Vivian Gibson

Vivian Gibson, author of ‘The Last Children of Mill Creek,’ will be among the featured speakers for TEDxStLouis ‘Beyond Words’ innovation event taking place on Saturday, October 22 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center (210 E. Monroe Ave).

When Vivian Gibson accepted her award as the 2022 Missouri Library Association’s Author of the Year in the nonfiction category earlier this month, she shared with the audience how much she loved reading books about spunky little girls.

 Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, Jo March in Little Women and Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were among her favorites. She related to those characters. And while she certainly found common ground in their personalities, she didn’t truly see herself.

“There simply weren’t stories about little spunky Black girls when I was growing up,” Gibson said.

With her debut literary work, The Last Children of Mill Creek, Gibson filled the void she experienced as a young reader. She also provided a voice for her long forgotten historically Black St. Louis community that became a casualty of urban renewal in the late 1950s – the place she called home in her early childhood.

“The newspapers and the politicians had to persuade white people that it deserved to be destroyed, so that’s all that they talked about,” Gibson said. “I wanted to talk about the humanity of the people there.”

Mill Creek has been written off by mainstream regional history as an insignificant slum razed for the greater good of the city.

“There were bad parts of Mill Creek, but there were some lovely homes right in the middle where Wells Fargo is today,” Gibson said. “There was a street called Lawton that had beautiful homes where a lot of black professionals lived. And there were working class people like us in the middle.”

Through the eyes of young Vivian – as she navigates through life as the seventh of eight children while meticulously observing her surroundings – readers get a true sense of family and community that existed within its borders.

“This whole thing, this journey – I don’t even know what to call it – has been like a dream,” Gibson said.  “I wrote this book not intending to really write a book. I was just writing some things for my family, and it has taken on a life of its own. Every day – and every week – something comes up to make it even more unbelievable.

She will be a featured speaker for the TEDxStLouis “Beyond Words” innovation event taking place from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 22 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center (210 E. Monroe Ave).

“The way people have responded to this book just has me flabbergasted,” Gibson said. “I couldn’t have imagined any of this.”

Vivian Gibson walked into a writing workshop for older adults hoping to get feedback on stories had been writing and compiling for decades. She started writing them in her twenties. Her mother had passed away and she wanted to give her yet-to-be-born children a sense of the relationship she had with her mother – and what her mother was like as a person. Recent retirement from a versatile career that started in the fashion industry and concluded in nonprofit management gave her the flexibility to rediscover them.

“The description for the class said, ‘no writing experience necessary.’ I went, ‘this is perfect,’” Gibson said. A class specific to aspiring writers of a certain age was another selling point.

She shared her stories with the group, which typically consisted of 10-12 members. To Gibson’s shock, they were unanimously enamored with her work.

“I was like, ‘What’s going on? Why do they think this is so interesting,’” Gibson said. “Then I thought, ‘maybe it’s the topic?’ I wrote about my childhood in Mill Creek and people had never heard of it.”

With each story, she received more encouragement. She kept on writing.  The woman who facilitated the workshop suggested that Gibson submit her stories for publications. “I went, why? And she said, ‘because they are really good, and people want to know this.’”

Her short story entitled, “Sunup to Sundown,” was published in St. Louis Anthology (Belt Publishing) in June 2019. In early 2020, she released The Last Children of Mill Creek. She received rave reviews – and was scheduled to do a launch event at the Missouri History Museum. COVID-19 hit before she had the chance.

Gibson faced the challenge of being a first-time author promoting a book in the midst of a global pandemic. She applied the resourcefulness she learned from her parents, siblings and neighbors as a young girl in Mill Creek.

“I got on Zoom. I built a Facebook community,” Gibson said. “I started out with 30 people that included my family and people I went to school with. It grew into the thousands.”

Two years later, her book is in its second printing and expected to have a third. Her book was used as a historical reference for the St. Louis City Soccer Team as they prepared to pay tribute to Mill Creek – which once occupied the land where their stadium will stand – with a mile-long sculpture that will serve as a monument. This past year, John Burroughs replaced Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun with The Last Children of Mill Creek on its required reading list and used the book as a teaching tool.

 “There’s room for us both,” Gibson said. “But to be in that same rarified air was incredible.”

She has become an unofficial ambassador for the legacy of Mill Creek. A responsibility that she does not take lightly – and is constantly reading and researching to ensure that she has accurate information to share.  

“I was doing some research from the 1950s and was looking through a census report,” Gibson said. “I was going down my block and I couldn’t believe how many men were listed in the homes. People have been trying to make us believe that Black men weren’t responsible for their children and their family – and these men were there. They don’t get the credit they deserve.”

She thought the book was about her mother, but when it was finished The Last Children of Mill Creek gave her a whole new appreciation for her father.

“The book went beyond this story of this one little girl,” Gibson said. “It became the story of a community.”

Vivian Gibson will be a featured speaker for the TEDxStLouis “Beyond Words” innovation event taking place from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 22 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center (210 E. Monroe Ave). For more information, visit www.tedxsaintlouis.org

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