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New photo book explores St. Louis’ African-American past, present and future

A 1963 photo of the Congress of Racial Equality demonstrating at the Jefferson Bank & Trust Company over the issue of jobs.
Arcadia Publishing
A 1963 photo of the Congress of Racial Equality demonstrating at the Jefferson Bank & Trust Company over the issue of jobs.

The author of a new book called “African American St. Louis” hopes images of the past will help people better understand the issues of today.

Lead author and educator John Wright Sr. grew up in St. Louis in the 1940s and '50s. His book, written in collaboration with his sons John Wright Jr. and Curtis Wright Sr., contains 170 color and black-and-white photos from the 1960s through the present.

John Wright Sr. has published 17 books about St. Louis and Missouri.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
John Wright Sr. has published 17 books about St. Louis and Missouri.

Wright said many of the pictures are unique images you won’t see in museums, libraries, newspapers or online.

“What we find in the African-American community [is that] most of our history is in homes and in basements,” Wright said. “So generally, the pictures you get are from individuals or you go out and take them yourself.”

“African American St. Louis” explores a half-dozen topics, including abstract ideas such as "challenges" and "culture" and more concrete subjects, including housing and commerce.

Wright, 76, remembers when Taylor Avenue and what is now Martin Luther King Drivein north city boasted rows of shops and other businesses.

“As a result of that, the money stayed in the community several times before it left,” Wright said.

But now? “You have a neighborhood where there are no stores,” he said.

A row of dilapidated homes in north St. Louis
Credit Arcadia Publishing
A row of dilapidated homes in north St. Louis

The book also features images of dilapidated homes. These include scenes that Wright described this way:

“The roof is falling down, half the building’s gone,” he said.

Wright said these decayed areas are part of an environment that can ultimately result in oppression and even tragedy.

“These are the things that spark the Michael Brown incidents,” Wright said.

This mural memorializes Michael Brown, whose death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
This mural memorializes Michael Brown, whose death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

The book includes two images related to the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in August 2014. One is of mural dedicated to Brown, over a caption that reads: “The mantra ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ was echoed around the country and was adopted by celebrities as a sign of solidarity for change.”

One of many protests that sprung up following the death of Michael Brown and Grand Jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
One of many protests that sprung up following the death of Michael Brown and the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Another shows demonstrators marching in downtown St. Louis in memory of Brown. One protest sign calls for “No More Killing.” Still, Wright said, “We didn’t dominate the book with Michael Brown.”

Author John Wright Sr. said justice is not color-blind in St. Louis.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
Author John Wright Sr. said justice is not color-blind in St. Louis.

A photo adjacent to the protest image features a statue of “Justice” at the U.S. Court and Custom House at Tucker and Market Streets. Wright said while many such figures around the country are blindfolded, this one is not.

“It kind of points out, in many cases justice has not been blind when dealing with African Americans in St. Louis.”

But not all the images are grim or even demonstrate the need for change. Many depict the progress and pride in St. Louis’ African-American community, including photos of black political leaders, business owners and everyday citizens.

St. Louis' African Arts Festival takes place May 23-25 this year.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
St. Louis' African Arts Festival takes place May 23-25 this year.

One picture shows the St. Louis African Arts Festival, held every Memorial Day weekend in Forest Park. The festival celebrating African culture draws thousands of people every year.

Another is an atypical photo of a young African-American man.

An African-American boy's bar mitzvah at Central Reform Congregation.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
An African-American boy's bar mitzvah at Central Reform Congregation.

He's celebrating his bar mitzvah at Central Reform Congregation in the Central West End. The event marks his coming of age and devotion to Jewish laws and traditions.

The cover of African American St. Louis is an image from the Black Rep's Black Nativity production.
Credit Arcadia Publishing
The cover of African American St. Louis is an image from the Black Rep's Black Nativity production.

Wright will sign copies of his book Tuesday night at Left Bank Books in the Central West End.

He's written more than a dozen books about St. Louis and Missouri.His next project examines St. Louis' African-American history beginning with the arrival of the first Africans aboard slave ships.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.