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Vivian Gibson named Missouri author of the year for memoir detailing Mill Creek Valley

Vivian Gibson, the author of “The Last Children of Mill Creek,” stands in for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, at her home in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Mill Creek Valley was 454 acres in the heart of downtown St. Louis that comprised the nation's largest urban-renewal project beginning in 1959. The predominately Black neighborhood was designated as “blighted” by city officials was torn down to make way for new developments.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Vivian Gibson, the author of “The Last Children of Mill Creek,” at her home in downtown St. Louis, can't forget how her parents lost their home in Mill Creek Valley to an urban-renewal project in 1959. City officials designated the predominately Black neighborhood as “blighted” to tear it down and make way for new development.

Vivian Gibson, who documented life in the former Mill Creek Valley neighborhood of St. Louis has been named author of the year by the Missouri Library Association.

In “The Last Children of Mill Creek,” Gibson describes the lives of herself, her parents and siblings in their Mill Creek home in the 1950s. The neighborhood, which encompassed parts of midtown and downtown St. Louis, was demolished in 1959 as part of an urban renewal campaign. The effort displaced about 20,000 Black residents. Gibson said this week that she hopes the memoir shines a light on her former community.

“Just wanting people to know that we were there, that there was a community there of 20,000 people, and they seem to have been forgotten or erased,” Gibson said. “Missouri author of the year is really icing on the cake because the whole state now will know about this story and this book and me.”

Gibson started writing her memoir after retiring from Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2015. She collected old notes that she had written over the years and started attending a writing class. She said not knowing much about Mill Creek's history pushed her to do research and write the book.

“it was a segregated community. Black people were pretty much forced to live there because of restrictive covenants and that it was also a vibrant, diverse community in terms of economics because Just because of my race, even well-to-do Blacks lived in that community,” Gibson said. “I think that is a surprise to a lot of people because in order to blight that community and eventually demolish it, voters, white voters primarily had to be persuaded that it was a slum that didn't deserve to even exist in that it was our right to get rid of it for progress and progress being highways.”

The Missouri Library Association selected Gibson from 17 nominees. The association narrowed the list to six finalists before selecting Gibson and Missouri author Steve Wiegenstein for his book, “Scattered Lights.”

Selected authors had to have lived in the state for at least five years or have written a book about Missouri, said Debra Loguda-Summers, Missouri authors award chairperson.

She said committee members found Gibson’s book engaging and informative for detailing an important history that many were unaware of.

“It paints a picture of a bygone era, and the changes in neighborhoods over years,” Loguda-Summers said. “For us, it's just telling the story about the people that live in the neighborhood.”

Gibson said while the story of Mill Creek Valley’s demise happened in the mid-20th century, those experiences and stories remain relevant today.

State transportation departments across the country have proposed widening highways in recent years to add lanes. Advocacy groups in Houston have warned that a proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation could displace more than 1,000 Black families.

“Cities are realizing how they devastated their urban cores, their cities, their inner cities, and divided people and communities racially,” Gibson said. “Now they're new eyes looking at how to handle transportation and housing, and education and dying cities. And so everything old is new again. And so they're still talking about it and debating whether they should even widen these highways or whether they should tear them down.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.