In honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the Missouri History Museum held a dialogue with some St. Louis youths centering on gentrification, social reform, and activism on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023.
“We should be talking about Dr. King’s legacy all year,” Emily Koeltzow, Missouri Historical Society K-12 program coordinator, said.
Koeltzow said ‘urban renewal’ destroyed the historic Black neighborhood of Mill Creek Valley in 1959 by constructing Interstate 64 and displacing 20,000 Black St. Louisans.
“Mill Creek became a poster child of how not to do urban renewal,” historian Gwen Moore told St. Louis Public Radio. “You cannot wipe out 5,000 buildings. There were 43 historical churches and they wiped those out.”
According toSociologyhistory.org urban renewal is “a comprehensive process of renovating or replacing housing and public works considered substandard or outdated.
“It was our version of Tulsa; a covert policy of destroying a great neighborhood and safe place,” Koeltzow said.
Tabari Asim Coleman, an Anti-Defamation League professional development director cited James Baldwin’s quote, “urban renewal was code for Negro removal.”
“Black granite represents the displaced Black people from Mill Creek Valley,” Coleman said speaking about the Granite Public Art Monument west of the St. Louis City SC stadium which memorializes the displaced residents.
Coleman and Koeltzow made clear that there’s a racial subtext to how government is run locally and federally in the U.S.
Koeltzow detailed how predominantly working-class Black women led the 1960s and 1970s affordable housing movements demanding an end to racialized poverty and an introduction of renter’s protection.
The movement culminated in the nation's longest and largest housing strike.
“The most spectacular public housing strike was in St. Louis,” according to Digital Repository. “A rent increase, [which raised] rents for some up to 72% of their income, and [for] half of the 6,700 public housing families to over 25% of their income, was met with sharp opposition.
“Tenants began to organize. From Feb. 1969 through Oct. 1969, some 1,000 families (15-20%) withheld rent. The strike locked the rent to 25% percent of one’s income, [established] eviction rules, tenants right to counsel, better facilities and maintenance, 24-hour security protection, and a tenant advisory board.”
A new challenge is understanding gentrification’s evolution. Today, it is not about highway construction or overpriced homes but, “convenient supercenters.”
“The idea of convenience and accepting community destruction for convenience falls under [urban renewal],” Koeltzow said. “We've all participated in it; it's coded into the DNA of this country.”
In 1990, as part of the Lambert International Airport expansion, the city of St. Louis bought out many Kinloch properties which led to the relocation and displacement of 85% of its original population, according to kinlochmo.org.
The moderators also mentioned the history of civil disobedience in St. Louis and referenced St. Louis civil rights icon Percy Green. Green climbed the Gateway Arch in 1964 to protest hiring discrimination in the monument’s construction.
“If you engage in civil disobedience, it must do at least two things: One, convey the message. Two, bring pressure to those responsible for making change,” said Percy Green speaking with St. Louis Public Radio.
Two workshop attendees, sisters and Kirkwood students Myla Clincy, 16, and Ashley Clincy, 13, said they have attended the MHM MLK workshop annually since 2019. They said they first learned about Kinloch at the event.
The Clincy sisters said they have experienced countless uncomfortable race discussions and see Black students internalize racism and experience unconscious bias. They say they enjoy learning Black stories through conscious rap, but unfortunately, peers tend to focus heavily on “explicit” rap.
“More than one person died for all of us,” Myla said. “Rap could lead to us knowing more about Black people.”
The two emphasized feeling very underrepresented in their school. Myla’s social studies class has two Black people out of 21 students, and for Ashley there are three out of 21.
Myla said she’ll use the workshop dialogue for her government class and asks if the teacher can incorporate some of the Black history events discussed during the workshop into the curriculum.
In school, Myla said she regularly hears white people use the n-word under the pretext of having Black friends or relatives. “They don't understand the background, the boundaries,” Myla said. She intends to become a K-5 teacher and hopes to discuss inherent bias early on. “So, when we learn about gentrification, Black people won't feel uncomfortable talking because everybody learned about it,” said Myla.
Ashley said her inspiration is her former social studies teacher. “When we learned about slavery, I didn't feel comfortable doing the assignment, so she gave me one on slaves breaking free,” Ashley said.