In a relatively brief tenure at Harris-Stowe State University, Dwaun J. Warmack became a respected and beloved figure in black St. Louis, and he was praised in very warm terms when the university said farewell to its 19th president on Thursday, July 11. It’s not difficult to see why. In addition to bringing charisma and youthful energy to his leadership position at one of the community’s anchor institutions, in just five years he spearheaded dramatic increases in student enrollment, retention, graduates and degree programs, as documented by Ronald Norwood, chair of the Board of Regents. However, an alumna of the university received a reception nearly as warm and enthusiastic as the man of the hour when she delivered her remarks: St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner.
Again, it’s not difficult to see why. The voice of the former student who succeeds is a compelling one. Before being elected as St. Louis’ first black prosecuting attorney, Gardner was a state representative. That elected position gave her a unique vantage point to appreciate Warmack’s work securing funding for an urban, black university from a state legislature dominated by outstate, white Republicans. The St. Louis NAACP has called attention to and threatened to file suit over the state’s paltry funding of Harris-Stowe, which received $9.7 million from the state, in addition to a $2.5 million land grant match, for the 2018 fiscal year. “I know your challenges and frustrations,” Gardner said to Warmack. “I was in those meetings when they discounted the students who come to this university.” That remark touches a very deep nerve in a community where being underestimated is a daily burden. Warmack knows it. He remembered how a high school guidance counselor told him that he “was not college material.” Gardner knows it. “When I came here, I was a single mom from North City who had been kicked out of a couple of schools,” she said. “No one else wanted me.”
This explains Warmack’s commitment to serving historically black universities – he is leaving Harris-Stowe for another, Claflin University – and what he described as his “ministry,” which is “serving first-generation college students and students from under-represented communities.” And it helps to explain the rapturous reception that Gardner received when she said, “We in the St. Louis community need to protect this university.” St. Louis has been so segregated for so long, and we are only beginning to see blacks seize anything approaching proportional political power (proportional economic power remains in the distance). So mainstream St. Louis has little appreciation for the iconic role that Harris-Stowe plays in our community, very much including among people who did not choose it for their higher education. At a time when “equity” is on everyone’s lips, though not so much in the actions of most people, we encourage people committed to this region who have not taken Harris-Stowe seriously to start doing so. Dismissing the university’s potential, despite its flaws, will look to a great many black people like dismissing the potential of black people, something we have seen enough of and will tolerate no longer.
Of course, Gardner was cheered by the nearly all-black crowd at Warmack’s farewell event for a reason that has nothing to do with Harris-Stowe but everything to do with being dismissed and, indeed, targeted as a black person. Apparently, they have been keeping up with our reporting on how a group of unelected white attorneys have worked with the St. Louis police and Judge Michael K. Mullen to appoint a private defense attorney, Gerard Carmody, as special prosecutor to investigate Gardner’s handling of the Eric Greitens case. We have heard from many white people in our legal community who seem to take it for granted that Gardner is doomed and deserves to be. And we know of virtually no one in the black community – including black lawyers and even the city’s Public Safety a director, a former judge – who do not believe Gardner is being targeted for attack by the white status quo, including the police. Perhaps the wider public will be persuaded when a newly appointed special prosecutor begins to investigate Gardner’s claim that she was threatened by some of Greitens’ lawyers, which if true would be tampering with a judicial officer.
In the meantime, to borrow Gardner’s words, we affirm, with the black community standing behind us: We in the St. Louis community need to protect this elected prosecutor.