In late October a group of academics, museum curators and community activists from across the world met in St. Louis for a workshop examining ways to preserve and amplify stories of the “displaced.” The group included voices from as far as South Africa, Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as educators from St. Louis.
They all shared their own experiences of displacement and discussed tools and ideas to help educators work proactively to preserve memories of those communities which have been lost and those fighting to survive. It was a timely discussion as residents of North St. Louis continue to be displaced from their homes for the NGA project. It was also a very personal, emotional experience for locals in attendance, many who experienced displacement first hand.
The workshop, held October 26-28, was jointly hosted by Washington University and the University of Missouri St. Louis and entitled “Memorializing Displacement: A Local/Global Workshop.” Speakers from South Africa, such as Ciraj Rassool of the University of Western Cape and Chrischene Julius of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, lent to the discussion unique, though often chillingly familiar, stories.
Documentary filmmaker and community activist Louis Massiah explained how his organization Scribe has empowered community members in Philadelphia through the medium of film and radio. Massiah shared several short documentaries such as “The Taking of Bodine: Never Forget,” created by residents of Norris Square who were forcefully evicted from their homes via the Philadelphia Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.
This initiative used spot blighting to vacate a rich and ethnically diverse working class neighborhood. Though homes were taken, stories and accounts for how the neighborhood once was are not forgotten because Scribe has encouraged residents to document their history.
The workshop was most powerful when it visited local areas of displacement, such as during a tour led by Washington University Professor Bob Hansman. Sites visited included Mill Creek Valley, Pruitt-Igoe, the NGA site, Kinloch and finally Ferguson.
At one point Hansman led the tour on foot into the heavily wooded Pruitt-Igoe site, pointing out features such as fire plugs, curbs and fire pits that have survived nearly 40 years of isolation. Hansman argued passionately that rather than being an eyesore, the overgrown site was in fact the best memorial for the former public housing project, as “nature has reclaimed what was hers, and it’s beautiful in its serenity.”
During the bus tour Lois Conley, founder of St. Louis’ Griot Museum, described her life growing up in Mill Creek Valley in a two-family flat on Chestnut near Grand. She stated, “They called it a slum, but we thought it was pretty good.” Similarly, those interviewed for Paul Fehler's documentary “The Pruitt Igoe Myth” expressed personal, at times startlingly fond memories about life at the housing complex."
John Wright, noted St. Louis historian, said in his own presentation that African-American towns from Robertson to Kinloch were disregarded and displaced for Lambert Airport. Responding to the question “why,” Wright stated, “Money, a lot of money is made in St. Louis off racism. Money is the root of everything. It’s money.”
The workshop also considered the questions surrounding how to publically present the realities and issues surrounding displacement, including how we present the story of the displaced without appearing to exploit their experience. Panelists including Jennifer Scott of the Jane Addams-Hull House Museum and Todd Palmer of the National Public Housing Museum, both located in Chicago, shared their experience working with museums that view the place itself as both a monument and an archive, a living memorial to the people it sought to educate.
Locally, Pamela Talley of Lewis Place Historical Preservation and Kristin Fleischmann of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation shared their collaborative work in memorializing a recently demolished property, 4562 Enright Place. Disassembled and reconstructed within the Pulitzer museum, this exhibit struck some in the audiences as voyeuristic, aestheticizing poverty for wealthy patrons. Talley defended the exhibit, emphasizing that it forced those who viewed it to confront a day-to-day reality experienced by many African Americans on the North Side.
Where do we go from here? That’s the question asked during the final discussion of the Memorializing Displacement workshop. Ciraq Rassool asked, “Is what’s to be installed where something once was always to be built absent of any history of what came before? How do we allow history to do more than just mitigation in the shaping of those developments?”
This is a challenging question. Few memorials exist currently for St. Louis’ black communities that have been butchered or erased completely, from Meacham Park to Howard Place and Robertson to Westland Acres. Howard Place is memorialized in the form of a large rock and plaque sitting on the outskirts of Brentwood’s massive shopping center, tucked behind a fence. In Rock Hill, the historic Presbyterian church which was built with slave labor, yet was integrated from its beginnings in the 19th century, was displaced by a gas station. It too has a memorial, a small plaque which sits on the corner of Rock Hill Road and Manchester.
Rassool’s question mirrored one asked the day before: How can academics and museum curators use their resources to assist communities striving to prevent further erasure? In large part, these questions were best answered, out of context, by John Wright when he raised the issue of what St. Louis is missing: a “hellraising” group. This begs the question: Who will be St. Louis’ next Percy Green II?
To view presentations and panel discussions from “Memorializing Displacement,” visit https://goo.gl/n033fH.