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You Can't Understand Ferguson Without First Understanding These Three Things

Reflections from a former state senator from St. Louis

Scott Olson/Getty Images News

You can’t really understand Ferguson—the now-famous St. Louis suburb with a long history of white people sometimes maliciously, sometimes not, imposing their will on black people’s lives—unless you understand Kinloch. 

Kinloch, the oldest black town in Missouri, is now essentially a ghost town, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it thrived for nearly a century after its founding in the 1890s. Back then, restrictive housing covenants prohibited the direct sale of property to blacks, so a white real estate firm purchased parcels of land, marked them up over 100 percent, and resold them to blacks." One advertisement noted, "The good colored people of South Kinloch Park have built themselves a little city of which they have a right to be proud. More than a hundred homes, three churches and a splendid public school have been built in a few years."

The turn of the century was a heady time for the bustling little town. The Wright Brothers visited Kinloch Airfield in one of their earliest tours, and the airfield hosted an event at which Theodore Roosevelt took the maiden presidential airplane flight, which lasted approximately three minutes. Kinloch Airfield was home to the first control tower, the first aerial photo, and the first airmail shipped by a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh. A streetcar line ran through Ferguson, helping Kinloch residents travel to jobs throughout the region, and perhaps more importantly, exposing many whites to Kinloch as they passed through. Despite the region’s decidedly Southern folkways and segregated housing arrangements, blacks and whites rode the streetcars as equals. Kinloch itself was also notable for its relative enlightenment; despite school segregation, it became the first Missouri community to elect a black man to its school board.

All that began to change in 1938. A second black man sought election to the school board in the district which had a narrow black majority—whites inhabited the north and blacks the south—and whites responded by attempting to split the school district. It failed: 415 blacks in the south voted unanimously against the effort, while 215 whites in the north all supported it. So to get around the small problem of losing democratically, whites in the northern half of Kinloch immediately formed a new municipality called Berkeley, and a rare Missouri effort at integrated governance ended. Kinloch continued to thrive for the next several decades as a small nearly all-black town of churches, shops, community centers, and tidy homes.

In the 1980s, the airport—long since been renamed Lambert International Airport—began snatching up property to build an additional runway. From 1990 to 2000, Kinloch shed over 80 percent of its population, and as the community fabric frayed, it was increasingly plagued by crime and disorder. 

Construction on airport expansion, which cost well over a billion dollars and involved 550 companies, began in 2001. Unfortunately, two other things happened that year: American Airlines bought TWA, and 9/11. Which means that the airport is dramatically underutilized now; a senior airport official told me Lambert could easily handle twice the traffic it currently gets.

Meanwhile, many of the residents displaced by this wasteful construction project have ended up in Ferguson—specifically, in Canfield Green, the apartment complex on whose grounds Michael Brown tragically died.

You can’t really understand Ferguson unless you understand J.D. Shelley. He was a middle-class black man from north St. Louis who in 1945 bought a home in a neighborhood just a few minutes east of Ferguson, unaware of the restrictive covenant that barred its sale to "people of the Negro or Asian Race.” Alas, this move inflamed Louis Kraemer, who lived ten blocks away and was well aware of the covenant. Kraemer was temporarily vindicated when the Missouri Supreme court backed his lawsuit to enforce the covenant, but the United States Supreme Court overturned the Missouri ruling and forbade the state from enforcing such private agreements. In the wake of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision, blacks began to move out of crowded north St. Louis City, where many had been packed into high-rise projects such as the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, to north St. Louis County.

This exodus created massive tension between increasingly black suburban electorates and white leaders whose stranglehold on municipal political power was total. The North County white power structure’s supplying of jobs in public safety departments, and of lucrative construction and service contracts, to white allies cemented their status as political and economic elites—and the status of blacks as disempowered outsiders.

And you can’t really understand Ferguson unless you understand Bellerive, a small community of a few hundred people separated from Ferguson by Highway 170. It was once the site of Bellerive Country Club, the region’s most affluent club, home to the 1992 PGA Championship and future host of the hundreth PGA Championship in 2018. In 1957—as black migration to St. Louis began in earnest—Bellerive Country Club decided to move to the posh West St. Louis County suburb of Town and Country, home to multi-million dollar homes and gleaming corporate office parks. But the subdivision that originally surrounded the club remains a leafy enclave of affluence with a median family income around 100 thousand. Its residents today pride themselves on their enlightened progressivism; after all, they stayed and suffered as property values eroded while others moved west and accumulated great wealth in the land underneath them. Regardless, their presence is a daily reminder to their poorer neighbors of the stark divides that so many politicians promised to close, and so many invisible forces seem to buttress. It is a reminder of the privilege that so many whites enjoy while they are pulled over by cops, fined, arrested, and imprisoned at astronomical rates, crippling their ability to enter the region’s economic mainstream. 

My own understanding of what’s happening in Ferguson, though, comes not so much through history as through experience accumulated during my childhood and my years campaigning in north St. Louis City. My understanding, if it may generously be called that, was hard-earned—mostly from my many unintentional mistakes.

North St. Louis is struggling. It’s about 95 percent black, and unemployment among men in their twenties approaches 50 percent in many neighborhoods. It’s a community fighting to regain its lost glory, the days when black doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals, and morticians lived among the laborers and housekeepers, in larger homes but in close proximity. This area was approximately 60 percent of the state senate district I represented from 2006-2009.

The Annie Malone Parade was Missouri’s largest, attended by approximately a quarter million African-Americans from throughout the region. During my first campaign, in 2004, I arrived to find myself badly unprepared. Candidates for alderman, seeking to serve 12,000 people instead of the 750,000 I aspired to represent, had far more impressive operations than I did. They had fleets of SUVs or pickup trucks with pulsing sound systems and oversized banners, their flat beds overflowing with supporters. My entourage consisted of two sixty-year-old volunteers. We raised a small, tattered campaign banner, but we had no stickers, no car, no megaphone. Also, I was in the only white person in sight, and my paltry cheering section didn’t exactly suggest a groundswell of grassroots support. It was an advance man’s nightmare.

Desperately seeking a way to avoid embarrassment, I approached a group of kids tossing a basketball around. “Yo, lemme borrow that ball for an hour,” I said. “I’ll give you five bucks.”


“Ten bucks,” I said.

“Bet,” said one of the kids. He tossed me the ball in exchange for a $10 bill. Dressed in a blue shirt and tie, I started dribbling the ball as the parade began.

Some context: My dad dreamed that I’d play in the NBA. That he was 5’6” and my mom 5’2” did not deter him. Starting when I was about nine, he would take me to gyms or playgrounds in dilapidated parts of the city where dusk heralded the sounds of gunfire, and tell my mom that he took me to play golf. By my senior year of high school, I became a pretty good point guard and, at 5’3”, was the only white starter on a team of mostly inner-city kids bused out via a special inter-district program. My senior year, we were ranked number one in the region, and my teammates became my closest friends. Basketball was my lingua franca, my bridge to their world, and I decided to major in Black Studies in college. 

About a mile into the parade, a teenager hollered at me, ribbing me about my ball handling skills. “Yo white-bread, you ain’t got no handles. You ain’t shit.”

“Wanna come out here and see?” I asked.

He jogged out of the crowd and crouched in a defensive position. I quickly dribbled the ball through my legs, behind my back in the opposite direction, feigned a forward movement, rocked back on my heels and performed a crossover dribble that left him lunging in the wrong direction. The crowd howled. Kids of all ages started streaming out from the crowd to play “one-on-one” with me. By the end of the parade, there were dozens of kids jogging along with me, dribbling balls. My dress shirt was soaked through with sweat, but it was worth it.

Weeks later, I was out shaking hands in a busy shopping district, when a young black woman approached me. “You’re Jeff Smith, right?”

“I am. Great to meet you. What’s your name? Appreciate your support!”           

“Oh, I’m not supporting you,” she said tartly. “In fact, I plan to spend every day between now and Election Day telling everyone I know not to vote for you.”

“Can I ask why?”

“Because you think I’m a monkey.”

I was perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“Yeah, you think we’re just a bunch of stupid monkeys who will vote for you because you dribble a basketball fancy in our parades. Yeah, I saw you. It was the most insulting, offensive thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.”

I flashed back to that day. I’d been so caught up in the cheering I never even considered how others might have perceived me.

“But—it was a parade!" I told the woman. "I couldn’t give a speech! I was just trying to communicate in the only way I knew how, in the moment…”  

“Well, I got the message. And you need to hear my message: I couldn’t care less who wins, as long as you lose.”

This week, that sentiment seems to describe the feelings of many of those massed in Ferguson. They want white St. Louis to quit it with the knee-jerk paternalism and actually hear their message. They want white St. Louis to finally make an effort to grapple with its shameful racial history, a history in which a complex alchemy of private decisions and public policies conspired to leave north St. Louis County divided by race and class. They want to win some agency of their own lives instead of being at the mercy of forces that have so often let them down—or actively impeded them.

But will white St. Louis listen?