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.”
No one seemed to recognize the irony in their dilemma. All whites had to do was welcome blacks to their neighborhoods. “White flight,” after all, was voluntary.
Social taboos about race were not solely economic, of course.
At 16, my dad taught me how to drive. His lessons were different from those in driver’s ed class, however. He showed me how to avoid inadvertently driving into black neighborhoods or near the large housing projects in St. Louis — Pruitt-Igoe and the Cochran Apartments. Only a few years later, both were torn to the ground. But not before I learned to steer clear of them, in the most literal sense of the phrase.
My high school graduating class of more than 1,000 — near the height of the baby boom — counted only three blacks in its ranks. One of them was named Al, a school football star and an open, friendly kid. I talked about him so much my parents grew nervous. My mother — a devout Southern Baptist — warned me never to invite Al over to our house. The neighbors would be displeased.
“It’s just the way things are.”
Other minorities fared no better. My junior high social studies teacher told his class to read about the Mayas and Incas but to skip chapters on Native Americans in the course textbook. American Indians “had no culture,” he said.
In Ferguson and other suburbs across America, whites erected legal barriers to the mixing of the races. Zoning laws barred renters or limited building density to keep low-cost apartments from being erected. Banks were reluctant to write mortgages for minorities.
Over the years, the courts barred such barriers.
As the hurdles started to fall, blacks joined the postwar rush to the suburbs, which had been postponed — for them — for decades. Over a generation, Ferguson changed dramatically. In 1990, the census found whites outnumbered blacks two to one. In 2010, the ratio was reversed. Two-thirds of the residents were nonwhite.
Yet the town continued to be run by what has become the white minority. In particular, the Ferguson police force had only three blacks on a payroll of 53. It was no mystery how that happened.
It pointed out another aspect of economic disparity long apparent in Ferguson and, indeed, throughout St. Louis, one of the most segregated cities in the nation.
When jobs came open, uncles recommend nephews. Fathers commended their sons or brothers. Cousins nominated cousins. Once one race dominates a corner business or local government agency, the pattern resists change.
My father worked in a production job within earshot of the clattering presses of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which contracted with unions to provide “manning” for production departments.
Hiring practices were less than evenhanded. The paper paid the wages, but the International Typographical Union local selected my father, along with a gathering of hundreds of white workers, mostly a tight-knit network of friends and family.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the paper seized control of employment back from the union. But by then the fix was in. Whites dominated in the production side for years to come.
Eventually, Ferguson became a more accessible place for blacks to live, if not to work.
By the time my widowed mother died in 1998, my brother sold her house — to a black buyer. Fred, the Ferguson mailman, years earlier had failed to sell his house next door. When my mother’s house changed hands, Fred said not a word. Maybe it was acceptance. Maybe it was resignation.
Lately, it’s my brother who has been tested.
He and his wife live in Florissant, a “changing suburb” bordering Ferguson, no more than a couple of miles from the tumult of the last week.
One Sunday morning last summer, my sister-in-law noticed a hole in the bedroom wall. The blemish was new. It was the crater of a bullet.
During the night, the ammunition had flown through an open window, chipped a post on the bed where they slept and settled in the wall.
Police blamed a drug deal gone wrong. It was a fight on the next block well after midnight.
My brother was rattled. Yet he hasn’t talked of running away from the neighborhood’s risks. He hasn’t the money or the will to move. Escaping the legacy of our parents in matters of race, economics and social justice probably always was an illusion.
“It’s just the way things are.”
Mike Meyers is a former Star Tribune reporter.