© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In St. Louis, students struggled for educational equality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2009 - From the very beginning of public schools in St. Louis, race and education have mixed about as well as oil and water. The promise of public education as the great equalizer, the character-building process through which even the most impoverished and ignorant residents would be taught the social and academic skills needed for a good start in life, applied to whites but eluded most blacks.

It didn't take long for black kids like Robert Carter to realize that their education would not only be separate but unequal. When it came time for him to attend elementary school around 1920, he couldn't enroll in the Ritenour grade school a few blocks from his home. Instead, he was required to walk three miles, rain or shine, to segregated Elmwood Park Elementary School, where he remembers learning to read from tattered books, nearly worn out from use by white kids.

This second-class treatment seems ironic given the fact that Carter's family paid more taxes and had deeper roots in the St. Louis area than many whites. His grandfather, Washington Reid, was a sergeant in the Union Army during the Civil War. More than a century ago, Reid, who had been stationed in New Orleans, settled in St. Louis and bought about 40 acres of land near Breckenridge Road and Rex Street. Some of it is still owned by members of the Carter family.

Taking the Trolley

When it came time for Carter to attend high school, he took a trolley to all-black Sumner in St. Louis; Ritenour School District paid the fare to keep him out of the district's high school. Even so, local historian John Wright says blacks like Carter were lucky.

"Not all districts covered the transportation cost to Sumner in those days," Wright says. "Because of that, a lot of blacks didn't get the opportunity to attend high school."

At Sumner, Carter pored over still more hand-me-down books and graduated in 1933.

Carter doesn't recall all the details of his life, but some dates are embedded in his brain. For instance, July 11, 2007. That one comes to him quickly, the day his wife died after 66 years of marriage. He now lives alone in a neat ranch house, trimmed in brick and built during the 1960s on land handed down to him by his grandfather.

He's proud of his age -- "You might as well say I'm 94 because I have a birthday coming up in September" -- but his gait is firm, and he rises from a chair in his den with the ease of a man who exercises frequently. In fact, he admits, he doesn't exercise at all. Perhaps it helps that he keeps busy, mowing his lawn, setting his trash can at the curb and driving his sister, who lives nearby, to the beauty shop every Friday. She, by the way, is 99.


The Promise of Desegregation...


In any case, after Carter graduated from Sumner and served in the Navy, he came home determined to give his children the best possible education he could afford.

"I didn't have money for college," he says. "But I knew this much: My kids would get a better education and go further than me. I was going to see to that."

He worked two jobs -- warehousing medical supplies for the Army in the Mart Building during the day and blowing his trombone with Singleton Palmer in Gaslight Square by night -- to scrape up the money to educate his children from grade school through college.

Give some of the credit to the late Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter for the strides the Carter children made. In 1948, about six years before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Ritter ordered the desegregation of Catholic schools.

Suddenly life in the Carter household filled with once-unthinkable possibilities. His three children could now attend All Souls School in Overland. His oldest son, Geoffrey, born in 1944, became the first black student to enroll there. Following him were Eric, born in 1946 and Daphne, born in 1948.

That was just the beginning. Geoffrey went on to St. Louis University High School; Eric headed for Mercy; and Daphne finished Rosati Kain. These kids were just warming up. All then attended St. Louis University, and two -- Geoffrey and Daphne -- earned law degrees there.

Three highly educated children in a single generation. That may not have been unusual for a white family, but for the Carters, it was as if oil and water had mixed.

"I didn't do too bad, did I?" Carter muses.


... and its drawbacks


The irony is that black children who grew up in the '30s and '40s didn't necessarily want to change the status quo. In spite of the fact that segregated black schools -- such as Elmwood in Elmwood Park, Douglass in Webster Groves and Attucks in Clayton -- provided black students with inferior education, some black families resisted closing them.

Ida Scott, 90, a graduate of Sumner, has lived in Elmwood Park most of her life and attended the segregated school there. Like some other African Americans, she strongly opposed the closing of Elmwood Elementary School, which Ritenour had operated as a separate school for black children and closed in 1976 in response to a court ruling.

"We fought it," Scott says. "We fought integration. We didn't want it. They were taking our school, and we didn't want it. Elmwood Park was an all-black neighborhood. We were all happy here, all satisfied. We had everything we needed like other people had in these little small communities."

Now, she says, she is saddened that "we have to go out of Elmwood for everything but the funeral home and the church."

Resisting Segregation

Still, black students who gained access to better education were the exception rather than the rule. From the very beginning of public education, Missouri stacked the deck against black children by setting up a school board in 1833 in St. Louis whose purpose was to serve white students. St. Louis public school officials then poured district resources into services for these students, including money for bilingual education for German immigrants, and leaving black children to gain their education by the best way they could.

Even before the Civil War, black parents fought back, resisting Missouri's enactment of one of the nation's first "literacy laws" forbidding anyone to teach slaves to read or write. In response, blacks set up freedom schools, like the one the Rev. John Berry Meachum (right) established aboard a steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi River.

Later, black families pressured the St. Louis School Board to open about a dozen "colored schools." In 1875, the first high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi was opened. It was named for Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts senator who was an outspoken proponent of education for black children.

In time, Sumner would shine, producing some of the city's most able graduates, ranging from former U.S. Rep. William L. Clay to Margaret Bush Wilson, a St. Louis lawyer who formerly chaired the national NAACP. It those days, it was a tradition for certain black families to send their children to Sumner.

Susan Uchitelle, who formerly ran the city-county school desegregation program, admires the old Sumner's reputation for excellence. What's missing at Sumner now, she says, is what's plaguing city schools in general. The old Sumner had an ingredient that many city schools lack: high-caliber, overly qualified black teachers. Many were there not necessarily by choice but by circumstances. They could not find jobs in the scientific and mathematical fields in which they had been trained, so they took their knowledge to Sumner.

Second-Rate Sumner

But Sumner is no longer a powerhouse. Last year, only 10 percent of its kids were proficient in communications arts, compared to 45 percent of children statewide, and fewer than 2 percent were proficient in math. These numbers may be lower than those in 1972 when a mother, Minnie Liddell, became the face of a lawsuit, Liddell v. Board of Education of the City of St. Louis, which was aimed at reversing the unequal treatment of black children in city schools.

The Liddell case morphed into a remarkable school desegregation settlement, one of the few cases that ended in a metropolitan solution. It gave black parents unhappy with city schools the choice of enrolling their children in better equipped school districts in St. Louis County.

In some ways, this story would seem to have a happy ending, but it's really still unfolding. The city is trying to rebuild the school system, and the desegregation case still stands. At one time, many county districts resisted participation in the program. It's perhaps a compliment that most chose to retain their city-county deseg programs after the case was settled in 1999.

The arrangements aren't perfect. Racial friction flares up occasionally in the schools; in some instances, the desegregation plan has had the side effect of producing segregation inside schools. Worse, black achievement, one of the promises of desegregation, hasn't improved.

But we're getting ahead of our story. In the next two months, as the Beacon looks at race and education, we'll examine in more detail desegregation and racial disparities in achievement.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.