By Frank Kovarik
It was warm two Sundays ago, and I took a bike ride around the near south side of St. Louis—Spring Avenue to Keokuk, Keokuk down to Broadway, past street after street named after states. These were ancestral lands, of sorts, the formerly middle-class neighborhoods where my grandparents and their siblings used to roam as adolescents and teenagers. Now the houses were run-down, the tiny old-fashioned gas stations abandoned. I turned back west on Cherokee, then took Pennsylvania all the way to Gravois, until I recognized Jefferson Tent and Awning, who replaced the awnings on the front of our house. I crossed Gravois, broad and empty, and rode down to 3309 Arsenal (above), where I dismounted and stood for a while, looking up at the old brick house where Gail Milissa Grant, author of At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights, grew up in the 1950s.
The Grants were one of the few African-American families on the south side at that time. Her father, David Grant, was a prominent figure in local politics, an attorney passionate in his commitment to civil rights in this city. His daughter’s book describes the struggles in which he participated: shaming the city into building a decent medical facility (Homer G. Phillips Hospital) for blacks; winning, through protests, employment for blacks in the defense industry in St. Louis during World War II; and, perhaps most significantly, working to awaken black voters to their electoral power and to switch their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Staring up at the Grants’ old home, I found it a little hard to imagine it as the setting for some of the episodes Grant recounts in her memoir. Cab Calloway, Gail Milissa Grant’s godfather, partied here. Josephine Baker stayed in this house when she came to St. Louis for her last performance in the city, arranged by David Grant as part of a benefit to raise awareness of overcrowding in segregated black schools.
The now-struggling neighborhoods to the south and east of where I stood—my ancestors’ stomping grounds—had once been contested grounds. On these streets, Gail Milissa Grant had walked nine blocks to go to a Catholic school only recently integrated by Archbishop Joseph Ritter’s controversial order. “How many times,” Grant writes, “on my way to and from school had I passed a house where another colored family lived. And how they were never able, no matter how ferociously they scrubbed the side of their home, to erase fully the word NIGGER, painted there in thick, white letters by some anonymous passerby. How many times a faceless somebody in a speeding car had called me a nigger.”
Grant’s story is largely one of integration, in her case often, but by no means always, painful. In its wider vision, however, one sees the intense racial segregation of St. Louis, which I write about in a piece in SLM's December issue. In the “mammoth teardrop” (Grant’s evocative description of city’s shape on a map) of St. Louis, Grant notes that “by the early twentieth century ... most blacks lived within the northeast quadrant ..., with a substantial morsel bitten from its center. Not many Negroes dared to board streetcars that ran past Chouteau Avenue, the invisible dividing line between midtown St. Louis and the intimidating south side.” Grant and her family are pioneers, staking out a place between these two cultures. “Overall, the two siders, south and north, had only fleeting contact but had explicit opinions about the other. Negroes considered white people deceitful and menacing, and whites saw Negroes as inferior and frightful.... While some of our white neighbors grew antagonistic, the colored community from the north side posed another challenge. They wondered aloud, ‘Why do they want to live all the way over there? Who are they trying to be?’”
Grant’s parents always told her only that they lived on the South side because a friend—the St. Louis-born and nationally renowned cartoonist E. Simms Campbell—sold them the house at an affordable price when they were just starting out. But Grant’s childhood in a white neighborhood—she attended St. Elizabeth’s Academy, a few doors west of her house, and later Washington University in St. Louis, which her father fought to integrate—does seem to give her access to a world wider than that available to blacks in the ghetto on the city’s north side. In this way, Grant’s parents’ choice of residence allowed her to escape some of the pernicious effects of segregation.
Today, 3309 Arsenal is yet again at the epicenter of the racial logic of housing patterns in St. Louis—on the border between a neighborhood that is increasingly being redeveloped—some would say gentrified—and one that still suffers from the concentration of poverty brought about by segregation. David Grant worked to improve opportunities for all black St. Louisans. By living on the south side, and at significant psychic cost, his own family escaped the ghetto. As Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton note in American Apartheid, however, the pattern of racial succession, in which whites feel increasingly less comfortable in a neighborhood as blacks feel more welcome, means that the ghetto tends to follow those blacks who are able, at least for a time, to escape it.