How Black Migration in St. Louis Sparked Generation Nope

Black migrant workers

Florida migrants near Shawboro, North Carolina, on their way to New Jersey to pick potatoes. (Photo taken in 1940 by Jack Delano, U.S. Library of Congress)





During the early days of the pandemic, my ex-partner passed time by tracing his family heritage back four generations. The majority of his relatives, he claimed, did not have ties to the Deep South and they were not remembered as poor slaves or sharecroppers. They lived comfortably as farmers in Ironton, Missouri, a small town about 90 miles south of St. Louis.

“There were free Black people in Missouri then?” I remember asking. What struck me more was the idea that, at some point, seemingly successful Blacks had relocated to St. Louis.

Apparently, free Blacks in St. Louis had been a thing since the early nineteenth century. As one historian points out, Blacks made up nearly a quarter of the population of St. Louis in 1830, and by 1860, there were more free Blacks in St. Louis than slaves.1 Similarly, James Neal Primm stated in his book, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri that “slavery was an encumbrance; and despite local hostility to anti-slavery rhetoric, St. Louis was getting rid of it, by attrition rather than by design.”

It is not a question that St. Louis has a rich past. The border city is not called the Gateway City for nothing. On the surface, it has been great in a lot of ways, once rivaling other economically vibrant cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before its evident decline.2 Way before the population fell to about 300,000 residents living in the city, 3 it was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair. A sacred memory holder of baseball fans and beer lovers near and far. Birthplace of gooey butter cake, Crown Candy Kitchen, Vess soda, Velvet Freeze Ice Cream, and Imo’s Pizza. With respect to the Black community, St. Louis is an old stomping ground of Annie Malone, haircare inventor and founder of Poro College, whose prowess inspired the launch of the Annie Malone May Day Parade in 1910. The annual event has since grown to become the second-largest African-American parade in the country and is still a tradition today. Fairground Park, Skate King, London & Sons Wing House, Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, and Mother’s Fish were also historic staples for Black St. Louisans.

But, what was once America’s fourth-largest city remains an enigma consistently met with collective ambivalence. There is a dark side to the city, especially when it comes to racial disparities. Historically, decades of oppression have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Black St. Louisans. Think Ota Benga, the Congolese pygmy who was exhibited at the same 1904 World’s Fair that put St. Louis at the forefront of innovation then4. And, Dred Scott, a slave in Missouri who sued for his freedom, and lost when the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him in 1857, after his return from Illinois–a state where slavery was illegal.5

The Veiled Prophet parade and ball, founded in 1878 by members of the St. Louis elite, which fell under a negative light for claims of racism and classism.6 A series of demonstrations that largely involved Black St. Louisans against the Jefferson Bank in 1963 for discriminatory hiring practices against Black employees.7 The exclusion of African-American workers and contractors from construction of the St. Louis Arch project in 1964 which prompted celebrated activist Percy Green’s climb up the Gateway Arch in protest.8  And, over the course of several decades in the twentieth century, the displacement of Blacks from historically African-American neighborhoods, like Kinloch and Evans Place, and the erasure of housing projects, like Mill Creek Valley and Pruitt-Igoe.

To date, firsthand accounts of Lucy Delaney and William Wells Brown, both enslaved people who eventually became free, speak to the atrocities committed against Black St. Louisans in the early and mid-nineteenth century. In his book, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Brown drew attention to the city’s racial horrors: “Though Slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states, yet no part of our slave-holding country for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis.”9

Even more, “Mound City” is largely under-recognized for being the national first and the focal point of both joy and tragedy, as pointed out in Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.10 In 1836, the public execution of Francis McIntosh was arguably the first lynching in American history. Benton Barracks (presently known as Fairground Park) is the location where the first regiment of Black troops in the United States Civil War was formed. In 1875, the city opened [Charles] Sumner11, the first public high school for Black students west of the Mississippi River, after the amendment of the 1865 Missouri Constitution which advocated for the establishment of separate public schools for Black children. To escape the confines of inadequate housing and school conditions riddled by downtown’s vice and overpopulation, a growing Black middle class fought to have Sumner High moved in 1908 to The Ville, a culturally rich neighborhood for African-American St. Louisans at the time. From its new location, Sumner thrived as a center for Black excellence, developing notable alumni, like Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Arthur Ashe, Grace Bumbry, and Dick Gregory.

According to famed singer Tina Turner (as quoted in Gerald Early’s Ain’t But A Place: An Anthology of African American Writings about St. Louis), “Sumner High was all black, but very high class—these were the children of doctors, professional people.12

That same esteemed African-American community in St. Louis continues to dwindle now, unfortunately. Sumner High, at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, had enrolled 5,000 students, but currently, the school has less than 200 students13, a testament to the massive relocation of Black St. Louisans elsewhere.

While the depopulation of Blacks here is easy to see, it is not as simple to name the root cause. Many might say it primarily results from a widening generational gap.


The After-Effects

“St. Louis suffers a little bit with a certain connection to the past,” said Kaveh Razani, community organizer and Director of Operations at St. Louis Art Place. “There’s no generational wisdom being passed down, and I think that has a lot to do with our youth’s rejection of the elders’ experiences.”

It is also a matter of evolving generational perspectives on place and quality of life in the different parts of St. Louis.

Entrepreneur Ronnie Notch is CEO and co-founder of Breach, a home-based initiative in North County that he runs with his wife, Tiffany Notch, and creates customized educational opportunities to enhance kids’ technological and arts-related experiences. His upbringing in St. Louis city helped influence his residential choices in adulthood.

“After my parents divorced, my mom didn’t want to be a single parent in the city during the nineties because it was just crime on all sides. So, the issue of security ended up being the reason we moved from our neighborhood in the West End to Florissant in St. Louis County.”

“We attempted to go back and buy my childhood home in 2018,” Notch said, “and one of the factors that stopped us was that the crime that existed in the city back during the nineties had tripled by then. My wife and I had to rethink if we wanted to raise our kids in that environment.”

Such decisions pose greater challenges, two of them being guilt and the weight of feeling like an outsider navigating new territory.

“Our sense of community is broken up—we don’t know each other now. By leaving, are we, as Blacks, making the problem bigger by not addressing it?” asked Notch. “In a sense, my generation feels like we’ve turned their backs on everything—there’s an abandonment that’s never really been reconciled. The after-effect is that you don’t really have the family structure to lean on because you’re taking foreigners into a land they don’t know when you go to these family functions in the suburbs. And now, there’s the drawback of Black youth in the county not being as equipped with the same survival skills as older generations had growing up in the city. So, they become targets of crime, which repeats a senseless cycle in our communities.”

The county-versus-city dilemma–brought on by the 1876 vote for St. Louis county to operate independently of St. Louis city in an effort for then-city residents to reduce tax spending14–has caused further division in principles and priorities, specifically among many professional Black St. Louisans who are Gen Xers and Millennials. The case is far more complicated, if not altogether backward, for those on the outside looking in. It is a question of desirability, in terms of locations that bring people together. Most “hot spots” that tend to attract middle-class Americans tend to be urban spaces. But, as the opportunities increase for many Blacks, those who have relocated from the metro area are not experiencing life in St. Louis this way.

“A lot of upwardly mobile middle-class Blacks want to be around other upwardly mobile middle-class Blacks,” said Dr. Brigette Davis, Research Scientist at the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity. ”When people come here, they always ask you where are the places that young Black professionals live or like to hang out. More than likely, that’s in the county here in St. Louis and people expect it to be in the city, like other areas across the country. That’s because if you want property here, you most likely have to move to the county now since the housing market is not really as affordable for Blacks in some parts of St. Louis city.”

I cannot imagine previous generations of Black communities, perhaps like those free men and women in pre-Civil War Ironton, thinking that the city they viewed as pregnant with promise, would one day be the same ground where many of their descendants would flee. As sobering as that sounds, St. Louis is still home. And, like other reverse transplants, I have managed to bond with on some level because of similar generational experiences, I have found this place seems to always have a way of bringing you back.

Or, does it? For many, only time will tell.



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1 Richard C. Wade. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860.

2 Brian S. Feldman, “How America’s Coastal Cities Left the Heartland Behind.” The Atlantic, April 18, ut 2016.

3 Joe Millitzer, “17 Fond Memories of Growing Up in 1970’s St. Louis.” Fox2 Now, April 15, 2022.

4 Sara Zielinski, “The Tragic Tale of the Pygmy in the Zoo.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2, ut 2008.

5 PBS Nine. “Dred Scott’s Fight for Freedom.”

6 Devin Thomas O’shea, “The End of the Veiled Prophet.” The Nation, July 9, ut 2021.

7 William L. Clay, The Jefferson Bank Confrontation: The Struggle for Civil Rights in St. Louis.

8 Rebecca Rivas, “Percy Green II recalls his historic 1964 protest with Richard Daly.” St. Louis American, February 17, ut 2011.

9 William Wells Brown. Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, p. 27

10 Walter Johnson. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and The Violent History of the United States, pp 4-12.

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

12Gerald Early, ed. Ain’t But a Place: An Anthology of African American Writings about St. Louis, p. 223.

13 Walter Pritchard. “Keep Legacy Alive: Sumner High School Alumni Association Celebrates 20th Anniversary,” St. Louis American, February 24, ut 2023.

14 Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis’ Great Divorce: A complete history of the city and county separation and attempts to get back together,” St. Louis Magazine, March 8, ut 2019.

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.

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