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Norman Seay looks back on Jefferson Bank and local struggle for civil rights

During a 2010 interview, Norman Seay shared this photo of Jefferson Bank protesters being led to jail. A young William Clay, before he was elected to Congress, is second from left. Seay is the man wearing a hat and is behind the man with a pocket handkerc
Provided by Mr. Seay

When Norman Seay leads a gathering to this year's commemoration of the Jefferson Bank protest of 1963, he will be taking a stand one more time for civil rights, equality and justice.

Seay is one of St. Louis' most widely respected advocates for civil rights. He has spent most of his life trying to educate people -- blacks and whites -- about the importance of integration and equal opportunities for everyone.

Norman Seay lives in the family home on James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue. The star baseball player was his uncle.

On Friday, Seay, fellow activist Percy Green, and others are scheduled to lead a march and rally from 4 to 6 p.m. at Jefferson Bank, 2301 Market St. in St. Louis. The event will pay tribute to the day in 1963 when more than 300 black people and white people stood together against racial discrimination.

The crowd of well-dressed men, women and children showed up at the bank, which was then located on Jefferson and Washington avenues. They were protesting because the bank, which had recently moved from its previous location just a few blocks north, at Jefferson and Franklin avenues, somehow got rid of its two African-American tellers. "I guess by a process of osmosis those black tellers were eliminated," as Seay said.

The bank had been the only one among several in St. Louis' African-American neighborhoods that employed African-American professionals, Seay said. But when the bank relocated south, Seay said, those two tellers were gone.

According to historical accounts, authorities arrested 19 of the protesters. Seay was one of them, and he spent 90 days in the St. Louis jail and city workhouse for his activities fighting for jobs for African Americans.

Norman Seay
Credit File Photo | Rachel Heidenry | Beacon
Norman Seay

On a recent afternoon, Seay welcomed a reporter and photographer into his home in St. Louis' Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood to talk about that time back in 1963. At 78, Seay walks and talks a little more slowly these days. He had a stroke about two years ago, and sometimes he's a little hazy on specific dates.

But he remembers clearly the time of widespread segregation and inequality in St. Louis. And he speaks passionately about why he believes it is still important today for people of good conscience to stand up for justice.

"St. Louis was highly segregated," Seay said, describing what life was like in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He told of department stores and drug stores where African-Americans could not eat at the lunch counters. And how African-Americans couldn't get jobs in downtown establishments, other than as janitors or elevator operators.

"After Jefferson Bank, we were in jail and in the workhouse for 90 days. While I was in the workhouse, I started a school and the school is still in existence. The nuns took it over and then after the nuns the St. Louis Board of Education."

As a teen, Seay had been meeting in a discussion group for young people, sponsored by the National Council of Christians and Jews. The group met in the University City home of Margaret and Irv Dagen, who were starting a St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE.

CORE had emerged initially in Chicago during World War II to challenge racial injustices. The group played an influential role in the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In St. Louis, the Dagens invited the young Seay to join them. It was CORE that led many of the demonstrations around town, including at the Jefferson Bank.

Norman Seay holds a photo from the Jefferson Bank demonstrations
Credit File Photo | Rachel Heidenry | Beacon
Norman Seay holds a photo from the Jefferson Bank demonstrations.

As Seay reflects on the time that has passed since his early protest days, he acknowledges the gains that have been made. While St. Louis has struggled to see racial parity among the ranks of its police and fire departments, both have had African Americans as chiefs. Where the public transportation system once hired only whites as drivers, African-American men and women operate many of the buses and MetroLink trains that run throughout the metropolitan area.

Still, Seay said, more work needs to be done. Racism today is no longer as obvious as it once was, he said. "It's sneaky. It's subtle," Seay said. Even in a nation with a president who is African American, racism and sexism continue to make it difficult for women and people of color to reach their full potential, Seay said.

"The employees of a company that was right across the street (from the bank) wanted to cash their checks. And we said, 'You can't go in there.' And they said, 'Oh yes, we are.' So we stood in front of the doors and they walked passed us. Once they got passed us, some of us went into the bank and sat and sang. We sang 'We Shall Overcome.' When the bank closed at 6 o'clock, we left and went home. The sheriff came to the door of Marian Oldham's house and arrested her. The rest of us then surrendered."

"We still need to do more to make sure all kids are getting a good education," so they can compete in a struggling economy. And parents need to be more active in their children's lives to keep them out of trouble, he said.

Seay gave credit to Karen Kalish, who leads Cultural Leadership, which works with high school students to help them recognize and resolve issues of privilege and injustice. (Click here and here to read the Beacon's coverage of the Cultural Leadership program.)

And he pointed to the Better Family Life organization, under the leadership of Malik Ahmed and Carolyn Seward, as one that is doing a good job of working with St. Louisans to promote stability and self-sufficiency.

But when asked who he sees as the future leaders of the civil rights movement in St. Louis, Seay shakes his head.

Who are the next generation of Frankie Freemans, Margaret Bush Wilsons and William Clays? Who is the next Norman Seay?

"I don't think we did a very good job of raising up new leaders," he said. After thinking for a moment, he mentions Montague Simmons, chairman of the Organization for Black Struggle. "I think he's doing something good," Seay said. (Click here to read the Beacon's profile of Simmons.)

Seay remains active with the Urban League and the NAACP and said he is working to compile a report on the state of African Americans in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

With widespread problems such issues as unemployment, crime and teenage parents, he said he sees much work to be done.

There is another sign of tangible progress, however, that makes Seay smile. These days, when he has money transactions, he goes to the Bank of America branch at St. Louis and North Florissant avenues.

"They have a black manager and assistant manager," he said. "And all the tellers are fully integrated."

If you go

What: 47th Jefferson Bank & Trust Commemoration

Where: 2301 Market Street 

When: 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Aug. 27

More information: Donald Gammon, 314-578-6357

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.