On October 6, a white student at Kirkwood High School left his chemistry class after smearing charcoal on his face. Several black students approached the principal after recognizing the display as akin to blackface, an act in which white people perform racist stereotypes with their faces painted black.
St. Louis Public Radio reported that Principal Michael Havener defended the student, claiming he only meant to mimic a beard. Kiden Smith, a black freshman at Kirkwood, said in response, "Our principal did not know what blackface was and so we tried to explain it to him."
After approaching the principal, the black students were met by a white school counselor, Cindy Ricks. According to the report, Ricks slammed her hands to the desk, demanding the students calm down with their accusations of racism. Kiden told the counselor, "I know for a fact this school has a lot of racist students." The counselor responded, "No, this school doesn't. Nothing like that happens here."
The principal and counselor’s response echoes familiarly through the halls of Kirkwood's history.
Kirkwood officials frequently have denied the existence of racism in their community, despite glaring lines of racial and economic segregation between Kirkwood and Meacham Park, an historically black community hemmed into Kirkwood by two major highways. The jarring segregation between Kirkwood and Meacham Park shares similarities to St. Louis’s more well-known Delmar Divide.
The white residents of Kirkwood believe the small town to be a kind of utopia, separated from the problems of St. Louis. So whenever the accusation of racism arrives, Kirkwood officials and residents – with few exceptions – act as though race no longer exists within their community.
October 6 was the most recent rendition of this denial, but it is not hard to find others. In February 2008, Cookie Thornton – a resident of Meacham Park – entered Kirkwood City Hall and shot seven people, ultimately killing six, including the mayor, two city council members, two police officers and a reporter, before being shot to death by police.
Thornton had his own vested economic interests for his fight with Kirkwood government; he had accrued tens of thousands of dollars in citations after Meacham Park was annexed by Kirkwood in 1991. But he also represented a voice for his community and the plight imposed on Meacham Park as an isolated, exploited pocket of an affluent suburb.
In words with striking similarity to those of school counselor Cindy Ricks, Kirkwood’s Mayor Art McDonnell said in response to the shooting, “We really don’t have a racial problem.” John Hessel, Kirkwood city attorney at the time, told St. Louis Magazine, “I have never viewed this issue with [Cookie] as being a racial issue.”
The Department of Justice disagreed and stepped in to create a mediation team to “minimize conflict and encourage communication between the two communities.” Leaders were appointed to forge a line of healing. Not long after, the president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association, Harriet Patton, quit. She told the St. Louis Beacon that Kirkwood leaders kept saying, “Kirkwood does not have a racial problem.” Patton continued, “The lack of awareness of white privilege is a dream come true in Kirkwood.”
One concern that came up in the mediation process was the lack of black teachers at Kirkwood High School. In a student body that was 26 percent black in 2008, there were only two black teachers. One was part-time, and neither taught core courses required to graduate.
The complaints made it to the superintendent, Tom Williams. In response, Kirkwood School District promised to make hiring black teachers a top priority at the high school.
District wide, Kirkwood’s teaching staff is now 91 percent white and 7 percent black. These numbers closely mirror Kirkwood’s residential makeup. However, at the high school these numbers are lagging. Of 112 full time teachers at Kirkwood High School, only four (3.5 percent of faculty) identify as black.
As Kiden Smith told St. Louis Public Radio, “There aren’t very many teachers of color. The only teacher of color I have is my orchestra teacher. … For situations like this, we may not have many teachers to turn to.”
A recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Clark Randall is an editorial intern for The St. Louis American.