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Kirkwood talks about racial disparities but doesn't listen, say black educators

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Assistant Principal Romona Miller and walking counselor Donald Smith are the two African-American authority figures at Kirkwood High School with the most contact with black students. Miller, the only black administrator at the high school, heads the Black Achievement and Culture Club, while Smith mentors a group of African-American boys called My Brothers' Keeper.

Both Miller and Smith have proud accomplishments. This spring, Miller led about 40 students on the annual college trip, this one focusing on traditionally black colleges in the South. Meanwhile, Smith's decision to mentor one student led to requests for help from others. Now more than 70 students, including many of the school's top athletes, are in the peer mentoring group that he has organized.

Despite the progress, both Miller and Smith state candidly that Kirkwood has a long way to go with its racial dialogue.

Smith knows from personal experience. "I was born and raised in Kirkwood," says the 1979 graduate. "I have lived in Kirkwood all my life and when I walk in downtown Kirkwood people look at me as if what are you doing here. Some of the whites look at the blacks differently."

Miller, married to Kirkwood High School star athlete Alvin Miller from the class of 1983, recalls being "amazed" by the "racial divide" when she moved from Memphis two decades ago. She says that divide persists.

"It's so many people who are doing a lot of talking and not listening. We have so much racial disparity in such a small area, but no one is listening to each other," she says. "There is a lot to be discussed, but there has to be some listening.

Miller tells an especially tragic story of what she sees as people not listening. Miller says she complained to the Kirkwood Police Department about a year before Kevin Johnson shot and killed Sgt. William McEntee on a Meacham Park street on July 5, 2005. Johnson has been convicted and sentenced to die for the murder.

"Before the Kevin Johnson case, I went to the Police Department and spoke to them. 'Here are some of the things the kids are saying about a man named Mac,' I told them. I didn't know his name was McEntee. I went as an educator."

Miller says she and her husband had run into Johnson in the Wal-Mart on the edge of Meacham Park a number of months before the shooting. Johnson, whom Miller knew as a respectful student, complained about unfair and racist treatment by an officer called "Mac." Johnson said the officer was "not as respectful as some other officers."

She thought the complaints from Johnson and others were serious enough to take to the police department. The officer she talked to -- she doesn't remember his name -- said he would look into it. She never heard back.

"They never took any ownership that that had happened. They left it saying, 'We'll check into it.' I remember saying at the time, 'Kirkwood is primed for a race riot.'"

Miller did not talk to Chief Jack Plummer at the time. The two of them currently are working on ways to bridge the gap between the city and Meacham Park youths.

Dave Docter, a spokesman for Plummer, said the chief did not remember Miller contacting the department about McEntee. "He's not saying it did or did not happen," Docter said, adding "we get lots of complaints." 

When Johnson was standing trial for the murder, Miller decided to testify as a character witness for him, despite associates warning her to reconsider.

"I had people come to me and say, 'You know people are unforgiving. You need to be careful what you do.' It made me realize that this is Kirkwood and that there are going to be people who make decisions based on what color we are.

"I have a son who is an African-American male and I tell him, 'When you get stopped, put your hands on the dashboard because they are not going to know that it's Romona Miller's son.'"

Miller and Smith explained that many in Meacham Park have a different view than the greater Kirkwood community when it comes to Johnson and Charles "Cookie" Thornton, the City Hall shooter. Long-time resident Thornton shot and killed five city officials in 2008. A sixth person, Mayor Mike Swoboda, was wounded in the assault and died later. Thornton was killed by police who responded to the attack.

"Look (Thornton) really was not a bad person," says Smith. "Growing up, he always was pleasant. He just snapped. He couldn't take it any more. He was not this bad person they are painting. When something like this happens, people in Kirkwood don't want to hear the name. Kevin was very polite. But if you mention Kevin's name around here, it is like red flags and sirens around."

Miller puts it this way: "We never saw people depict (Thornton) as a hero for what he had done. But they were talking about the good things that he did in the community." She added, as some of her students do, that after the City Hall shootings, "You knew people were looking at you."

Both Miller and Smith are also frustrated with Meacham Park residents. Miller hears Meacham Park residents complain that they don't have a community center, as if Kirkwood's is not theirs.

Smith says, "It's the people in Meacham Park who look at themselves as different. They still segregate themselves. Some of these kids from Meacham Park have this herd mentality. 'We're from the park and we have to act a certain way.' It's this wild wild West image."

Last summer, when a 16-year-old was shot in the neck in Meacham Park, Smith volunteered to lead an effort to go door-to-door to address concerns. He thought he had lined up support from neighborhood residents. But when he arrived at a church in Meacham Park to meet with residents and begin walking through the neighborhood, no one from the community showed up.

Montrell Jones Jr., who will be the student leader of My Brothers' Keeper next year, says he has friends from Meacham Park, friends from the city transfer program and white friends from the district. "No matter where you live, you are part of the Kirkwood community," he says.

Jones, himself a transfer student, competes in the triple jump and long jump, takes three advanced placement courses, carries a 3.8 grade point average and aspires to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta.

For Jones and Smith, the focus is on grades, good behavior and future plans. As the spring semester wound down he was getting up at dawn and staying up after dark to study for an AP test, while preparing for the district track meet where he won the long jump.

Miller says the athletes sometimes break down racial barriers. Particularly with the football team "there is some comraderie that transcends color," she says. "That is the one group in the cafeteria with white kids, the black kids."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.