It was mostly white then, and the coming change in the population was resisted.
I’ve always told people that I’m from St. Louis, even though I actually grew up in one of its sleepy suburbs. An obscure burg called Ferguson, Mo.
After days of rage and riot, now almost everyone has heard of Ferguson. Maybe I’ll keep telling people I’m from St. Louis. Or Missouri. Or the Midwest. Or the Milky Way galaxy.
I know nothing more than anyone else about the violent death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white cop or the chaos in its aftermath. I have no special insight into armor-clad police brandishing rifles, angry crowds dodging tear gas, thugs pillaging or the governor calling out the National Guard.
I have many memories, however, of how white people in Ferguson mistrusted people with dark skin, kept them at bay — and without a fair shake — for decades before the hot summer of 2014. My own working-class father and churchgoing mother were fervent supporters of the whites-rule-the-roost status quo.
“It’s just the way things are,” my mother would say.
The Ferguson where I grew up, in the 1960s, was home mostly to whites who came of age in the Depression, scratching out a living as welders, nurses, cashiers, bricklayers, auto mechanics and factory machine operators. Missing a paycheck risked not paying the bills. They anguished about their unsteady grip on modest houses and small plots of land.
Ferguson never was a prestige address. The view from my parents’ living room window was a glowing sign for “Slick’s Clean Cars,” the used auto lot across the street. On the way to the school bus stop, I sometimes would step around used condoms on the sidewalk. (Whoever was having sex wasn’t in my teen social circle.)
One perceived peril many Ferguson whites dreaded was racial integration. People who had little feared people who had even less.
St. Louis had a long history of Jim Crow. As a boy of perhaps 8 or 9, I had a friend whose father was a railroad telegrapher. I got to spend a night at Union Station, the grand-but-fading rail terminal in the city.
It was the late 1950s, years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.” But the signs outside the Union Station restrooms had not caught up with the court. Some doors still were marked “Colored.”
I didn’t have to leave home to witness discrimination.
When I was nearly 20, still living with my parents in Ferguson, our next-door neighbor came over for a visit. Fred, a mailman, was thinking of retiring and moving to another state. His message went beyond that news, however.
“I want you to know I would never sell my house to blacks,” Fred said. “I would never do that to you.”
My parents displayed unmistakable relief and gratitude.
Mom and Dad never would have burned a cross in anyone’s yard or shouted hateful slurs. But, as whites without high school diplomas, they looked on blacks as potential economic rivals and as an imminent menace.
If one black moved onto the block, how many whites quickly would move away, selling at fire-sale prices? Row after row of 1,000-square foot, two-bedroom/one-bathroom houses today don’t seem like treasures. In the 1960s and 1970s, they were all that working-class whites had. And they strove to keep those houses beyond the reach of blacks.
“It’s just the way things are.”
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