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Kirkwood's Journey: A city united or divided?

Participants including Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, and Bob Sears join hands during a memorial service Saturday evening at Douglas Memorial Church of God in Christ in Meacham Park.
Anthony Soufflé | For the Beacon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: During the months after the Feb. 7, 2008, Kirkwood City Hall killings, several hundred residents gathered every couple of months to discuss how to achieve greater community understanding and healing.

By the second meeting, nearly all of the news media had vanished. That left people, white and black, insiders and outsiders, to talk about their experiences with City Hall and each other. Much of the discussion turned to race, white privilege and the isolation of Meacham Park, the mostly African-American enclave on the edge of the leafy, mostly affluent suburb.

Black residents told of being denied service into the 1960s at the popular Spencer's Grill lunch counter in downtown Kirkwood. Of being accused of cheating because a school paper was "too good." Of feeling sick to the stomach upon discovering that no African-American teacher was presented at a recent freshman orientation at Kirkwood High School. Of getting stopped frequently by a Kirkwood police force with no black supervisors and a handful of black officers.

Many whites were surprised by the stories and unsettled by the idea of white privilege. One African-American man called 2/7 Kirkwood's 9/11, suggesting it was an eye-opening event that could lead to greater awareness of community problems.

Now, two years later, the community meetings are over, although smaller conversations continue in book clubs, churches and dinner groups.  The Beacon asked residents to reflect on race relations in Kirkwood, the soul-searching that followed the City Hall shootings and what was achieved by the discussions organized by the Community for Understanding and Healing (renamed the Community for Understanding and Hope.)

The two-year anniversary of the shootings arrived as city officials were trying to explain and win support for a new mediation agreement drawn up under the auspices of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service.

City officials praised the agreement at a packed meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, heralding it as a “new day.”  But rather than inspiring harmony, the agreement has stirred up distrust in Meacham Park, where leaders see it as an attempt to sweep their complaints under the rug.

City leaders still fail to acknowledge, they say, that the city has a race problem.

Harriet Patton - the president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association and a prime mover behind the CFUH dialogues - left this week’s meeting unhappy that she and other citizens had not had a chance to voice their complaints. At the meeting, residents were limited to submitting written questions.  She reiterated her rejection of the agreement.

A city united -- or divided?

Ask city officials now about race relations, and they uniformly answer that Kirkwood doesn't have a race problem today, nor did it on Feb. 7, 2008. That is when an angry, obsessed Meacham Park resident, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, went on a shooting rampage at a City Council meeting that eventually left six dead, in addition to Thornton himself. Thornton was black; all of the victims were white.

To Kirkwood officials and to many residents, the question about race is ill-timed, loaded or entirely the wrong one to ask. During the community discussions, several white residents complained that City Hall hadn't listened to them any more than to the black residents of Meacham Park.

Other Kirkwood residents thought that simply asking the race question lent legitimacy to the man they perceive as a mass murderer. Many of these residents also think the question falsely presumes that Kirkwood has a racial problem.

Police Chief Jack Plummer doesn't think that the time after the City Hall murders was the right time to talk about race. Two police officers -- both white -- were among those Thornton killed.

"It was the wrong time for us" in the police department, Plummer said. "That is a very difficult issue for people to deal with ... particularly after the incidents in town. ... You have to let the dust settle."

Mayor Art McDonnell, the chatty, affable grocer who was elected in the wake of the shootings, immediately took steps to open up City Council meetings and to reach out to Meacham Park residents.  McDonnell now starts council meetings like a talk show host, walking among the rows of residents with a portable microphone, interviewing longtime Kirkwoodians and Scouts working to earn citizenship badges. McDonnell's folksy manner lowers tensions in the room.

Last fall, the mayor told the Beacon he wished that the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service hadn't come to Kirkwood after the City Hall shootings to conduct a racial mediation. The city doesn't have a racial problem and didn't have one when the killings occurred, he said.

Last month, when the city officials signed the Justice Department mediation agreement to address the "residual effects of desegregation and past discriminatory practices," McDonnell characterized the mediation in glowing terms.

The city officials approved the mediation agreement over one dissenting vote, that of Council member Joe Godi. Godi, who is white, said, "A racial problem is what they want in Meacham Park" and the mediation agreement will only exacerbate any racial tensions that exist. Godi said he was "no follower" of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but thought King's words about being judged by the content of one's character, not the color of one's skin, should apply to choosing people for Kirkwood's boards.

Patton, a long-time Meacham Park leader says it is "Kirkwood's unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a problem, that is a difficult problem." She says she resigned from the Justice Department mediation effort because city officials would not face that reality.

Those who believe a serious racial problem persists point to these facts:

  • Kirkwood High School, where almost one-fourth of the students are black, has two black teachers on a staff of 118. There are no black teachers in traditional academic subjects. A student can make it from kindergarten to graduation without having a black teacher.
  • No one from the Meacham Park neighborhood sits on the City Council.
  • Black residents of Meacham Park have killed three white Kirkwood police officers this decade. Thornton killed two and Kevin Johnson killed the third, Sgt. William McEntee in 2005.
  • The Kirkwood Police Department has no African-American supervisors. Three of the 58 officers on the street are African-American.
  • The city's top officials -- mayor, chief administrative officer, assistant chief administrator and police chief -- all are white and the City Hall working staff is mostly white.
  • The city's Human Relations Commission was ineffective prior to the City Hall shootings and remains ineffective today.

The Justice Department’s Community Relations Service brought together a team of city officials and a team of community representatives to resolve “perceived racial issues in the community.”  The Justice Department representatives collected more than 100 complaints from Meacham Park residents at an April, 2008 meeting.  Residents took away the impression they would hear back on the complaints within six months.
But the mediation process dragged on much longer, and Meacham Park leaders say none of their complaints has been investigated.  Those on the mediation teams explained Wednesday night that instead of investigating individual complaints, they had looked for the “systemic” problems the complaints illustrated.

One was the weak Human Relations Commission, which the agreement promises to bolster by better training members and by investing $60,000 in a computerized system that will receive citizen complaints 24 hours a day.  Another key problem identified by residents was the police department, which promised in the agreement to reach out to the young people of Meacham Park through a variety of new and continuing programs, many operated in conjunction with churches.

But the mediation agreement does not address some key concerns. It does not discuss the Kirkwood schools, which were not involved in the process. Nor does it commit the city to increase the number of African-American police officers or supervisors in City Hall. The reformed Human Relations Commission has no power to investigate the complaints it gets or to mediate solutions. And the new satellite police office to be established in Meacham Park will not be staffed.

The mediation agreement did not apply to the schools because the city does not control the school district.  C.J. Larkin, a senior lecturer at Washington University Law School who assisted in the process, said she did not think the school district was asked separately to participate in a mediation process, although she added she wasn’t positive.  The Justice Department in Washington would not comment on why the school district was not included.

Antona Smith, a Meacham Park resident who helped lead the CFUH community discussion groups, is disapppointed. "The city may feel good saying they are going to do this, but I'm not sure they are going to do anything," she said.

After reading about the agreement on the stltoday.com website, she was particularly depressed by some comments that readers posted to the story. Setting the tone was USA-GreatestCountryOnEarth who wrote, "What a joke. Another sensless (sic) piece of work to appease a group of people who are basically children refusing to take responsibility and help themselves. Meachem (sic) park has always been and will always be a cesspool of crime."

Some of those who feel most strongly about the persistence of a race problem in Kirkwood are white residents who have worked across color lines. Cecelia Stearman, the wife of the Rev. Scott Stearman at Kirkwood Baptist Church, has built the Community Gospel Choir into a successful, integrated group that recently performed for the second year in a row at the Martin Luther King Celebration at Powell Hall.  Kirkwood Baptist Church is one of several Kirkwood churches which have reached out to Meacham Park, this year co-sponsoring an “old-fashioned Christmas” to help the needy.  

"The blacks and whites in the choir have embraced each other and we have come to love and appreciate each other so much," Cecelia Stearman wrote in an email. "We have become FRIENDS. It's such a SMALL piece, but I can tell you that I am thankful we have done it. We can see that relationships, really working at getting to know people and spending time with them, make a difference in how you see them, even if what you see means YOU have to change."

But she added, "I'm really sorry to hear that the city officials, especially those who sat though those meetings, are saying 'Kirkwood doesn't have a race problem.' It shows that they haven't heard a thing or that they are just choosing to ignore what they've heard. Those I have come to love in the Community Gospel Choir have shared honestly, and it wasn't easy. 

"No racial issues here?"

Franklin S. McCallie, principal of Kirkwood High School from 1979 until 2001, focused on race from the day he took over the school.  Former Superintendent Tom Keating told McCallie that “solving the interracial problem” was his number one task.

Franklin McCallie speaks Saturday at the memorial service. McCallie had tried to resolve differences between Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton and city officials before Thornton turned to violence.
Credit Anthony Soufflé | For the Beacon
Franklin McCallie speaks Saturday at the memorial service. McCallie had tried to resolve differences between Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton and city officials before Thornton turned to violence.

McCallie and Assistant Principal Rick Burns hired 28 black teachers and administrators during their time at KHS, reaching a peak of 11 teachers and two assistant principals in 1999.

“Neither Rick Burns nor I have ever been satisfied that we found enough African-American teachers for either our black students or our white students, when you consider we were there for 22 years. But, when you see the numbers we had for any given year, I feel we at least made an effort.  And I certainly don't think the district has made that much effort since we left.”

He’s not the only one upset.

At one of the last CFUH meeting in October 2008, Gretchen Curry told how "my stomach hurt" when she attended her daughter's freshman orientation at Kirkwood High School. There wasn't a single African-American teacher among the approximately 40 teachers who were being introduced to the students.

"What do you say to your daughter?" asked Curry, an African American 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?" But Curry didn't say that to her daughter, Malena Smith. Smith went on to win the election to be freshman class president.

When pressed, city officials will agree that Kirkwood has as much of a race problem as any other American town. Tom Williams, the new school superintendent, and David Holley, the high school principal, acknowledge that the high school needs more black teachers.  But Holley says that recruiting black teachers has proved difficult.

Police Chief Plummer, too, acknowledges that the police force needs more blacks, but says it is a hard goal to achieve.  Some of the black officers he has hired have moved on to higher paying departments, he said.

Holley speaks of a promising black administrator he hired and then had to show the door; Plummer talks about the black officer he promoted to detective and then had to remove.

Holley puts it this way. There's "as much racial harmony (here) as there is in a population in the 2000s in America. That is what we have at KHS. ... There is racism in the world. There is racism in America. We (in this school) live acceptance and respect. We don't talk about it."

Even though Holley has not succeeded in bringing more black teachers to the high school, he has succeeded at closing the achievement gap between black students and whites, and the graduation gap. Last year, for the first time, the percentage of black students graduating was greater than whites.

Mayor McDonnell says the whole world has a race problem and that he would rather focus on getting everyone to treat others fairly and observe the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  He is proud that two young employees in his grocery, one African-American and one white, went to the high school prom together recently.

During the CFUH meetings, McDonnell was in a group with Harriet Patton. McDonnell is mild, almost meek. Patton is forceful. McDonnell heard Patton tell of how sad she was as a schoolgirl when a teacher ripped up a school paper she had worked on hard, claiming it was so good that she must have cheated.

McDonnell told his own story of encountering racists at Midwest lunch counters in the late 1960s when he drove a black woman and her daughter to a Christian Science camp in Colorado. Young white men accused him of transporting the women for illegal purposes. McDonnell and his companions skipped the lunch counters after that, buying lunch provisions in grocery stores.

Around the City Council table from McDonnell sits Paul Ward, the lone African-American member of the City Council. He does not live in Meacham Park, but he remembers the 1960s when Meacham Park did not have sewers or paved streets. To this day, he won't eat at Spencer's Grill because his sister was arrested at a sit-in when it was a segregated lunch counter. (Owner Bill Spencer changed his ways in the 1970s, supporting the candidacy of the first black City Council member, Harold Whitfield.)

Ward says of the people of Meacham Park, "They've always felt disenfranchised. That's almost their history there, being disenfranchised."

Ron Hodges, an African-American who participated in the mediation and headed CFUH, is frustrated.

He is upset that other African Americans criticized the mediation agreement even before it was presented, and he is frustrated that CFUH has lost momentum. The organization planned a fall computer workshop at the Oakland Library. No one came. Then it scheduled a tutoring event to help students with midterms. Five students showed up.

Hodges said at Wednesday’s meeting that he’s been asked by critics if he’s forgotten the history of discrimination.  He hasn’t, but added, “Me staying stuck back there in all of that does not help me move forward.  We can make all of the excuses and all these complaints, but until we step up” we won’t succeed, he said.

Shortly after the City Hall shootings, Patton called upon McCallie and Hodges to bring together the CFUH discussions.  Now the three have different perspectives.  Hodges is for moving ahead with the agreement, Patton for rejecting it.

McCallie wrote Patton on Wednesday that he was unhappy with city officials but favored moving ahead.

“I am not happy,” he wrote, “that the city did not immediately say, ‘Sure, we have racial problems in this city, and we need to deal with them on a situation by situation basis, starting with the list turned in by the community….

“On the other hand, I, personally, do not think at this point that it makes any sense to reject the mediation agreement. I must look for the best vehicle possible for moving ahead for racial and social justice right now. The fact seems to me to be that there is no other vehicle for moving ahead than the mediation agreement.”

At the last of CFUH's community-wide meetings, Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society told of meeting with a group almost equally divided between whites and blacks. He asked how many knew about the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis. None of the whites did. The blacks' hands shot 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." Two years after the City Hall shootings, that challenge remains elusive for the people of Kirkwood.

The reporting team, from the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, includes William H. Freivogel, director of the school and a regular Beacon contributor; Jaclyn Brenning, a reporter-in-residence; and photographer Anthony Souffle, a graduate student.

This article is part of a series on Kirkwoodians' efforts to understand how race affects their city and what role it might have played in the City Hall shootings two years ago. Read more stories about Kirkwood's Journey. The series is part of the Beacon's Race, Frankly project.

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.