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A historical marker now commemorates Clayton’s displaced Black community

"A Community Remembered" marker at 7700 Carondelet Avenue in downtown Clayton on Tuesday May 21, 2024. Last month, the Clayton Commemorative Landscape Task Force dedicated a historical marker to the city’s Black community, which was displaced due to racial discrimination in the 50s.
Theo R. Welling / St. Louis Public Radio
"A Community Remembered" marker at 7700 Carondelet Ave. in downtown Clayton on Tuesday. Last month, the Clayton Commemorative Landscape Task Force dedicated a historical marker to the city’s Black community, which was displaced in the 1950s.

Adrian Rice has been collecting photos and artifacts that tell the story of his family’s life in Clayton, which was home to a tight-knit Black community for 80 years.

“I wanted them to be honored for the different and hard experiences that they had to endure during their lives,” Rice said.

Once strong and thriving, Clayton’s Black community was wiped out by urban renewal policies that drove out several hundred residents during the 1950s and '60s. Last month, an historical marker was unveiled by the city to commemorate those who were pushed out of a place they had long called home.

“I see so much happening now where history is becoming, erased, displaced, changed,” Rice said. “And I think that having that marker will preserve the history and accounts of what really happened for future generations to come.”

At the peak in the 1940s, there were nearly 500 Black people living and working in Clayton. The community was small and tight-knit, said Donna Rogers-Beard, a retired Clayton High School teacher who has been researching the city’s history for more than a decade.

At that time, most of Clayton’s Black residents owned or rented homes between Hanley and Brentwood. Generations of families attended the church and an all-Black elementary school, Rogers-Beard said.

“Clayton had become this booming community but landlocked. So [the city] begins to look at the most vulnerable population, the cheapest property and a rezoning,” Rogers-Beard said.

The residential property where many of the Black residents lived was rezoned as commercial in 1952 and cleared over a period of several years to make way for the suburb’s business center.

Adrian Rice's photo collage reflects his family's history in Clayton.
Photo courtesy of Adrian Rice
Adrian Rice's photo collage reflects his family's history in Clayton.

“By 1961, it's over. The Black church, which was the fourth-oldest church in Clayton, holds its final service in October of 1961. And basically, what happens is the doors just shut and the history is erased of that community,” Rogers-Beard said.

Derek Novel, who grew up in Clayton in the '50s, remembers what the city was like before the high-rise apartments and office buildings that now make up the downtown business district.

His grandfather was a farmer who owned parcels of land all over St. Louis County, including in Clayton. In the 1950s, his father, like other families, received a letter telling him to sell and move out of their home.

“[Our] house on Bonhomme became the 7777 building, a Clayton office building,” Novel said.

Rogers-Beard, who contributed research to Clayton’s Commemorative Landscape Task Force, said she is hopeful the marker will uplift the community’s history, though she believes Clayton should also provide affordable housing to live up to its aspirations of being a diverse city.

“When I first came [to St. Louis], people just looked at me like: ‘Are you kidding me? No, there are no Black people in Clayton,’” Rogers-Beard said. “So that is slowly, slowly going away, and people are understanding their history.”

To hear more from Donna Rogers-Beard and Derek Novel about what Clayton was like before its Black community was displaced, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify and YouTube, or click the play button below.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.