“Let’s Hope This Doesn’t Get Outta Hand….”

“Let’s Hope This Doesn’t Get Outta Hand….” A local resident expressed hope during a time of despair.  I’m reading the news.  I guess most people have heard about the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent rioting and other shootings in and around Ferguson, Missouri. I was raised there but lived just outside Ferguson. My backyard fence was the city limit. We were sort of sandwiched between Ferguson and Dellwood, two of almost 100 municipalities that make up the St. Louis suburbs. Back in the 1950s there were thousands of families moving out from St. Louis into the new suburban subdivisions. We moved in 1953. Sometimes this is called “White Flight” but much of it was actually pent up housing expansion for young families after the return of the soldiers after WW-II. There was a tremendous housing shortage and a baby boom going on so there had to be this explosion of new housing.  Before we moved there was one room in my grandma’s house for all four of us.  At the same time there was an influx of rural Black families coming up from the South looking for the very same things that those young White families wanted: a decent home, good schools and jobs. We had Cub Scouts and little league parades down Chambers Road.  We borrowed a local farmer’s wheat field for ball games.  Our parents were busy with BBQ and PTA and crab grass control. Most of the dads were gone all day, working in St. Louis. Most of the moms stayed home. The new interstate that cut a swath through the neighborhoods of north St. Louis meant that it was an easy commute if you worked downtown.  Those neighborhoods were irreparably damaged but it was all in the name of progress.  The southern Black families were moving in there anyway so the concept of ‘neighborhood’ was pretty much irrelevant to the city planners.  With the new highways, more White families discovered they could live farther out from the city and still commute to work. The city was bruised and hemorrhaging but during the 1960s, when other American cities erupted in riots and racial violence, St. Louis was mostly quiet.

Back up in the northern suburbs things were going along just fine. The baby boom overwhelmed the school system so there were too many kids in the classrooms, but new schools were being built. The dads had other job opportunities. McDonnell-Douglas (later Boeing) had a huge facility over by the airport so many dads didn’t even have to go into the city.  More jobs moved out of the city into the suburbs.  Things were just fine….hunky-dory.

I can recall one year I had a birthday party at the Ferguson municipal swimming pool. This was in a nice, well-manicured park with a big fishing lake with ducks swimming around.  We would go there for picnics or to fish but this swimming party was a little odd…it only happened once and I only went to that pool one other time. I recall my mom saying that the pool was for Whites only; Blacks were not allowed at the pool. This was probably around 1958 or so and is the only example I can recall of ever encountering a segregated facility.  I remember feeling awkward about it and perhaps that is one reason why I didn’t spend time in that pool but I wasn’t much of a swimmer either so it wasn’t at the top of my list of things to do.  Ferguson was all White as was Dellwood and my neighborhood and most neighborhoods as far as I could walk. There were no Black kids in my school and no Black families at my church.

Over on the other side of Ferguson, somewhere, was Kinloch, a historically black community that had been there for generations – probably since after the Civil War.  Kinloch was a place unto itself – it was as if a southern Black community was picked up by a tornado and dropped in the middle of St. Louis County. It was not an urban Black community by any means.  People had little frame houses. Streets were sort of paved. Everyone had a little garden plot and maybe some chickens. It had a matriarchal social structure and culture. There were a few ladies who seemed like they ran the place. I know that one lady, at least, carried a pistol. That was a different world…almost a different planet from where we were.

Our street and close neighborhood were unincorporated and patrolled by the St. Louis County Police…but we never saw them.  There was seldom any reason for a police presence. We would walk about a mile to the West Florissant and Chambers road intersection where there was a A&P grocery store and some strip malls. That was in Dellwood.  There was a Ben Franklin store where we would go to buy penny candy. I liked those paper strips with the colored sugar dots and you could get a strip for two cents.  They had lik-m-ade, which was sort of like eating Kool-Aid out of the package. Your face and lips would be brightly colored depending on the flavor you got.  They also had some exotic Dutch candy there that we could get sometimes — Whoa…weren’t we sophisticated.  Candy cigarettes were always popular. The old lady that ran the store was sure we were shoplifters and would follow us around the store and sometimes she had other old ladies who would do the job for her. We never took anything but she was convinced that we were all little thieves.

Dellwood didn’t have police…they had Cops. These guys had a sort of swagger and attitude that the County police didn’t exhibit. I recall one time they brought my brother home after some sort of horseplay got out of hand. They were not bullies but not friendly, either. One time I volunteered as a Boy Scout to help locate a stray dog that people thought was rabid (right…send the kids out). We met at the Dellwood police station and were given walkie-talkies to report back if we saw the dog. While we were waiting, the Cop decided it was a good time to demonstrate to the assembled kids his ability to suppress and overpower an adversary and he selected me as his dummy.  It was not an enjoyable experience.  I had no encounters with Ferguson police.  At the time, Ferguson seemed more civilized than Dellwood…it had that nice park.

I grew up and moved away from my neighborhood in the 1970s. I was a public welfare caseworker for several years and would come back to visit some of the poorest families in the area. That’s when I became familiar with Kinloch and the pistol-packing matriarch. I respected her and I was always treated well.  I moved out of St. Louis in 1976 and I really didn’t give the area much thought after that. I knew that it went through a gradual transition to a Black community but that was happening in a lot of “close-in” suburb municipalities. Some White families stayed and are still there. I know some that are still there. Things seemed to be okay on the surface…different but okay.

The police shooting of Michael Brown popped the cork in Ferguson and Dellwood and some other areas close by. So far, I think there have been two or three nights of rioting and looting and at least two other people shot.  Al Sharpton has made an appearance. People are trying to calm things down but there are small armed groups roaming around and causing trouble and the police are reacting with tear gas and SWAT teams. From the news stories, I don’t recognize the area. We never had a Wal-Mart when I was there. I don’t recognize the street names or the apartment complex names.  Some of the churches where meetings are being held sound familiar. If it was a poor neighborhood, riots and looting will make it even poorer. Businesses will move out and other businesses will not move in.

That local resident’s wish…”Let’s Hope This Doesn’t Get Outta Hand….” has blown away on the wind with the tear gas and the smoke from burning stores.  Perhaps things have been “outta hand” for a while.

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