Thinking about Brown v. Board……and me at Ladue High School

I grew up in St. Louis in the 40s and 50s.  Now, St. Louis is not the deep south; in fact, I never thought of it as a southern place at all.  And in most respects, it wasn’t.  But with regard to restrictions on African-Americans, it came pretty damn close.

OK, so we didn’t have separate bathrooms (I don’t think – come to think of it, I guess I really don’t know about that), and we didn’t have separate drinking fountains (of that I am certain), and blacks and whites could sit wherever they wanted to on public buses and street cars (at least I know it’s true on buses and assume the same on the street cars, which I hardly ever rode).  But the schools were all strictly segregated, as were use of most (all?) public parks, and blacks could not get into restaurants or most shops, or places like bowling alleys, swimming pools, and golf courses.  Housing was as segregated as you can get.  And at Sportsman’s Park, where the Cardinals played, blacks could only go to the right field pavilion, where there was a screen to keep them from catching home runs and benches rather than separate seats.

I went to University City, Clayton and Ladue public schools.  No blacks in those schools.  In fact, I don’t know if there were any blacks living in University City at all.  Or Ladue.  There was a small black neighborhood in Clayton, and the kids from that neighborhood when to the Attucks School (what a weird name, I thought), which was pretty prominently located at, if I remember correctly, Hanley and Carondelet (or Bonhomme).

It was sixty years ago that the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board, stating that “separate but equal” was not constitutional because by being separate, schools for African Americans were per se unequal.  And one day, when I was in the 8th grade, in the middle of a school year, I remember when one of the administrators marched into a classroom with two African-American girls and, without further ado, left them, while the teacher told them to find an empty desk.  (Some years later, the school district sold Attucks School, and it became a Polynesian restaurant.  I remember being with a friend ten years or so after high school graduation, when we decided to get lunch.  I suggested the ___________ (the name  slips my mind), and he said “no, he wouldn’t eat there”.  “Why”, I asked?  “Because”, he said, “it used to be a colored school.  I’m not prejudiced but I just don’t want to eat at a colored school”.  I kid you not.)

I think there were two girls and one boy in all placed in the eighth grade at Ladue High School.  My memory is that they all lived in Kinloch, a small, poor, black enclave, located on the north side of the Ladue School District, literally on the other side of the tracks.  Where they went to school before that, I am not sure.  Perhaps, they went all the way into Clayton and went to Attucks.  Perhaps there was a school in Kinloch.  I have no idea.

The two girls  were very quiet.  To my eighth grade mind, they were just quiet kids.  Now, I know that they were scared to death.  Did they ever say anything in any class?  Were they at all academically prepared (not to say socially prepared) for Ladue?  Probably not.  And, at any rate, I have no idea what happened to them.  They disappeared very quickly (were they even back in ninth grade?) without, to my knowledge, leaving a mark.  The boy stayed in school.  He became a rather gregarious and popular kid.  I don’t think I was ever in classes with him, so I don’t know how he did academically.  I remember him as a pretty good athlete, but don’t know if he was ever on any teams, or if he was allowed even to try out for the teams.  One year, I remember he was a class officer, but I am not sure how he performed in that role.  Basically, he was invisible.

In 2010, we had our 50th reunion.  In preparing for the reunion, there were many pieces of mail, and emails.  One of the recurring subjects was the attempt to locate those classmates who had not kept in touch and were hard to find.  The list grew somewhat shorter as the reunion drew closer.  Our one African-American, Ezell Crosby, remained on the “does anyone know where he is?” list.

Thinking back at those high school years, while I assume that there must have been blacks in the classes above and below me, I don’t remember any of them at all.  And, I don’t think that integration was ever really discussed at the school.  The Ladue High School poobahs were quite conservative (they did not allow a senior level social studies course to be called America’s Problems, but forced a change to something like America’s Promise), and social unrest or issues of racial equality would not have been high on their agenda.

I graduated in 1960, so the Civil Rights Act (and even the Kennedy presidency) was still in the future.  Over the mid to late 60s, St. Louis changed quite a bit, but I missed all of that, or only saw it in short glimpses. And not that it didn’t change without some turmoil – for example, the City of Clayton, the progressive county seat of St. Louis County (and I don’t remember the year), closed completely the Shaw Park swimming pool and other recreational facilities, rather than allow black to share them; they did not reopen for at least a year, perhaps two.) Today, I think it is like most other cities – for those African Americans who find a way to step out of poverty and find a place in society, things are pretty good – they can buy houses anywhere, they go to the best schools, they certainly can go to all the shops and restaurants.  I don’t know the racial mix at Ladue today.  I would assume there are more blacks than there were in the 50s, but perhaps not as many as I might think.  I just don’t know.

For the rest of the black population of St. Louis, the schools and the neighborhoods are still de facto, if not de jure, segregated.  We need much more time.

P.S. – on reflection, two things:

1.  I might have been wrong about Kinloch.  Looking at a map, I see that Kinloch was not contingent to the Ladue School District, but actually located further north, near the airport.  Our African American kids must have come from somewhere else.  Was there a small, black enclave in Olivette?  This is at least the direction of Kinloch and perhaps this is what I remember.

2.  Researching a little more the Attucks School in Clayton, I see it went to the 8th grade.  What, if anything, happened after that, I don’t know.  Clayton did close it in 1954, and the building sat vacant for more than ten years.  Then it did become a Polynesian restaurant, The Mainlander, which lasted 13 years, and then it became another restaurant (that I never went into) called Lautrec.  It has since been demolished and, not surprisingly, there is a highrise office building on the site.  It was Hanley and Bonhomme.

3.  Looking at the material on the Ladue School District on-line, not surprisingly the subject of integration does not seem to come up.




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