Ferguson and the Complex History of Racial Tension in St. Louis

The protests over the grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer for the fatal shooting of an African-American teenager in Ferguson also spoke volumes about the ongoing and complex history of racial tension in the St. Louis area. The issues change depending on which side the point of view rests. This article looks at some of those issues over the past 200 years as well as the history of Ferguson.

St. Louis Old Courthouse

Missouri was admitted to the union in 1821 as a slave state as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Maine had joined as a free state, thus keeping the balance of power equally divided between slave and free states. Slavery in Missouri was not statewide. It existed mostly on farms along the Missouri River or in mines. St. Louis, a major port for riverboats along the Mississippi River, had urban slaves and slave auctions were held on the steps of the Old Courthouse which is now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

It was also during the pre-Civil War time period that another group figured in with the African-American history of St. Louis. This group, known as the “Colored Aristocracy,” owned their own businesses, owned large tracts of land, held their own debutante balls plus other events as part of their social season. Some of them were descendants from the early residents of St. Louis.

Dred Scott (1795-1858) (portrait by Louis Schultze)

The population of St. Louis, by the mid-1800s, was predominately a mixture of American-born whites, European immigrants, slaves and free African-Americans. It was during this time, in 1846, that Dred Scott and his wife sued for their freedom. The trial was held in 1847 in the Old Courthouse. The Scotts lost but kept pursuing their case. They lost again in 1857 when the U.S. Supreme Court denied them their freedom.

Outside of St. Louis, William B. Ferguson deeded part of his farm to the North Missouri Railroad, later known as the Wabash Railroad, in the 1850s. The deed contained the stipulations of building a depot on Ferguson’s property and making it a regular stop. Ferguson Station was soon a busy place and the farmer subdivided his property and sold lots. New businesses and homes moved to Ferguson Station and, within 40 years, the town had a population of 1,000.

Following the actions of William Ferguson, a wholesale grocer named Thomas January made a contract with the railroad to use the water from a spring-fed lake on his property as water for the tank at the Ferguson Station depot. The contract also made provisions for the railroad to enlarge the lake. In return, January sold part of his property to the railroad so it could be used by the employees for recreational purposes. This was later known as the Wabash Club. The community that had started with a farm was incorporated in 1894 as a fourth-class city. Among those who contributed to its growth were former slaves.

Scott Joplin (1867-1917)

Reconstruction brought several changes to St. Louis. Residents of the city separated from St. Louis County in 1877. The issues were mainly around the double taxes city dwellers paid that included both city and county taxes. Within the city, Sumner High School opened in 1875 as the first high school west of the Mississippi for African-Americans. The 1890s and early 20th century saw an influx of ragtime and blues musicians and composers who either lived in St. Louis or were performing there. W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin and others wrote and performed works that are still popular today. As the population grew, the seeds of segregated housing laws were staking their claim. Ferguson eventually became part of the complex history of racial tension in the St. Louis area.

Segregated housing laws were enacted in 1916. According to the law, no one was allowed to move to a block that had more than 75 percent of another race. The NAACP fought this in the courts and won, but some white neighborhoods created smaller associations that enforced segregated housing. Some of these groups had restrictive covenants outlining to whom the property could be sold. The population swelled unexpectedly in 1917 as thousands of African-Americans fled across the Eads Bridge for protection from the East St. Louis race riots in Illinois. St. Louis, MO, was seen as a safe haven with police officers helping those reach the food and shelter provided by officials.

The black population was expected to live in the northern part of the city and county and near the waterfront; the white population lived in the southern part. One of the North St. Louis African-American sections that flourished was “the Ville.” This middle-class neighborhood is also where the Sumner High School is located. The community is the birthplace of Metropolitan Opera singer Grace Bumbry, comedian Dick Gregory, and rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry.

Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis (1956-1976)

Housing could not keep up with the increasing population. Large, public housing projects were built in the 1950s. One of these projects on the north side of St. Louis was named Pruitt-Igoe. It was designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who would later design the World Trade Center twin towers. It consisted of 33 buildings, or 2,870 small apartments, with elevators that deliberately skipped two floors and stopped on every third one.

Pruitt-Igoe demolition

The project was completed in 1956 and was originally supposed to be segregated by buildings for white and black tenants. However, whites moved to the suburbs leaving Pruitt-Igoe as a black housing project for the lowest income families. Within 15 years after it opened, it had a nationwide reputation of high crime, segregation, deplorable living conditions, and mismanaged funds. Two of the 33 buildings were demolished in 1972 on national television. The remaining buildings were demolished in 1976.

African-Americans also started leaving St. Louis in the 1970s to get away from the high crime of the projects and the overcrowding. Ferguson was one of the locations where they settled. This older suburb in North St. Louis County was established before the restrictive zoning laws seen in newer communities existed. From 1980 to 2010, the white population dropped from 85 percent to 29 percent. During that same time period, the African-American population rose from 14 percent to 69 percent. The recent protests go beyond the shooting of an African-American teen. Ferguson, like so many other suburbs and neighborhoods, has had years of witnessing the complex history of racial tension in St. Louis.

By Cynthia Collins


City of Ferguson History

National Park Service – African-American Life in St. Louis 1804-1865

Slavery in Missouri

City of St. Louis – The African-American Experience

Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project

2010 Census of Ferguson, MO

St. Louis Old Courthouse: Architectural Landmark and Historic Museum

Top Photo Credit: photographer velo_city, Creativecommons Flickr

Photo of the Old Courthouse: photographer Reading Tom, Creativecommons Flickr

Aerial Photo of Pruitt-Igoe by U.S. Geological Survey

Photo of Pruitt-Igoe Demolition by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

One Response to "Ferguson and the Complex History of Racial Tension in St. Louis"

  1. Cherese Jackson   December 10, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Great informative article Cindy!


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