NOT RACE, NOT CLASS, IT’S CULTURE

Still thinking about Ferguson, Missouri.

Ferguson mo 1978-3

I grew up a stone’s throw from there, in the 1960s, and there were no blacks to speak of. We were all middle class whites and were trained with middle class ideas. Most of us went to state institutions, middle class schools, for college. We knew the program.

ferguson mo 1978 -1

After graduate school at a second middle class state institution, I came south to take my first college teaching position. The only person I knew in South Carolina was the person who hired me.

Landscape, behavior, attitudes were all unfamiliar to me. And true, I lived (still do) in a county that is majority minority. There was some kind of political plan to make this county the way it is, and its shape is huge, and far-reaching to attain that goal. Both whites and blacks were confusing.

I was truly in a different pond. Could not understand why strangers spoke to me. What did they want? Someone was to pick me up “after church” and I thought, “Which service?”. Overwhelmingly, there is only one here, and it is at eleven. The details of life became unfamiliar.

Having later married into a local family, it was very early on that I realized they were playing a game for which I would never know the rules. That is a cultural difference. Neutral, not bad, not good. It got me in trouble sometimes. That description stayed with me; it exactly depicted my emotions. I meant no harm, was simply confused. My antennae did not work well here.

People, black and white, do what their parents and grandparents did; they are the models. Those traditions may seem very strange to the other. Cultures are different ponds. Should know better, but last weekend was sort of shocked by the organization of a local Democratic Party campaign event.

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The fish fry and meet and greet was to start at four. We got to the event at that time, there was not a soul around. We sat in the car until we saw some movement in putting up a tent in the parking lot. My oldest, with us, is always embarrassed by my activities. We walk into the building behind the line of signs, against his advice. There was a meeting in a glass office taking place, and about 40 black people sitting in chairs around the perimeter of the office quietly and politely.

williams one

It reminded me of the above event from last year when all staked out their seats in a covered picnic area, loaded with railroad collectibles hanging from the ceiling. The people were glued to their seats, and were not going to give them up until fed. Same thing for the fish fry last week. They had all evening, they would listen to all the speakers, and then they would eat. Never mind how slow the start was. We, starving, left to go eat pizza as the event had yet to be born. Should have learned this stuff by now. It made me think of the Old South and the new black voters and getting out the vote. And generations of black families doing as they had seen done before.

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MADELYN AND LEE IN KINLOCH

Madelyn sent me this link when all in the Ferguson diaspora looked with pain at the violent images every night.

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119106/ferguson-missouris-complicated-history-poverty-and-racial-tension

Briefly, it says that to understand Ferguson, you have to first understand the story of Kinloch and the story of north St. Louis. As a kid without a car, north St. Louis escaped me. But I knew Kinloch. Madelyn and all her (even then) political activities took me there. It amazes me this vein of authenticity that runs through Madelyn; fifty some years after we first met, she has the same ideas about the same things she always has. She was right then, and is right now.

This was back then when “liberal” was not a bad word, and when Lyndon Johnson was creating his “Great Society”. Madelyn got involved in Head Start, a program of early education for children so that they were not behind already on their first day of kindergarten. Not surprisingly, she has taught children all her life. Madelyn and I went to the same church and we belonged to a very active youth group, much of the time guided by Madelyn’s politics. I can still see her brainstorming ideas for programs for the group. Having recently come to Florissant from some years in Japan, it was interesting to me that she suggested a program called “Youth in Asia”. Of course, she was suggesting “Euthanasia”.

dad's car

That was Madelyn. This time she was collecting old clothes for children in Kinloch, the all black suburb of St. Louis closest to where we lived. We were to drop them at the Head Start location there.

No one could believe it when Big John bought his first convertible. Conservative, but a Democrat, he was a government bureaucrat at a high level. Friends and neighbors were intermittently questioned about him by the government because he dealt in sensitive stuff. My dad was quiet. Then something remarkable happened and he bought a 1964 Buick Special convertible, black, and a big straw hat with fringe on it!

Three years later he bought a 1967 silver Buick Le Sabre convertible, like the one pictured above, and that is the car that Madelyn and I borrowed to deliver old clothes to the Head Start in Kinloch. Beautiful summer day with the top down. Dad at work.

I remember the day; the boxes in the back seat sitting on red leather, the freedom of the wind, the freedom of the car, and the freedom of the lazy summer.

When Big John got home from work that evening, he was appalled. You did WHAT? In KINLOCH? In the CONVERTIBLE? WITH THE TOP DOWN?

Madelyn and I lived in Florissant, right next to Ferguson. Florissant means “Valley of the Flowers”. Madelyn and I sure acted like valley girls that day!

Here are Madelyn’s words from just yesterday:

“Yes, Lee, I remember going to Kinloch with you in your car, and am astounded at how little I knew of the effect of my life style on others, the privileges and power we had without knowing.”

FERGUSON, MISSOURI

This small city is my husband’s home town. Who would have known it would become so famous? Figuring what you must be seeing on television, let me tell you about his Ferguson, my Ferguson. Some of that information can be gained by contrast.

The next suburb north in St. Louis County is Florissant. This is where I grew up. Kids from Florissant and Ferguson merged together in 10th grade and attended the same high school, named McCluer High School. The school gained some fame in 1967 when a small airplane hit the old gym, just as modern dance students left it to change. The pilot was killed. The school was just beyond one of the major flight patterns for Lambert Airport. That would change. It was the middle of the boomer experience and kids were everywhere. Our school was the biggest high school in the state.

1-mccluer yearbook picture

Ferguson and Florissant represented two different ways to live, and I noticed it immediately when we were looking for houses, just having come back from a stretch in Japan. Ferguson had little streets and trees everywhere. The houses on each street were mostly unique; periodically a builder would create two or three houses on one street. Glenn’s house was one of those. In that area it was hilly and there were many parks. The neighborhoods were heterogeneous looking but there were better neighborhoods, and lesser neighborhoods. There is a distinct downtown area that most could walk to. I still remember one two story house my family looked at; I was so impressed because it had an intercom system between the front door and the kitchen. There were two like it on this little street in Ferguson.

https://www.google.com/maps/place/616+Superior+Dr,+Ferguson,+MO+63135/@38.753376,-90.296,3a,90y,94h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sTrz7ClcraI0CbKZ3SKAZIg!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x87df49e1473dc545:0x9c24a8df5ec32fd7

Glenn’s house

Unbelievably, Florissant was the higher end choice for those days. Acres and acres of farmland were scraped raw for the advent of subdivision houses rising from the mud. With each house you got two trees for the boulevard areas. One developer, Mayer Rasher Mayer (I think) developed most of the city. There was a downtown area which was more a cluster of strip stores. Not leafy like Ferguson. There was a small old part of Florissant that was older than any of the surroundings. That part of Florissant was like Ferguson.

https://www.google.com/maps/@38.797884,-90.294279,3a,75y,354.95h,89.77t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1shfKoHIR4Hn9jlLgIoTAjMg!2e0

My house

Florissant in the summer was as hot as you could imagine with those two toddler trees and cement streets. The sounds of all the air-conditioners made it seem the houses would fairly take off! We rode bikes or walked to friend’s houses in all that heat, counting blocks and streets with names of horses. You would see the same “model” house over and over again. That interested me for some reason; I would never live in a place like that again, although I knew no different.

Florissant had a park and a public pool, tennis courts and an A and W root beer stand, but it was too far for us to walk there. Ferguson, on the other hand, had the magnificent January Wabash Park where there was a pool and a bandshell and the old red brick Ferguson High School, to be turned into the junior high for Ferguson when McCluer was built. It also had a little lake where people fished. In the winter, the little lake froze and we ice skated. Nothing like that in Florissant. At January Wabash lake we spent much time during the Brownie years learning about nature. I remember seeing my first coiled up frog eggs on the edge of the lake. I remember one winter in ninth grade in my cheerleading get-up, crowding around a fire for warmth and then scandalizing myself because I smelled like smoke after.

During the summer of the Watts riots–there were black suburbs near us, everyone stayed calm.

The father of my life-long friend was the superintendent of schools for the Ferguson-Florissant R-2 School District. He came here about three years ago, and we spoke of the integration of the school district. This happened just after we were off to college. Dr. Brown said to the board “Give me a year for this”, and the board did. The integration was accomplished without drama.

Last summer we went back for a fifty year celebration of the opening of McCluer High School. These two suburbs are majority black now, but in riding by the houses, all looked neat and clean. So did the park, the tennis courts where Glenn and I first met; sadly the A and W is not anymore.

My heart is broken with Ferguson being in the news like this. And Florissant has its own problems. Turns out all those space-age houses were built upon a cesspool of a creek called Coldwater. And we have ourselves a huge cancer cluster there.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS, MY FRIEND

And now some of us are 64?  Will you still need me, will you still feed me…

Where the hell did all the time go?  Have you listened to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” lately?

1-grandview plaza

How appropriate that this center of our young lives was also on Route 66.  It adds to the romance.  We could, and did, walk here, but it was a long cement trek.  It was very near to our high school. The Grandview Cinema (which would materialize about where the little floating sign suspends above) did not open with the shopping center; it was built a little later.  There, we dated.  We shopped at Penney’s.  We stared into the mostly matte black windows of the Jet Lounge, and wondered what was going on in there.

The most evocative part of the picture above is what is surrounding Grandview Plaza: the pattern of houses.  They marched on for miles.  No one lived much differently than anyone else.

I begged my father’s new 1967 Le Sabre Convertible soon after I got my license for some unimportant task.  Took that car top-down to Grandview, parked it and strolled around Penney’s.  It wasn’t until looking for my keys on the way out that I realized they were left in the car.  With the top down.

dad's car

grandview plaza postcard

You can see the sign in this postcard in the lower left of the first image, across from the gas station.  Image is sure more important now.

Much more fun to take the bus, changing once at the exotic Ferguson Loop and go to Famous-Barr in the Northland Shopping Center in Ferguson.

northland

We’d save up our money, have lunch in the mezzanine between floors; there were drawings of women shoppers; angular, a mix between Audrey Hepburn and Barbie carrying hat boxes.  Later, during the British Invasion, there was a shop for juniors mimicking Carnaby  Street.  You just had to use the bus to get that kind of fashion interface!

glenns accident

Glenn had his first accident in the area just under the Kresge sign.  Years after this picture was taken, but we remember the Christmas candles on the roof.  And it was Santa in the helicopter.  This was probably the first year Northland did this.

northland 3

Northland was destroyed in 2005.

My now thirty year old son was maybe six when he realized that my youthful world was not actually black and white.  He was very perceptive.  In a way, the sixties WERE very black and white.

WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE PLANE HIT?

That is the question that McCluer Comets ask each other.   Same thing as we all do regarding our 9/11 tragedy or the day Kennedy was killed.  This question reveals the private little horror at McCluer High School.  Adolescents being well, adolescent, the day was a little confusing.

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It must have happened on February 15, 1968.  I found a newspaper article from the 16th.  The thirty five year old pilot was trying to guide his small private plane to this field.  He didn’t make it, and hit the M-1 gym, just next to it.  The girls in the modern dance class had just exited.  The pilot died.

1-mccluer yearbook picture

You can see the gym in this yearbook page, complete with high school year end philosophy for me.  The track is in the foreground, the gym the tallish building next to it.

BIG school.  Five thousand kids, sophomores to seniors.  Everybody had to exit.  Where would they go?

I went to the grove of trees in the middle of this image having been in the building to the left of them.  Hundreds and hundreds of us sat on that hill and watched across the central parking lot to the gym where half of a small plane showed above the roof.   The grove of trees is where people went to smoke when they could manage it.

Never thought about it before, but we few knew what was going on.  My husband Glenn, who went to the same school (and who I never knew in high school) was in the two story building behind the grove of trees.  Second floor.  They all watched the proceedings from the classroom windows.

It never occurred to me until this day where and what the other kids were doing.  Maybe I once knew and have forgotten.  To others in similar outside groups around the huge campus, everything would be hearsay.  Maybe only the very close buildings had to evacuate.  Even in the group that knew what was going on, some kids were rowdy.  Can any Comets out there refresh me?

BTW, when Glenn and I started dating, you know what we had to ask.