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Ferguson's yesterdays offer clues to the troubled city of today

Ferguson's downtown was bustling in the late 1950s when this picture was taken. The view of Florissant Road is from the railroad viaduct.
Ferguson Historical Society
Ferguson's downtown was bustling in the late 1950s when this picture was taken. The view of Florissant Road is from the railroad viaduct.

The photo is an iconic image of post-World War II America: A bustling downtown main street lined with sturdy Chevys, Fords and Chryslers. Pedestrians strolling past a hodgepodge of storefronts with flashy light-up signs: Barbays Self-Service Market, King Drugs, Florsheim shoes, Coca Cola.


This was Ferguson, Mo., in the late 1950s, just past the midpoint of its 120-year history.


It was a city on the upswing. The population doubled between 1950 and 1960 — to just over 22,000, and the city was also expanding geographically. In 1964, annexation would land the primarily residential community an industrial plum: The Emerson Electric plant that was built outside the city limits in 1940.


But by the end of the 1960s, city leaders were eyeing the future with wariness. 


A proposed redevelopment would “stop blight in its tracks,” city manager James D. Arnold told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in March 1967. He talked about preserving home values and warned of a potentially deteriorating situation in the business district that would soon “reflect itself in adjacent residential areas.”


Ferguson was also dealing with a racially charged controversy. Residents of Kinloch, the city’s tiny all-black neighbor, wanted Ferguson to remove a barrier on its border that blocked a major avenue and prevented motorists from using it to drive into or out of Kinloch. 


Ferguson Mayor John Brawley ordered the street opened in 1968, the same year Larman Williams became one of the first African Americans to buy a home in Ferguson. But a councilman’s efforts to build a 10-foot fence between the two communities — the so-called “Berlin wall” — would continue into the 1970s and make national headlines. 


Yes, the times they were a-changin’. 


November 2014: A Ferguson resident responds to the turmoil.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
November 2014: A Ferguson resident responds to the turmoil.

  Why Ferguson?


Last summer, that question swirled amid the haze of smoke bombs and tear gas suffocating the city during nightly standoffs between demonstrators and police clad in riot gear.


The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year-old, by Darren Wilson, a white city police officer, on Aug. 9, 2014, sparked protests that would be reported live on television and social media — and watched all over the world.


What had made Ferguson — a dot on the map in America’s heartland — such a tinderbox?


Analysts provided an answer-in-a-nutshell: White flight and a local government lacking in diversity. Ferguson’s population had held steady — at just over 21,000 in the 2010 U.S. Census. African Americans now comprised two-thirds of the city’s population, but its police force and city council were nearly all white. And within days of Michael Brown’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating, not only his shooting, but also widespread allegations of civil rights violations and racial profiling. 


For some residents, the portrayal felt unfair and didn’t square with the Ferguson they know: The one where black and white residents live side by side in diverse neighborhoods dotted with century homes. Where the historic downtown, with its landmark train depot, was showing signs of new energy.


The protests shined a light on a divided community, said Todd Swanstrom, a public policy professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has written about the consequencesof racial and economic segregation in neighborhoods.


“You have the east side, which is predominantly African American and poor,'' he said. "And the west side which is actually racially mixed — a pretty diverse community with more homeowners and middle incomes.'’

Swanstrom said that Ferguson had taken steps to counter the processes of suburban decline that challenge all of the older inner-ring suburbs of north St. Louis County. In recent years, that included remaking the downtown business district — and there was a sense that the western part of Ferguson was "lifting up.""The problem is that the eastern edge of Ferguson has high poverty and resembles the poorest parts of North County,'' he said. "This is where the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and where most of the demonstrations occurred — and the violence.’’  



Ferguson's renovated depot in the historic business district.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson's renovated depot in the historic business district.

The site of the shooting, outside the Canfield Green apartment complex, is in a neighborhood that looks like a peninsula on the city map -- a chunk of land acquired through annexation that stands apart from the neighborhoods of single-family homes that make up most of the city.  

Historian John A. Wright, who writes about the history of African Americans in St. Louis, said it wasn't surprising that some residents didn't recognize the Ferguson they saw on TV and Twitter.


“People who live around the depot, they never go in that part of Ferguson. There are no stores there. No community gatherings. You’re oblivious, just as if you live in West County -- the highways take you past the inner city. You don’t know it’s decaying, falling down, because you never see it,’’ said Wright. He served as superintendent of Kinloch public schools and then as assistant superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant public schools after the districts were merged by a federal court order in 1975.


In a way, history in Ferguson stopped and then re-started on Aug. 9, 2014. And the experts will be studying the whys for decades to come.


But a look through the archives provides some interesting addendums: In 1994 — Ferguson’s centennial year — a national conference on integration was held in the city, and a Ferguson mayor once led the charge for merging St. Louis County’s tangle of municipalities. 


Here are five takeaways about Ferguson from the pages of history:


1936: A Wabash Railroad passenger train at Ferguson.
Credit State Historical Society of Missouri
1936: A Wabash Railroad passenger train at Ferguson.


1. The significance of the train depot 


Ferguson began as a farm settlement about a half-day’s wagon ride from the big city, says Ruth Brown of the Ferguson Historical Society. Her grandfather was the town’s first grocer; he moved to the community before it incorporated as a city in 1894.  

 In the early years, well-to-do St. Louisans moved to Ferguson to escape the grime of the crowded city. They built fine, sprawling homes with big front porches to enjoy the clean country air. A Ferguson landmark commission has designated 80 “century homes” in the city.



1915: The old streetcar loop in Ferguson. In the background are Belleville's Market and Deckmeyer's Drug Store.
Credit Ferguson Historical Society
1915: The old streetcar loop in Ferguson. In the background are Belleville's Market and Deckmeyer's Drug Store.


Ferguson was never a manufacturing or business center.  The city’s livelihood was found in its access to St. Louis, where the jobs were. In 1904 — the year of the St. Louis World’s Fair — 42 commuter trains a day ran through Ferguson.  In 1900, a streetcar line became another option for commuters. The Kirkwood-Ferguson Line eventually became the longest in the area and operated until after World War II. 


But it was the railroad that gave life — and a name — to Ferguson.


In 1855, farmer William B. Ferguson donated nine acres of land to the North Missouri Railroad for a commuter line that would run between the cities of St. Louis and St. Charles. He had two conditions: The station was to be given his name, and the train had to make frequent stops there. 


When Ferguson incorporated in 1894, it covered one square mile and had 1,200 residents. The original city limits are designated by the dotted lines in the center of this map from the Ferguson Historical Society. Incorporation had its share of critics. In 1901, seven years after incorporation,160 residents signed a petition to "disincorporate," telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that their city had been transformed from a "peaceful, happy place into a western boom town."
Credit Ferguson Historical Society
When Ferguson incorporated in 1894, it covered one square mile and had 1,200 residents. The original city limits are designated by the dotted lines in the center of this map from the Ferguson Historical Society. Incorporation had its share of critics. In 1901, seven years after incorporation,160 residents signed a petition to "disincorporate," telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that their city had been transformed from a "peaceful, happy place into a western boom town."


The North Missouri fell into financial trouble in 1871 and the line eventually became part of the Wabash Railroad.


Ferguson was originally from Ohio and came to the Ferguson area as a newlywed in 1845. After the Civil War, he began developing a community around the train station. He hired an engineer to map streets and build houses.  Ferguson later left the community and moved to California.  


The current train depot, which now houses a custard shop and lunch eatery, was built around 1885, one of hundreds of small track-side stations built by the railroad throughout the Midwest. 


Before the town built up around it, Ferguson residents used the depot as a community center. It served as a polling place and a Sunday meeting space for churches. Residents used the depot’s telegraph to send and receive messages. A train whistle summoned volunteers to fight fires.


Eventually, the station had eight tracks for switching and was a major freight depot. After passenger service ended in 1960, the Norfolk Southern Railroad continued to use the station until 1988.


The city bought the depot for a dollar in 1991, with plans to preserve it as a historical landmark — an effort that took a decade to complete.



Commuters wait at the Ferguson depot. The photo is believed to have been taken in 1904.
Credit Ferguson Historical Society
Commuters wait at the Ferguson depot. The photo is believed to have been taken in 1904.

2. The first schools, including one older than the city    

Central Elementary School on Wesley Avenue was built in 1880, 14 years before Ferguson would become a city. 


A school board formed by local businessmen picked a site near the train depot for a new school to replace a one-room school built just after the Civil War. They spent $5,600 to build the solid two-story structure of red brick, with twice the space needed at the time for the area’s white schoolchildren. There were two classrooms on the first floor, and the second floor served as a community space until it was needed as classrooms.



Central Elementary School
Credit Ferguson-Florissant School District
Central Elementary School

The original structure, which has been updated and expanded through the decades, is still in use as an elementary school in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Central is the oldest school in north St. Louis County and is on the National Register of Historic Places.


In 1885 -- five years after Central opened -- the Ferguson school board built Vernon School for African-American children. It was a small frame building on a one-acre lot south of the train station. Vernon served first through eighth grades; high school students were sent to Douglass High School in Webster Groves. The school was closed frequently in the early years because enrollment dropped below 10, the minimum number of students required.


A small number of African Americans lived in late 19th-century Ferguson. Most were former slaves of prominent landowners like Marshall Brotherton, a St. Louis banker, and Thomas T. January, chairman of the North Missouri Railroad. After the emancipation of slaves in Missouri in 1865, January gave his former slaves property on his estate to build homes.



The first Vernon School, built in 1885.
Credit Ferguson Historical Society
The first Vernon School, built in 1885.

In an essay written in 1952, Virginia Penn Kelley described the rural community as it existed at the end of the 1800s. She noted that many who lived in the Ferguson area during the Civil War had been pro-South. And Vernon School, she wrote, “is a remarkable achievement, for this school is for Negro children in a village where feeling has been strongly Confederate and not interested in educating Negros. It hasn’t come to pass easily, but the President of the School Board was a lawyer from Philadelphia who believed that all children should have schooling and he finally persuaded his fellows on the board to his point of view ...’’


(Kelley’s essay was published in “Ferguson: A City And Its People,” a history published in 1976 by the Ferguson Historical Society.)


In 1927, the Ferguson school district built a new brick Vernon School at the western edge of the district for African-American students who lived in Ferguson and neighboring Kinloch Park. Until 1902, when Kinloch Park established its own school district, both white and African-American students from that community attended Ferguson schools. 



John A. Wright
Credit St. Louis American
John A. Wright


Kinloch Park was a bustling white commuter suburb at that point in time, said Wright,  who wrote  “Kinloch: Missouri’s First All-Black Town.''


The community, which was developed in the 1890s, always had a small number of African-American residents; most worked as servants, he said. But that population began to grow after an African-American couple was able to purchase property through their friendship with a white owner. After the sale, white families stopped moving to Kinloch Park, and a real estate company began selling lots to African Americans.


In his book, Wright describes the growing political strength of African-American residents of Kinloch. In 1927, an African-American pastor was elected to the three-member Kinloch School Board, and he began pressing for better treatment of the district's African-American students. 


By 1937, the Kinloch school district had 543 black students and 349 white students. White residents, who lived in the northern part of the community wanted to form their own school district. When that failed, they split from Kinloch Park, incorporated as the city of Berkeley and started their own schools. 


Wright said that African-American children, who lived in a two-block section of Kinloch that had remained in the Ferguson school district, continued to attend Vernon School -- which remained all-black until it closed in 1967, 13 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools.


Kinloch public schools faced overwhelming financial difficulties, Wright said. There was little tax base left in the community after the Berkeley split, and Kinloch would become one of the poorest communities in the United States. 


In 1975, U.S. District Judge Meredith ordered a merger of the Ferguson-Florissant, Berkeley and Kinloch school districts to achieve desegregation. 



Until 1968, a barrier at the end of Suburban Avenue in Ferguson blocked access for motorists entering or leaving Kinloch. In recent years, Ferguson added landscaped planters to its stretch of the roadway that was once the Suburban streetcar line. .
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Until 1968, a barrier at the end of Suburban Avenue in Ferguson blocked access for motorists entering or leaving Kinloch. In recent years, Ferguson added landscaped planters to its stretch of the roadway that was once the Suburban streetcar line. .



3. The “Berlin Wall” controversy


In 1975, Councilman Carl Kersting proposed building a 10-foot fence between a Ferguson neighborhood and the adjacent city of Kinloch.

Ferguson and Kinloch
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap
Ferguson and Kinloch



Kersting claimed the fence would help curb vandalism and burglaries.


Opponents dubbed it “the Berlin Wall” and said the plan was motivated by racism. (This was the same year that a federal judge ordered the Ferguson-Florissant School District to merge with the Kinloch and Berkeley school districts.)


After weeks of political infighting and negative publicity, Ferguson Mayor Charles H. Grimm voted with the 4-3 majority to defeat the plan. But Kersting was unrelenting and continued to push measures that would have allowed homeowners to build fences themselves, with low-interest loans provided by the city. 


The fence was never built. But the story was picked up by the national wire services, and, by 1975 standards, it went viral.  


The story about the fence resurfaced during news coverage of the Michael Brown shooting, along with  comments Kersting had made earlier about Kinloch teenagers he accused of throwing rocks and bottles at Ferguson homes: “We should call a black a black and not be afraid to face up to these people.’’


Kersting’s efforts were opposed by picketers who showed up at City Council meetings, according to news accounts from the period. And Mayor Grimm publicly criticized Kersting for creating “barriers and tensions” between the people of Kinloch and the people of Ferguson.


“Our country faces too many unnecessary conflicts, not only between races but among the same race. There is no room in this nation for hate or rancor. Our problems will only be solved in the spirit of love and understanding,” Grimm said in a statement reported by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in April 1975. 


The “crime wall,’’ as some referred to it, was just one more salvo in an ongoing crusade by Kersting that started a decade earlier. 


In 1968, Mayor John G. Brawley agreed to a request from Kinloch to remove a barrier that blocked access to that city from Suburban Avenue, which was named for the streetcar line that once ran down it. Kinloch residents hoped that Bi-State would add a bus line down Suburban. Julia Boyd of Kinloch told the Globe-Democrat that such a bus line was needed because there were no shopping centers in the community and people had to leave it to buy many things. 


The Ferguson Ministerial Alliance said the barrier had become a symbol of racial segregation -- a reminder of Ferguson’s years as a sundown town when Kinloch residents were allowed to work in Ferguson but had to leave the city by nightfall.


In a retrospective on Ferguson published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1982, Brawley told reporter John M. McGuire that the time had come for the barrier to come down. He believed the efforts to keep it were an attempt to keep African Americans out of Ferguson: “As long as it was there, it kept them out. Or, at least that was the thinking. There was a little bigotry going on.”



1947: Ferguson's old city hall.
Credit Ferguson Historical Society
1947: Ferguson's old city hall.

4. The mayor who wanted to build a region  

Brawley, who was Ferguson's mayor during the mid-1960s and early 1970s was one of the era's most vocal advocates of what the Post-Dispatch called “regional-think.”


Brawley was also chairman of the Bi-State Development Agency. He said the web of municipalities and taxing bodies in the St. Louis region prevented progress and kept problems from being solved. Brawley supported the creation of a St. Louis Area Council of Governments, a  “superagency” that could cross metropolitan borders to deal with the region’s big issues like crime, poverty, unemployment and pollution.


In 1974, the Post-Dispatch devoted a cover of its Sunday magazine to profile Brawley, describing the slender 6-foot-2-inch mayor as “a tall persuader with long-range view.”


Brawley told the newspaper, “There are something like 350 different jurisdictions in St. Louis County alone, and while I think it would be better to reduce that number through merger, I don’t argue with the smaller communities retaining their local authority and identity, as long as they cooperate in those things beyond their borders that are of area-wide importance -- things like air pollution, waste disposal and mass transit.’’


At one point, Brawley proposed -- unsuccessfully -- that Ferguson merge with the adjacent towns of Kinloch and Berkeley.


Forty years later, public policy analysts say the issues of economic disparity and social injustice that surfaced in Ferguson are bigger than one city -- they need to be addressed regionally.



Todd Swanstrom
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Todd Swanstrom

“You can’t expect an individual community to solve the problems of the region,’’ Swanstrom said. “What you have in Ferguson is a community that had done a lot of work, but it’s under a tremendous amount of pressure. You have a broader geography of race and class here that Ferguson is a part of. But one individual community cannot solve these problems if we as a region don’t address them.”


Revelations that Ferguson and other small county municipalities were using traffic fines to balance city budgets are an indication of the depth of  the region's dysfunction, he said.


“This whole system of milking residents and nonresidents through traffic fines and court fees was very oppressive and exploitative and was bound to erupt at some point,’’  Swanstrom said. “When we see how big this was, we can see that it is very serious that we as a region didn’t know it existed prior to the demonstrations.” 



Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio


5. The Ferguson conference on integration


In  1994, Ferguson celebrated its centennial with a gala dinner and festival. Singer Michael McDonald, who was born in Ferguson, gave a free concert. Other performers included the Katherine Dunham Company, Polish dancers and rock bands. 


Ferguson was a community in transition, and that October, nearly 200 people attended the National Oak Park Exchange Congress -- an annual conference to help communities promote diversity through integration. The conference was sponsored by a coalition of Ferguson residents and held at Florissant Valley Community College.


The congress was started by housing advocates in Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was one of the first American cities to adopt a fair housing law to support integration. 


Ferguson residents concerned about white flight in North St. Louis County had attended the conferences since they were started in the late 1970s.


In 1994, Ferguson’s population of 22,000 was about 70 percent white and nearly 30 percent black -- the reverse of what they are now.


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered the conference, noting that Ferguson had just adopted a new marketing slogan “Ferguson … Community of Choice.” The city hired two African-American employees -- the first to work at City Hall – and now required vendors who did business with the city to have equal opportunity policies. 


Oak Park’s strategy included working with local realtors and lenders to provide fair housing opportunities and avoid “re-segregation” of neighborhoods as more African Americans moved into the city. Oak Park also strengthened building codes to maintain housing standards. 


Susan Ankenbrand, then a Ferguson city council woman, was quoted in the Post-Dispatch story: “There’s a difference in a community that has a minority community and one that has integration. It doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it,’’ she said.


Ankenbrand, now 72, still lives in Ferguson. She said she participated in the Oak Park conference because she felt that her city could learn from the experiences of other communities. It is clear, she added, that improvements need to be made.


“But I like to think that if we hadn’t done anything that this would not have remained an integrated community,’’ she said. 


Sources for this story include: "Ferguson: A City and Its People," published in 1976 by the Ferguson Historical Society; "Ferguson: A City Remembered," published in 1994 by the Ferguson Historical Society; "Kinloch: Missouri's First Black City'' by John A. Wright, published in 2000; the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

View of Florissant Road in the 1920s.
Credit Ferguson Historical Society
View of Florissant Road in the 1920s.

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Public Radio

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.
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