’s Food Shop, collapsed. The falling bricks destabilized the north town house, and when Alexander ran down the stairs to flee the building, the door was blocked; trapped, she had to be rescued by the fire department.
“Miguel actually called as I was coming down the ladder,” Alexander says. “The back window, on the back of the house, that’s the window I crawled out of, and grabbed the fireman and went down, but as we were doing that, that’s when the north wall on the side of our house collapsed.”
“I was in shock,” Miguel Alexander says. “She was on the phone, and all I could hear was, ‘The building’s collapsed.’” The Alexanders say they feel blessed that Carla wasn’t hurt, that no one on the street was hurt. They were ecstatic to find their two outdoor cats, Mamanita and Daddy Joe Garfield, unscathed. Robenia Harris took in
the family; they spent Christmas with her.
The buildings are lost; they were condemned by the city after the second collapse. And with them, the National Register listing, and dreams of rebuilding the original Tillie’s Corner, were lost. But Miguel says he is determined to see the three buildings rebuilt and provide services for the neighborhood’s young and elderly. “We’re just taking it one minute, one second at a time,” Carla Alexander says. “We’re still determined. Where can you go? If you have a home and it’s something you’ve known all your life, where do you go?”
The site’s significance is undeniable—yet other historic sites in nearby African-American neighborhoods have languished, too. Chuck Berry’s old house in The Ville, for instance, is vacant, owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority; saving a celebrity’s house is typically easier than preserving buildings where ordinary people once lived.
“That’s what the National Register is for,” Baxter says. “It is representative examples, as well as the only, rare examples.” Tillie’s Corner is both at once: Pearson was part of a large demographic shift as part of the Great Migration, but as an African-American woman entrepreneur during the post–World War II era, she was exceptional.
“There may have been other people like Lillie Pearson in north St. Louis, not only other black men, but some other black women,” Baxter says. “But their stories are lost to time. The rarity is being able to document her story.”
And it is in that story that Alexander is finding her strength to push forward for the next iteration of Tillie’s Corner. She thinks of her grandmother, cooking for tenants every day, watching her six kids and the rest of the neighborhood’s, running her own business…
“She’d just find time,” she says. “I’m like ‘OK, Granny, you took us to school, you picked us up, you did the dishes, you did the store…’ She just kept up. She never gave up. That’s in me. That’s why I just can’t give up on this.”