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Jefferson Bank movement turns 50; protesters from far and near recall segregated St. Louis

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
2010 interview, Norman Seay shared this photo of Jefferson Bank protesters being led to jail after their court appearance. A young William Clay is second from left. Seay is the man wearing a hat behind the man with a pocket handkerchief in his jacket.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2013: About two dozen people, some from as far away as New York, California and North Carolina, gathered in the 2300 block of Market Street on Friday afternoon to mark the 50th anniversary of the Jefferson Bank demonstrations. As they took part in the commemorative march, some involved in the original movement offered stories about life in segregated St. Louis half a century ago.

Among protesters from the era were Norman Seay, who is slowed these days by a stroke and uses a walker. He participated in the march in spite of the heat. As the picketing continued, a few rain drops fell, and the weather turned cooler

Norman Seay
Credit Robert Joiner | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Norman Seay

While the Jefferson Bank demonstrations were about jobs, Seay said there were plenty of other concerns, including efforts to prevent blacks from eating at downtown lunch counters and from integrating movie theaters.

The initial demonstration began on Aug. 30, 1963, when at least 150 blacks and whites gathered outside what was then the headquarters of the Jefferson Bank & Trust Co. The protesters wanted to prod the bank to hire blacks for white-collar jobs. Eventually 19 people served jail terms ranging from 60 days to a year and were assessed fines ranging from $500 to $1,000. In March of the following year, CORE, the protest organizer ended the demonstrations after the bank quietly hired five black clerical workers.

Coming from New York to take part in the event were James and Roberta Tournour. A field director for CORE, he grew up in Richmond Heights and recalled segregation in the region. While a student at Washington University, he says he and some friends who were black musicians sought food at a restaurant near the university.

James and Roberta Tournour
Credit Robert Joiner | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
James and Roberta Tournour

“They were willing to serve me, but not my friends,” he says. “We started a CORE chapter and started a sit-in. The place was boycotted and eventually they started serving everybody.”

He says segregation in St. Louis also hit home when he noticed that the western part of Richmond Heights included an enclave of black residents. “There were no sidewalk there, no street lights, and that really struck me.”

His wife, Roberta, was among the 19 arrested during the demonstrations. “We were very much involved in trying to desegregate all kind of eating places in St. Louis. But the real issue was jobs. This bank was serving a minority community and it had not one (high level) minority person working there. It wasn’t right, wasn’t fair.”

She said St. Louis had a reputation at the time for being a progressive city, “but it was like a Southern city. People lived in two different sides of the world.”

Another of those arrested was Herman Thompson, now an attorney in North Carolina. 

“I don’t remember seeing many signs about segregation, but discrimination was everywhere,” he said. “Police would stop and search you without probable cause, but things weren’t as bad as they were in Mississippi and Alabama. One reason I didn’t come back to practice here after law school was because I saw too many black lawyers working at the post office because they couldn’t get jobs being lawyers.”

Percy Green led the march that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Jefferson Bank protests.
Credit Robert Joiner | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Percy Green

As is his custom, civil rights activist Percy Green was leading the demonstrators up and down the sidewalk in front of the bank’s headquarters. He said St. Louis was ripe for change at the time partly because the discrimination was visible to blacks in every walk of life.

“The issue then was jobs and it still is an issue today,” Green said.

Following the commemorative demonstration, eight of the 19 Jefferson Bank demonstrators who were jailed in 1963 were honored at a ceremony at the Missouri History Museum. They included former U.S Rep. William L. Clay. Of the remaining jailed participants, eight are dead and three couldn’t be found, according to Green.

One participant who was not part of the demonstration but felt compelled to participate in Friday’s event was Laura Rand Orthwein Jr., who now lives in Berkeley, Calif., and was Veiled Prophet queen in 1959. She remains fond of St. Louis and still has many friends here.

Orthwein grew up in the Central West End and said living on the block with the late Daniel Schlafly, former head of the St. Louis School Board, influenced her attitude social justice.

“He lived on my side of Westmoreland, and he had tried to integrate the schools since the late 1940s,” she said of Schlafly. “I grew up with his kids, his wife was fabulous, and I had a certain consciousness that came from him. Segregation was personal for me because I knew a lot of African Americans, mostly because they were employed by my parents and I felt very close to them.”

Incidents she recalls from the late '50s involved picketing that included black physicians over the issue of black employment. This occurred in Oct., 1959, the same month she became VP queen, she said.

“That was also the same month that schools were integrated,” she says. “I thought that was progress in those days.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.