The Missouri History Museum is pleased to host Vivian Gibson, author of The Last Children of Mill Creek, for a St. Louis History Live virtual program on Zoom on Thursday, October 1, at 6:30pm.
Gibson, whose family is featured in the Museum’s Reflections gallery, grew up in Mill Creek Valley, a city neighborhood razed in 1959 to build a highway. Gibson’s family, friends, church community, and neighbors were among the 20,000 African Americans displaced by this act of urban renewal. In her moving memoir, Gibson re-creates the everyday lived experiences of her large family, including her seven siblings; her college-educated mother, who moved to St. Louis as part of the Great Migration; and her sometimes forbidding father, who worked two jobs to keep them all warm and fed. With an eye for telling detail, she sketches scenes populated by her friends, shop owners, teachers, and others who made Mill Creek into a warm, tight-knit, African American community and reflects on Mill Creek’s destruction in the name of racism disguised as “progress.”
Now 71, Gibson started writing short stories about her childhood memories of the vanishing community after retiring at age 66. Her essay “From Sunup to Sundown” was included in Belt Publishing’s The St. Louis Anthology (2019) and served as the seed of this larger project. Although Gibson originally thought of writing a book of short stories, she ended up dividing the book into chapters that required joining 40 vignettes into the bigger story’s integrated components.
Gibson felt a need to give a first-hand account about growing up in Mill Creek. “Most all my research on Mill Creek Valley—newspaper articles, short paragraphs in books about the history of St. Louis—was written by people outside of the community—white people,” she says. “It was at this point in my writing that I appreciated the importance of my first-person account. I was writing about my experiences and observations as a Black person. I was writing an African American story I had not read anywhere else.”
Gibson is excited to welcome Stefene Russell and Donna Rogers-Beard as panelists for the program on October 1. Both panelists became Gibson’s biggest cheerleaders after reading her book. Russell is a St. Louis–based writer, editor, and contributor to the Informal History zine and podcast collective (informalhistorystl.org). She writes monthly history shorts for St. Louis Magazine and was Laumeier Sculpture Park’s 2018 poet in residence. Rogers-Beard is a retired history teacher who taught for many years in the University City and Clayton school districts. She is currently researching and writing about Black history in Clayton.
In addition to utilizing the talents of Russell and Rogers-Beard, Gibson has been gratified by the positive response she has received after the release of her first book. She states, “I feel triply fortunate at this time in our history to be a woman, Black, and old. Regarding my age, becoming a first-time published author late in life is noteworthy—it comes up in just about every interview I do. I have even been invited by two national publications to write essays about my late arrival on the author scene. I consider this new role of mine a blessing and a privilege. I also recommend pursuing other careers, raising families, and gathering life experiences to inform and inspire one’s writing—before publishing a book.”
She has appreciated the feedback from her readers as well. “The sweetest and most surprising joy came when readers took the time to send me personal messages about how the book made them feel,” she says. “I received emails, instant messages, and letters sent to me via friends and relatives. I sobbed when readers described parallels between my life and theirs, or when they quoted a favorite passage, and some wrote that they related to a specific family member or scene in the book. I love that I made personal connections.”
Join Vivian Gibson online at 6:30pm on Thursday, October 1, to learn more about her book The Last Children of Mill Creek. This STL History Live program will be held on Zoom. To join, visit mohistory.org/events and click on the event name. The Missouri Historical Society’s online collections search also includes hundreds of photos of Mill Creek Valley. Visit mohistory.org/collections to view the collection.