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Five years after Kirkwood shootings, residents share different perspectives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2013 - The train still rumbles through downtown Kirkwood at 1:13 each afternoon and 8:58 each evening. Like always, the farmer’s market runs spring to fall. Kids go to school. People go to work. 

In a lot of ways, Kirkwood feels like it always has, a suburb full of old homes, tall trees and generations of people who have long called it home.

The changes since Feb. 7, 2008, when resident Cookie Thornton pulled out a gun at a Kirkwood City Council meeting, ultimately killing six, are here though.

Five years later, meetings and book clubs have been held, some bridges have been built between white and black residents seeking to understand the issues of race and class behind what happened that day. There have been soul-searching and hand-wringing. 

Through the Public Insight Network, the Beacon asked readers how they and Kirkwood have changed, or not, in the aftermath of the shootings.

In their stories below, they note their individual shifts: in the way one woman sees others, in the way another sees her community, in how a newcomer gets to know a city after tragedy, how it feels looking in from outside, and how it feels looking out from within.

“I think we’ve come a long way,” says Rebecca Wiederkehr, a Kirkwoodian. “We have a long way to go.”

Eyes wide open

The first time her eyes were opened to issues of race and racism, Wiederkehr was in high school. Her small Arkansas town was a sundown town, a place where, if you were a person of color, you’d better leave before dark. She couldn't understand why, if you were black and Catholic, there was no school for you. Why were there separate fountains and separate seats in movie theaters? She asked, but no one would really tell her.

Her eyes were opened further as a young nun, teaching in an all-black school in the early '60s.

There, once her young students began trusting her, they told her how they were afriad to walk down certain streets or had bottles thrown at them. 

Each morning, when she stood with her students to recite the Pledge of Alliegance, she felt it was a lie. There was not liberty and justice for all. 

It’s not that Wiederkehr closed her eyes to what she’d seen and learned, exactly, but she left her order and married, eventually moving to Kirkwood. She was so happy to find a home her family could afford, that it took a while to realize the neighborhood was all white. She wasn’t confronted, daily, with social injustice.

Then, Feb. 7 happened.

Wiederkehr, a licensed clinical social worker, was one of many white people who stepped up and wanted to learn more. She joined the Community for Understanding and Hope, a book club, a Dismantling Racism group with her husband, Lee Potts, as well as a Bridges Across Racial Polarization group. She went on a trip to Memphis to visit sites from the civil rights movement and the underground railroad, and participated in a group working to help people understand white privilege,Witnessing Whiteness

"Racism is still alive, and I think one of the sad things about Kirkwood is there’s some denial about that," she said.

Wiederkehr is still involved in the groups she first joined, doing her own work. A lot has happened in that time, she says. A lot still needs to happen. Now, she’s witnessing it all with eyes wide.

Splintered apart

Fonda Fantroy Richards has lived in Kirkwood most of her life. And her whole life, she’s had to work hard to fit in. It was easier for Richards, in some ways, because she lived in the "right part" of town, on Argonne Drive, maybe, or went to a church that widened her social circles. 

Though she’d had to work for it as a woman of color, Kirkwood was her home. People knew her and greeted her. She felt part of things.

Then, Feb. 7 happened.

“All of the sudden, my community had just splintered,” she says. “You could feel it.”

Out in public, white strangers wouldn’t look at her or say hello. Her white friends wouldn’t talk about the tragedy around her. Internally, Richards felt the splintering herself. She thought what Thornton did was unforgivable. It wasn’t about color, she thought, but right and wrong.

The day of his funeral, one family member attended, while Richards stood across the street, watching the burial of a police officer. 

In the eyes of the community, she was expected to be one way, and she wasn’t. In the eyes of some in her family, she was expected to feel one way, and she didn’t. 

In the five years since, things have gotten back to normal, in some ways. People smile at her again in public and look her in the eye. 

"The comfortable feeling is back," she said.

It’s great that some white people in Kirkwood have reached out and tried to understand better, but Richards thinks the people who really needed it have not.

Kirkwood is still home, as it’s been for three generations. But now, she thinks, the splinters that have always existed are just more visible.

Outsider looking in

Antona Smith and her family moved to Kirkwood from the Kansas City area in August 2007. It was hard to find a place both she and her husband liked, but Kirkwood seemed like that place. It wasn’t too far from the city, the schools were good. 

Then, Feb. 7 happened. 

She was home, just down the street from City Hall, sitting upstairs reading, when the telephone began to ring. It didn’t stop for most of the night.

“I was ready to pack up and move back to my house in Kansas City,” Smith says. “I did not sign up for this.”

She didn’t then know the history between Meacham Park, a predominantly African-American neigbhorhood, and the rest of Kirkwood, which is predominantly white. But she quickly learned. And she saw an opportunity to better understand her new home. Right away, Smith began attending community events and worked as a facilitator for CFUH, among other things. It was and is important to talk and try and understand, she says.

"I think for some people in Kirkwood, the soul-searching has been beneficial," Smith said.

She said she thinks Kirkwood is like a microcosm of St. Louis. There are people who’ve given up trying to make change, people who’ll never start, and people who know it’s an endless task.

Something at her daughter’s school recently reinforced that last part. 

In class, Smith’s daughter, Kiden-Aloyse, stepped in and spoke out when a young white classmate talked about Meacham Park as a poor ghetto. Kiden-Aloyse is a fifth grader at Robinson Elementary.

"And my daughter was like, have you ever been over there? It’s not like that."

As a newcomer, Smith probably won’t ever fit in to Kirkwood, newcomers rarely do, she says. But she is learning about this place that’s now her home, and working to make it better and willing to stay around to see that happen. Among other things, Smith is running for a seat on the Kirkwood School Board in the April 2 election. She, along with Marie Kelly, Darnel Frost, Eric Christian Peterson and Amy Russell are competing for two open seats on the board.

Not here

In February 2007, Claire Berman lived in University City. She grew up in south St. Louis, lives now in Boston and has never lived in Kirkwood. But still, she remembers that day.

Berman was aware of segregation in St. Louis, though growing up she felt sheltered from it. So just after the shooting, when people began declaring that things like this didn't happen in Kirkwood, Berman felt that, too.

"I was like, oh, my God, City Hall in Kirkwood? Kirkwood?"

A few years ago, Berman spent more than a year in Swaziland, where she volunteered with Save the Children. There, she began to understand race in ways she hadn't before.

Then, she moved to Boston, which, like St. Louis, feels segregated, she says, and took a class on white people challenging racism.

"I could kind of see things with a new lens."

For instance, when people say this can't happen here, Berman says, it implies that it's expected, even normal, in other places. And, she thinks, that’s racist.

"It's so offensive," she says. "It's like, it's OK when it happens in a place that's predominantly people of color."

And, as she's learned in the last five years, it's just wrong. The world is more complex than notions of “that doesn’t happen here.”

"Of course it can happen here," she says. "It can happen anywhere because people of all races are good and bad and violent and nonviolent."

From ashes, light

After college, Scott Stearman traveled to China. There, 6'3" and white as a ghost, he was a walking circus, attracting attention everywhere he went. 

And he had a revelation.

"This is what it's like to be a minority."

Stearman and his wife spent seven years at an international church in Paris, where they had a multi-ethnic and international congregation. Then, they moved to Kirkwood.

He's from Oklahoma, originally, and she's from Mississippi, "but we both said it's the most segregated place we've ever lived."

Cecelia Stearman founded and became director of the Community Gospel Choir, with the mission of breaking down race, class and cultural barriers in St. Louis. And Stearman, senior pastor at Kirkwood Baptist Church, began working to build bridges into Meacham Park. 

Then, Feb. 7 happened.

What occurred that day was unspeakable, he says now. But there has been change since.

"Sometimes it takes something like this to make you really sensitive to the reality of what it's like."

In the five years since that day, he's seen more people work harder to understand each other. He's seen real and positive responses from the mayor and the chief of police; he has built new relationships and projects to make Kirkwood a better place, including helping to start CFUH and Hands On Kirkwood, a one-day mission blitz that works to help people in Kirkwood help each other.

"Kirkwood really is coming together to build bridges and do the right thing for its citizens," he said.

Maybe it sounds flippant to talk about the positive things that have happened in the last five years, he said. What happened that day was tragic. 

"But the truth is that out of the ashes of that, there have been some things that have taken place that have been positive."