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Kirkwood 1 year after: The wounds are not entirely healed

A year after the City Hall murders of Feb. 7, 2008, important changes have come to Kirkwood, while other things have remained unchanged.

The new mayor, Art McDonnell, walks down from the dais and into the audience before council meetings to greet citizens and tell them how they can express their views. The city has called two town meetings to open the lines of communication further. More people have volunteered for city commissions than any time in recent history. And a group of several hundred citizens has been meeting regularly for the past year to talk about white privilege and race in a way it never had been talked about before in this idyllic railroad town turned comfortable suburb.

Read an earlier story about Kirkwood’s community meetings.

“I think as a community we have made great progress since Feb. 7,” said McDonnell, during a break at his grocery store. “There was a news story rehashing the shooting and everybody looked so dour. We have a happier environment in City Hall than that picture portrays. Things are way back to normal.”

But a lot hasn’t changed. Many residents of Meacham Park, the mostly African-American enclave on the edge of town, still believe racism pervades the way their neighborhood is treated by city government. Many still believe that Meacham Park residents were cheated, or at least badly treated, during the redevelopment of the town nearly a decade ago. Others complain that the number of black teachers at Kirkwood High School has declined. Some even think that Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton had a just cause when he attacked City Hall and killed five city officials, gravely wounding Mayor Mike Swoboda who died later in the year. 

A few of Thornton’s backers wanted the city to include Thornton’s mother, Annie Bell Thornton, along with the victims’ families in a Saturday evening memorial at which luminaria are to be lit in memoriam. When the city rejected the idea, the Rev. Larry Addison of the Douglas Memorial Church of God in Meacham Park decided to have a separate service after the City Hall ceremony to support the Thornton family.

McDonnell agrees that the Thornton family is a victim of Cookie’s, noting that one of Cookie’s brothers has sued Cookie’s widow, Maureen, as a result of Cookie’s disastrous financial machinations. “It’s not that we don’t feel empathy with their family,” said McDonnell. “But some people feel he was justified in what he did. My opinion is that he wasn’t. He was the murderer, and you don’t include the murderer in the service.”

Meanwhile, a community outreach committee of representatives of Meacham Park and the broader Kirkwood community has been meeting in secret sessions with negotiators from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. The Justice Department received complaints from Meacham Park residents at a meeting last April.

Once the community outreach committee has arrived at key areas of concern, it will meet with a committee of city officials to work on solutions. Members of the community outreach committee are sworn to secrecy, but in statements made outside of the committee, some have talked about the need for more African-American teachers at Kirkwood High School and an audit of Meacham Park’s decade-old redevelopment.

‘You’ve got to get involved’

“My stomach hurt.” That’s how Gretchen Curry felt last fall when she attended her daughter’s freshman orientation at Kirkwood High School. The reason her stomach hurt was that not a single African-American teacher was among the approximately 40 teachers who were being introduced to the students.

“What do you say to your daughter?” asked Curry, who runs her own business. “Are you to say that African-Americans don’t fall in a group of teachers because they sure are not here? You are saying it not just to the African-Americans, you are saying it to the white students too.”

But Curry, who is black, didn’t say that to her daughter, Malena Smith. Smith is doing well in high school. After school started, she won an election to be freshman class president.

Leadership awards were handed out at the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association Winter Celebration on Jan. 10. Left to right, Harriet Patton, Ron Hodges, Franklin McCallie, Pastor Renee Johnson, Pastor Miguel Brinkley.

Curry described the freshman orientation at the October meeting of the Community for Understanding and Healing (CFUH), a group formed after the shootings. The meeting, at the First Baptist Church in Meacham Park, was one of seven the group held in the year after the shooting and it was the first in Meacham Park. Some white participants remarked it was the first time they had been to Meacham Park.

Ramona Miller, who is African-American and an assistant principal at the high school, also was at the meeting. She acknowledged that the numbers of black teachers had decreased over time. In addition to her, there is an African-American business teacher and a well-known orchestra teacher who also teaches in a middle school, she said.

Miller was part of a discussion circle with a young, African-American mother, Kirsten Frazier, who says she stays away from PTO meetings at her child’s mostly white school. “I’ve never wanted to go to a PTO meeting because I don’t feel like I fit in. ... When there is an open house, I feel uncomfortable. The white parents say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ just so they can say they talked to a black person.”

Miller listens, then jumps in. “When you’re not there, you are not involved. You don’t have a voice. Even when you don’t feel accepted, you have to be there.”

Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, remembers being treated the way Frazier describes. “There are going to be people who are not going to accept you, but you got to get involved,” she tells Frazier. “Our school district needs to get African-Americans involved at all levels. I would love to see an African-American superintendent,” she says, referring to the school district’s current search for a new leader.

‘Enough talking’

Outside the community meeting was a lone picket, Michael Moore, an African-American activist who was an unsuccessful write-in candidate for mayor last spring when McDonnell was elected. Moore is carrying a sign, “First Baptist is Dead; Enough Talking.” He gets into an argument with a church official, claiming the church has not been open enough to community members, including the Thornton family — a charge the church official heatedly denies.

Moore has recently written a letter complaining about the way the school district is searching for a new superintendent. The letter criticizes the words Kirkwood uses to advertise itself to prospective candidates by stating: “the district, chartered in 1865, is the oldest in St. Louis County and one of the oldest west of the Mississippi River.”

To Moore, these are racist suggestions that will drive off black candidates. “Any African American educated candidate knows that blacks in 1865 suffered from more lynchings and racial prejudice in that time than any other period in American history,” Moore wrote. “Furthermore, to use code words such as oldest, suburban vitality, old town charm and Mississippi, these are words that discourage black candidates, implying that the district is an all-white community with old values.”

Moore claims that land in Meacham Park “was taken by Kirkwood for geopolitical reasons, for commercial purposes.” Many people in Meacham Park make similar if less grandly stated claims. The issue ties back to Cookie Thornton. Thornton, once a model at bridging the racial divide, had supported the redevelopment of Meacham Park to add to the commercial strip along Kirkwood Road. But he became convinced that as a contractor, he didn’t get the amount of demolition work that he thought he had been promised by city officials.

Paul Ward, the only African-American on the city council, and his brother Wallace, a former School Board member, had tried to help Thornton get a minority set-aside for the demolition work. The Wards say that Thornton thought that Spirtas Wrecking, which got the demolition contract, was discriminating against him. When Thornton sued Spirtas and Desco, the developer, he blew his chances for substantial contracts. They called Thornton to ask him why he sued. Thornton replied, “A man has to do what he has to do.”

‘A marathon, not a dash’

Ron Hodges, who is African-American, is chair of the CFUH and on the Justice Department’s community outreach committee. He credits Mayor McDonnell with starting a new era of openness in city government by reaching out through town meetings. Some citizens had previously claimed that the city was not open enough to citizen communication, and Thornton himself had filed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming his right to speak at city council meetings had been abridged.

Hodges won’t say what issues the Justice Department committee is looking at. But he emphasized two. One is getting more African-American teachers at Kirkwood High School. The other was an inquiry into how redevelopment money was used in Meacham Park. Even the most moderate Meacham Park residents complain that tax increment financing money for helping residents rehabilitate their houses sometimes went to poor contractors who did shoddy work.

Hodges is outspoken in saying that “we do not justify what Cookie has done. I have been there for many city council meetings, I have seen Cookie do some really bad things. I have seen Cookie passing out bananas and calling the city council monkeys. I have not heard one black person out here say that Cookie was just in what he did. A lot of us knew Cookie. Cookie was a good guy. Whatever sent him over the edge I don’t know.”

Hodges agrees with the city’s decision not to include the Thornton family among the victims at the Saturday night ceremony. He thinks that Addison’s service at his Meacham Park church is a good compromise, although he regrets that it means that the African-American and white communities are separating.

One of the committee’s proudest achievements has been bringing blacks and white together to talk about race. This has meant drawing whites into Meacham Park and blacks into Kirkwood’s predominantly white churches. Hodges says that a January Meacham Park celebration at the Kirkwood Baptist Church was a terrific success. The Community Gospel Choir, under the direction of Cecelia Stearman, performed at the celebration, just as it will perform at Saturday night’s one-year memorial. Stearman is the wife of the pastor at Kirkwood Baptist, the Rev. Scott Stearman. The Stearmans, both of whom are white, have been heavily involved in CFUH.

Is there a need for CFUH to continue the community dialogues? Some white residents who attended were clearly getting tired of talking about “white privilege.” Hodges doesn’t expect to continue talking about that topic but wants CFUH to continue and believes that race will be central to its discussions. The group’s executive committee is holding a March retreat to plan what they say is a “marathon, not a dash.”

McDonnell, the white mayor, has participated in the CFUH meetings, once telling a story of how his eyes were opened to racism when he drove two African-American women across Kansas to jobs at a summer camp and encountered segregation and racist behavior. But the mayor points out that attendance at the discussions has dropped and that much of the Kirkwood community never participated.

“The effort originally had good intentions and a lot of the people,” he said. “Some people in the community and the media thought there might have been a racial problem. It was good to discuss it. The overall Kirkwood community didn’t participate. It (CFUH) is a great community, good-hearted people. I hope they came away with something that was helpful. Just the fact that they sat down and talked to each other is important. But this group may just have to figure that their time has passed. I don’t think we have a severe racial problem, and I think the election of Barack Obama is certainly going to help.”

Rev. Stearman says he understands the mayor’s position, but still believes the community needs to address “institutional racism.  I think we have moved from the acute phase, but we now very much have a chronic problem of racism,” he said.

Franklin McCallie, a retired principal of Kirkwood High School, believes it is important to continue talking across racial lines.  “Most white people just don’t understand the problems blacks have faced and still face in our society -- largely a white controlled and dominated social structure,” he said. “Since most whites have very little contact with black people -- and most of what they have is on a very surface level -- they just are not concerned with problems that are not theirs. 

“Black citizens perceive that their problems are often brought on by the inability of white neighbors to understand what blacks are facing,” added McCallie, who himself is white. “For example, most white families don’t think twice about the fact that the number of black teachers and administrators in the Kirkwood School District has taken a nose-dive in the last few years, but black parents see it immediately and worry about it constantly. White parents should worry, too.”

‘Out of the mouths of babes’

Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society, spoke at the last meeting of CFUH that discussed race, one held in November at the Kirkwood Methodist Church. He recalled meeting with a group almost equally divided between whites and blacks. Archibald, who is white, asked how many knew about the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis. The blacks’ hands went up, and each had a tale that had been handed down orally through the family.

He told the Kirkwood residents that their challenge was “to tell a story where everybody can find themselves.”

A young girl in the audience was hard at work on just such a story. Daija Mister, 12, is member of a Nipher Middle School civil rights team trying to tell the history of Meacham Park.

“We’re doing a project in school on Meacham Park,” said Daija, who is African-American and lives outside Meacham Park.  “But parents say it is a bad place for kids to go. We’re trying to tell people it’s not a bad neighborhood.”

It turns out that parents of some of the white children on the Nipher civil rights team don’t want their children walking to Meacham Park to collect information.

Daija’s teacher, Florence Borman, stood nearby while Daija spoke.  Borman smiled wanly. “Out of the mouths of babes,” she said.  Borman, who is white, marvels that some adults don’t see the race problem. “The kids see it. Why can’t the adults?”

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.