“Anywhere But Here”: Exploring Black Flight in St. Louis (Part 1)

The author, during the late 1970s, walking in her St. Louis neighborhood. (Courtesy of Lyndsey Ellis)





I did not go to my 20 Year High School Reunion. The obvious reason is I was out of town that weekend, which made it easier to avoid being part of the minority of single, childless graduates there at the event—still a blasphemous predicament that clashes with the Midwest’s conventional norms. The harder answer is that I did not want to see (or not see) the growing number of old acquaintances and longtime friends who no longer called themselves St. Louisans.

I get it. Having left St. Louis for California back in 2005, I can relate to the bottomless curiosity that sparks a need to see beyond shotgun houses and strip malls surrounded by shocks of greenery, the celebrated slurred ‘rrr’s that rappers Nelly and Chingy helped nationalize across radio airwaves at the time, the shrimp St. Paul sandwiches from my favorite Chop Suey, the loudmouth cicadas in the summertime, and the double-minded weather year-round.

While away, I did what is common among many transients and fell into a dance of romanticizing and vilifying my hometown, depending on the circumstance. I started grasping how elders like the late pastor of my childhood church—a Mississippi-born migrant that escaped the Jim Crow South—could praise St. Louis for being their refuge amid damning conditions endured by Black Southerners and then criticize the same city they fled to for what they perceived as a fragile community ill-equipped to tackle hard times. Deep down, I sensed it was their convoluted way of coming to terms with leaving one kind of hell for another. And, while I would not equate their complicated experiences to that of becoming a west coaster decades later, there were certainly moments that made me question how I had decided to do life.

Returning to a post-Ferguson world in 2018, I found the same shared restlessness among many St. Louisans – this time, more pronounced and especially among the Black middle class. An air of resentment hidden under apathy, at best. Toxic positivity thick with an unspoken despair.

Questions poke at me. Why are things the way they are here? How did it get this way? What is the fate of those who stay and those of us who have returned?

“It goes back to individual freedoms exercised by the Black community, which are evolutionary and a result of the changing circumstances,” said Mike Jones, columnist for The St. Louis American and former St. Louis Alderman of the city’s 21st Ward. “And, when you now assess those individual choices, they don’t always make a lot of sense to us.”

These differences in activity and behavior, based on regional pockets, continue leading to abandonment of the city by Black St. Louisans in overwhelming numbers that could have likely even stunned once-renowned city planner, Harland Bartholomew, whose 1947 Comprehensive City Plan sought to reduce the number of St. Louis residents by tearing down neighborhoods in Black St. Louis–based on the projections that the city’s then-booming population would reach one million by 1970.1

At one time, moving from downtown to the inner city was good enough for Black St. Louisans. Then, going from St. Louis City to St. Louis County sufficed. Now, there is an explosion of mass relocation beyond the city. To Austin, Dallas, and Houston. To the Carolinas. To Florida. To some parts of Arizona. And, so on.

“Anywhere but here,” the streets seem to whisper amid countless farewell gatherings, overpacked U-Hauls, and the purchase of one-way flight tickets.

Migration patterns in and around St. Louis are nothing new and date back past the mystery surrounding the exodus of the Cahokia Mound Builders by the fourteenth century.2 And, the arrival of Black southern migrants to the city before and throughout the U.S. Civil War.  And, the relocation of a growing number of Blacks to The Ville at the turn of the twentieth century in an attempt to distinguish themselves as a financially stable middle class, counter to the crime infestation and vice in downtown St. Louis.3 And, victims of the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre who came across the bridge to escape being terrorized by disgruntled white workers.4

While white flight across the nation has steadied since the twentieth century, Black flight has become a focal point in recent years. As of July 2022, Blacks totaled 128,387, or 44.8 percent, of St. Louis’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.5 In 2019, the number of Black St. Louisans numbered 136,167, or 45.3 percent, of the city’s population. The migratory trends among African Americans here raises the question if this is a new-age forced migration, and if so, to what extent?

Geoff Ward, Professor of African & African American Studies at Washington University described it as a “story of continual movement. Migration is a constant over generations.  Families are on the move and given the historical context, there’s contemporary push-and-pull factors (the pull equals things like equitable education and wealth opportunities versus the push which can be municipal disinvestment in infrastructure or the misallocation and redistribution of funds). As a result, Blacks choose self-preservation.”

Getting closer to the root of the matter involves exploring several factors that may specifically influence the city’s Black Flight issue: generational differences, housing and spatial relationships, and class politics. For the past few years, each of these contributing elements have provoked a nagging urge to make sense of what is going on in The Gateway City—a call I have taken to task.

And, who knows? Maybe it can put to rest the glint of helplessness swirling inside when I got the Facebook invite to my 20th High School Reunion that I did not attend for more than one reason–the second justification being something that will take more than one sitting to explain, more than one written piece to explore because it is a lot more complicated than one might expect.

Until then, it is easier to just say I was out of town.


•  •  •


1 Walter Johnson. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and The Violent History of the United States. pp. 296-299


2 Walter Johnson. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and The Violent History of the United States. pp. 15


3 Donna Patricia Ward. Dreaming a New Dream: Protecting a Black Middle Class Neighborhood in 1930s St. Louis, MO.


4 Harper Barnes. Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.


5 U.S. Census Bureau. St. Louis, Missouri.

Lyndsey Ellis

Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis native and Heartland Journalism Fellowship recipient whose fiction and journalism have appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Her debut novel, “Bone Broth” (Hidden Timber Books, 2021), was a 2022 Friends of American Writers Literature Award winner and selected by Maryville University for use in the student curriculum. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, and holds a master’s in fine arts from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.