Black community leaders respond to #ArchSoWhite

Minutes before photographers took the now-iconic picture of about 21 white people cutting a green ribbon in front of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, African-American photographer Maurice Meredith asked, “Why isn’t Ozzie Smith in the picture?”

The black Cardinals Hall of Famer had emceed the ceremony. A few people looked briefly at Meredith, but then continued lining people up for the shot. What Meredith said he was really thinking was: Where are all the black folks?

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” said Meredith, a longtime freelance photographer for The St. Louis American. “But it seemed like they had made up their minds who was going to stand up there.”

On July 3, more than 20 people were chosen to ceremoniously cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the new Arch museum – marking the near completion of the $380 million Arch renovation project after more than a decade of planning. Yet there wasn’t a single African American or person of color in that lineup.

Several black elected officials – including Comptroller Darlene Green, Treasurer Tishaura Jones and President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed – said they weren’t invited to participate in the ribbon cutting. U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis) was invited but had already scheduled a vacation with his son.

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. (D-St. Louis), who represents the Arch area, said he first noticed the lack of inclusion when Mayor Lyda Krewson tweeted out the photo, praising the region for working together on creating this “amazing attraction.”

“My initial reaction was #ArchSoWhite,” said Franks, who also failed to get an invite to stand up for the picture. “It didn’t matter who put the event together. This is the representation that you show, especially when we talk about what the Arch is supposed to represent? Not only do you not have any black folks, you don’t have any of anybody out there.”

Franks’ hashtag went viral. In response, he and a group of other elected officials and community organizers put together their own ribbon cutting on Friday, July 6 that looked “more like St. Louis,” he said.

“You almost get tired of the word ‘inclusive’ because it should be what it is,” Franks said. “We shouldn’t have to fight to be more inclusive. Why aren’t we just that? Let’s take the picture that shows we can come together and make sure this Arch represents what we need it to represent.”

For people of color, the photo doesn’t scream, “We’re welcome here,” he said.

The Gateway Arch Park Foundation issued an apology on Facebook that stated in its entirety: “The grand opening of the new Museum at the Gateway Arch was an opportunity to celebrate an important achievement in St. Louis. As organizers of the event, we acknowledge that our ribbon cutting did not reflect the diversity of our community for that and for any hurt it has caused we are sorry. The Arch is a symbol of St. Louis and the Gateway Arch Park Foundation is committed to doing better to represent the people of our great city.”

The foundation also reached out to Franks to support his counter event, which included representation from the black, Bosnian, Hispanic, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ communities, among others.

Tishaura Jones helped Franks plan the event and also discussed the matter with the foundation’s executive director.

“Going forward I would really ask our leaders to not leave their racial equity lens at home,” Jones said. “We continue to talk about racial equity, and this was a prime opportunity – a public space paid for with public dollars – and it wasn’t representative of the public.”

When looking at racial equity, Jones said the two basic questions leaders should ask are: Who is not in the room and who is not at the table?

Tom Shepard, Reed’s chief of staff, shared the same frustration.

“Being oblivious to the issue with optics that picture would present should be almost impossible in a predominantly African-American city in 2018,” Shepard stated in an email. “I believe an even bigger issue is that the picture is very telling of who organized, controlled and made decisions regarding this $400+ million public project.”

In fact, St. Louis is now a plurality-black city – there are more blacks in the city than any other racial group, but blacks are no longer a majority of city residents.

Shepard said the more pervasive issue is that African Americans have to be invited but are seldom the ones placed in the roles that lead these projects and do the inviting.

Jones said that she and other African Americans were at the table during the decision making, but you couldn’t see it from that picture. Jones worked to ensure that parking standards met federal guidelines, in a process that took about a year to coordinate, she said. She also supported the project years ago as a state legislator and supported the proposition that raised the sales tax revenue for the Arch renovation.

Voters – including  a critical number of black voters – approved Prop P in 2013, and that secured about $85 million of public funds for the Arch project. Private funds paid for about $217 million of the project’s cost. About $67.5 million came from federal and state funds, with a small amount of local funds. The National Park Service chipped in $10 million of in-kind funding.

A Clay staffer said the congressman co-sponsored legislation that secured the federal dollars for the project. In a statement, Clay said, “The failure by the event organizers to incorporate our community's diverse strength into the ribbon cutting was a self-inflicted, insensitive, unacceptable failure."

Cori Bush, who is challenging Clay in the August 7 Democratic primary and helped to organize the counter event, said that “representation matters.”

“What do our youth see?” Bush asked. “This is the Gateway to the West. Are we showing our youth that they’re included? That they have a place in St. Louis? I would say, ‘No.’ It’s not about the elite; it’s about all the people.”

Minority exclusion 

On July 14, 1964, Percy Green II and a white college student, Richard Daly, climbed up a ladder that was meant for the workers during the initial building of the Arch. They climbed to about 125 feet high and then stayed up there for five hours as an act of civil disobedience.

Their goal was to make the community aware that no African-American workers or contractors were hired for the Arch project. Green’s actions led to more minorities being employed on the Arch project then and now decades later.

The renovation projects were following federal guidelines – which are significantly lower and less robust than St. Louis city’s goals. The federal government aims to give 14.7 percent of workforce hours to minority workers and 6.9 percent to women – rather than the goals for 25 percent minority and 5 percent women that the city had operated on under the mayor’s executive order.

On the Central Riverfront portion of the Mississippi Greenway near the Arch, minorities workers made up 14.4 percent of the workforce hours. That is just shy of the 14.7 percent federal goal. But about 33 percent of contracts were awarded to minority businesses. Kiener Plaza’s minority workforce was 25 percent, and 33 percent of the contracts went to minority businesses. The goals for female workers and businesses fell short on all aspects except for the greenway’s contracting, which was 18 percent.

A Great Rivers Greenway spokeswoman said that she was waiting to hear from their partners, including the federal government and Missouri Department of Transportation, on their inclusion numbers.

Many thought that Percy Green II should have been standing up in the line of 20 people at the ribbon cutting. When Green saw the picture this week, he said his first reaction was, “Racism is alive and well, may it be conscious or unconscious.”

Green doesn’t think this incident needs to be discouraging, as long as there is an immediate direct-action protest in response to the behavior.

“It only shows that fighting racism is a 24/7 responsibility,” Green said. “And one has to constantly be observative of the subtleties of racism. We have to keep our eyes on the ball because when we respond to the subtleties of racism, then it makes it more difficult for the decision makers to be overt in their decision making.”

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