In mid-October, against the mournful tapestry of the St. Louis Black community having lost so many great freedom fighters, elected officials, organizer, activists, artists, relatives and friends throughout the coronavirus pandemic, The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) held it’s 34th Ernest and De Verne Calloway Awards banquet at the Marriott Grand Hotel. Last year’s program had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. The tradition resumed in 2021. A line-up of speakers spoke to the times for Black Americans in St. Louis and the nation, and bestowed the 34th Ernest and De Verne Calloway award on the St. Louis American Publisher and Executive Editor Donald M. Suggs. Masks were mandated and table rounds were fitted with fewer chairs than usual as organizers and guests sought to protect themselves from coronavirus and its latest strain, weeks before news of the Omicron variant hit.
The ceremony was opened by State Senator Karla May (MO, 4th ward) and St. Louis City License Collector Mavis Thompson, who welcomed attendees, heralded Suggs and The Calloway Award namesakes, Ernest Calloway, former president of the NAACP in 1955 and Professor Emeritus of Urban Affairs Department at St. Louis University and his wife De Verne Calloway, the first Black woman elected to the Missouri General Assembly in 1962, who “played a major role in the battle for a congressional district from which a Black could be elected [--the First Congressional District in the State of Missouri, which Rep. Cori Bush now represents],” The late Calloway husband and wife team continue to be venerated and memorialized by the CBTU for having dedicated themselves to “the struggle for human rights, civil rights and labor rights.”
After dinner, Oluwadamini Melvin, Vice President, St. Louis CBTU, and Chairperson CBTU Under 40 Leaders, spoke and Rita Griffin, a St. Louis CBTU Trustee hyped the crowd, with “We are the union, the mighty mighty union” before Lew Moye, President Emeritus of CBTU, stepped in as master of ceremonies. In many regards, the 34th Ernest and De Verne Calloway Awards program was like a family affair and a reunion of sorts for many venerated changemakers and thought leaders in St. Louis’ Black community
2019 Ernest and De Verne Calloway awardee St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner
Prior to this year’s gala, the most recent recipient of the Ernest and DeVerne Calloway award was 2019 awardee St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. She attended this year’s program and made some stirring personal remarks in honor of Suggs.
Gardner asserted that Suggs could be counted on to tell you the truth, good or bad, which is something that is even more necessary in the midst of great polarization in this country, “Personally, I appreciate Dr. Suggs because I know he’s a fighter,” Gardner said. “You look at his history. He was educated at Homer G. Phillips … he was in the trenches of the inequity of the city of St. Louis. He’s not from St. Louis, but he said, ‘I’m going to stay here.’” She continued, “He led the Poor People’s March on Washington, the first, and he was the first African American Associate Professor at St. Louis University.
Circuit Attorney Gardner, a St. Louis University alumna herself, talked about the role of The St. Louis American and Black media in today’s political climate. “I heard about the insurrection that it was led by people who are from Missouri and we can report this, and if we don’t have a paper like The St. Louis American, you think it’s going to be reported on fairly and justly?” she quandered.
She also criticized divisive forces and misinformation campaigns in the region: “They want you to believe what these headlines read that we’re not doing our job. We have the first African American female mayor, as well as the first circuit attorney. We’re never educated enough, right? We never have enough experience to do the job, right?... I want to thank Dr. Suggs because he stood up and he’s done marvelous work to support us, and other elected officials.
Nancy Cross, Executive Director of Operations, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, read a tribute to Suggs from the mayor, who was out of town.
Walle Amusa and Terry Melvin compare the past and present for Black elected officials and Black Americans.
Gardner’s words about the challenges Black elected-official face paralleled those of Walle Amusa, Co-Chair of the Campaign for Human Dignity, who spoke of Eddie Carthan, the first Black man elected Mayor in Tchula, Mississippi, since Reconstruction, in 1977. Carthan’s mayoral authority was undercut, and he was incarcerated for attempting to exercise that authority. Amusa said, “Right after he was elected, the city council passed laws to strip him of all the powers that previous mayors had exercised in that town, and then when he tried to exercise them, they charged him, convicted him and sent him to jail for doing things that other previous mayor had always done and it took a national movement to free him.” Amusa pointed out that The St. Louis American went out of its way to report on and support The Free Eddie Carthan Campaign in St. Louis.
Midway through the evening, the keynote speaker Terry Melvin, International CBTU President and Secretary/Treasurer of the New York AFL-CIO, spoke to some of the same themes as Amusa and insisted that we hold elected officials accountable, “Let me be perfectly clear … I am not saying vote Republican, I could have been sorta kinda bi-partisan until they put that fool 45 in the the White House, a bigoted, homophobic, misogynist, fool who lies [when] he opens up his mouth and you got 70 million people in this country that say it’s okay. Hell no, I dare not vote Republican, but you do have to hold Democrats accountable for what they say they’re going to do." He spoke about what voting rights mean to everyone that believes in democracy and queried rhetorically: “How can we ‘Make America great again’ because America has never been great to people of African descent?”
Melvin urged Black folks not to be myopic and anti-immigrant, and said that the treatment of deported Black Haitians at the border, dispossessed after natural disasters, being corralled as if they were cattle, harkened back to the days of slavery in this country. He said we must fight white supremacy: what we used to call the KKK and has now rebranded as the Alt-right, both “when it is blunt and when it is masked and normalized.” He discussed white supremacy in St. Louis and offered this observation. “[In] St. Louis it’s not difficult to see the racial dividing lines and racism which is systemic, cultural, socially, observable by the way Black people are treated on a daily basis and the way that those elected to represent us, Black elected officials, are treated by the white power structure and the white press.”
Never an easy sell
The awards segment of the program followed Melvin’s rousing speech. Merry Berry, Secretary/Treasurer MO AFL-CIO, a white labor organizer, began her remarks by stating, “Many of you are probably surprised that I’m giving these comments paying tribute to Dr. Suggs. The truth is that I met Dr. Suggs when I first came here in 2004 when we were working on The John Kerry Campaign and every year after that we would seek his guidance about what we wanted to do because he was never an easy sell.” Cross explained, “He would provoke us to give the right answers to the group,” and she noted that Suggs had been “by our side” when she was with SEIU, and working with Jobs for Justice. She also recalled, “He was instrumental in defeating Ward Connerly … who tried to take away affirmative action in the state, and we were the first state to win. [Connerly] didn’t make it to the ballot because of the work that we all did.”
Jamala Roger and Michael McMillan on Black Journalism and our cultural institutions
Jamala Rogers, Executive Director, Organization for Black Struggle and St. Louis American columnist, invoked perhaps the most famous quote pertaining to the history of Black journalism, “We wish to plead our cause. Too long others have spoken for us.” This was the motto of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and published newspaper in The U.S., founded in 1827 by Sam Cornish and John Russwarm. She noted, “It was in that tradition The St. Louis American was founded, and [has been] carried forward with the enduring commitment of Dr. Suggs.” Rogers spoke humorously of clashing, respectfully but passionately, with the American’s publisher, then admitted that she and Suggs “agree on the most important issues.” She emphasized, “Most importantly we overstand the value of the Black press, especially today. Research tells us that Black people are really into local news, more so than any other ethnic group, racial group.” Rogers spoke of the fight for survival that Black newspapers are undergoing throughout the country, and locally, which has left the St. Louis community with only one reputable and regularly published Black newspaper.
Urban League president Mike McMillan underscored the point, stating that when he first met Suggs, “I was a teenager. There were ten Black newspapers in St. Louis that published either weekly or monthly and now it’s just the American that actually focuses on news.” He also spoke of “Three million dollars in scholarships raised [in 2021] through the St. Louis American foundation to help members of our community get a quality education” and added, “By creating the Charmaine Chapman society, [Suggs] has helped to raise tens of millions of dollars to help Black and poor people throughout this region.” McMillan said that The Urban League’s Martin Luther King tribute for lifetime achievement will be bestowed on Dr. Suggs and The St. Louis American and a showcase of the American’s contributions to St. Louis will be “one of the first” exhibits at the Vaughn Cultural Center for African American History, which will be housed in the old Sears building at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Kingshighway.
Homer G. Phillips and a historical perspective on where we stand
At a time in St. Louis when healthcare workers, activists, joined by elected officials, have condemned Paul McKee’s cultural appropriation of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital name for a 3-bed urgent care facility, Amusa reminded us of the history and context of that struggle. He called the naming of McKee’s facility a travesty, and stated that it was disrespectful to the remarkable man Attorney Homer G. Phillips, Phillips’ legacy and what he symbolized as a civic leader who contributed broadly and deeply to St. Louis and powerfully advocated for Black St. Louisans. Amusa remarked, “Many of you may not know this, [but] Atty. Homer G. Phillips was one of the founders [along with Nathan Young] of The St. Louis American in 1928.”
He cited a number of causes that The American has championed in the tradition of Homer G. Phillips, including teachers’ rights to unionize, defeating the “Right to work less” campaign of 1979 and another in 2018. He put in historical context where the country stands today, “We are perhaps facing the biggest challenge. What I call the second End of Reconstruction when all the gains that we fought for ever since the 30s, over the last 80 years, all those gains are being savaged, are being nullified, are being destroyed and they really, really, really want to take us back to the so-called ‘Good old days.’ And Dr. Suggs is one of those people who will tell you, if they have a right to go back, we sure got a right not to go back with them.”
Amusa continued, “It’s about defending the right to vote. It’s about defending the right to be going forward, but more importantly it’s about defending the right to fully exercise all of the authority, discretion, and the powers for a position to which a person is elected to, and that a public official is elected to, and what is happening right now.”
President of the St. Louis CBTU Chapter Jay Ozier acknowledged some dignitaries in the audience, including John Bowman, head of the NAACP Chapter of St. Louis County, and the first Black woman elected Mayor of Northwoods, Missouri, Sharon Pace. Then he read a statement from Lew Moye, President Emeritus of CBTU, “The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is, will be, forever grateful to you, Dr. Suggs, for 40-plus years of friendship and the telling of our fight for jobs, justice [and] equality story in the St. Louis American newspaper, beginning with our fight to save Homer G. Phillips Hospital and The Free South Africa, Free Nelson Mandela movements in the '80s…
In conclusion, Ozier read, “Dr. Suggs, as we celebrate you tonight. I believe and can stand on firm ground tonight and declare that no one has made a positive impact on St. Louis the way that you have, other than Ernest and De Verne Calloway. Your fair minded journalism, foundations and scholarships for our youth will have an everlasting positive effect on The St. Louis African American community and set examples for others to follow."
Suggs joined Ozier and Moye at the podium and accepted the 34th Ernest and De Verne Calloway award and afterwards gave an emotional acceptance speech. In it, he proclaimed, “There’s no giving back for me, it’s what I owe. Whatever little bit I have for myself and my family comes from this community, so I can’t tell you how deeply moved I am for this.” He spoke about how his father Morris Suggs was able to retire with dignity and provide medical care for his wife Elnora until the end of her life at age 106 due to hard work and union benefits.
He pointed out that not only did he have deep gratitude for his parents, for his upbringing, for union organizers who raised his consciousness of the struggle for human rights and racial equity; for the St. Louis American’s staff past and present and all the publishers and editors that came before him, and for his family, but he was humbly aware that he’d gotten the luck of the draw.
“We all know this, who grew up in the black community: for every little Donald Suggs there were twenty, thirty people who were smarter, stronger, more talented, but this system crushed them down.” Suggs elaborated, “But you know when you get up and they say these nice things about you – because remember I’m an older person, what you feel most strongly is, how much with the little blessings I’ve had, born as a little poor Black boy, in a little factory town, right, nobody cared much about, what I care most about is that I continue to have this deep feeling and love for my people. And that has made one of the most satisfying loves – after family and things like that. I mean I love Black people and I love fair minded people of all colors.”
Lew Moye closed the program acknowledging the presence in the audience of Benny Rogers, Jr., the son of the late great Dean of Black Journalism Benny Rogers, Sr., and recognizing all CBTU members present before everyone stood as Mayor and Pastor Tommie Pearson gave the benediction and sent the people gathered for the program into the night with God’s blessing.
Dawn Suggs is The St. Louis American’s Director of Digital Special Projects.