Our 2021 5-part series, Barriers & Blessings—How Commercial Prosperity Shapes School Success, is a continuation of FTF’s Still Separate, Still Unequal advocacy tool for education equity in the St. Louis region.
The stories that we tell ourselves and that we pass on matter. They reflect and reinforce our beliefs, the decisions we make, and the actions we take. In our latest collaboration with Humans of St. Louis, we hear community voices share how stories of self have historically shaped the lives of St. Louisans and the education landscape we live in and how those stories continue to define us today.
Dwayne: I didn’t appreciate North County until I went to college, but to me, it’s home. For the first six years of my life, I lived in the City in an apartment off of Skinker and Page. My parents wanted a bigger house and they had been looking for a while. So in 1978, they moved my brother and me from a three-bedroom apartment to a five-bedroom house in Normandy. I remember thinking, “Who died to leave us this amount of money?” We were the second African American family to move in on our street. It wasn’t a big deal like “oh, be careful” or “watch out.” We were welcomed. We played with the kids next door and the kids down the street. There weren’t a lot of Black families on our street, but my siblings and I were around Black people when we went to school.
I went to Normandy from first grade all the way through high school. Middle school was mixed, but by the time we went to high school, the white kids had left. My friends and I had conversations like, “What happened to this friend?” and they had gone somewhere else. I remember looking around at one point and realizing we had two white kids left and everyone knew them both by name. My brother is older than me and when he graduated, it was 60% white and 40% Black. By the time I graduated five years later, it was 98% Black. I didn’t notice until I looked through his yearbook.
Dwayne: Normandy was considered the “bad” school and Hazelwood was the “good” school. People said if you went to Normandy, you would end up on drugs, in jail, or dead. I’m not sure exactly where I received the messages, but I felt it from society. So if you wanted to be something, you left. When people were leaving after middle school, the conversation was “Lutheran North, Rosati Kain, or Incarnate Word?” If you stayed and graduated from Normandy, it was, “I’m so sorry.” You’d even hear things from rival schools like, “The gates around Normandy are not to keep people out but keep the derelicts in.”
I remember my parents seeing about me going to other schools. I even took an entrance test for one of the prep schools. I thought I failed it but later learned my parents didn’t feel it necessary to pay for private school. I look back and applaud them for making the best decision.
I know people who went to the West County schools and the private schools and they are successful. But I see a different type of success with those who went to Normandy. It was never like, “You’re going to be okay because you go to this school.” I had to work. If someone puts a boulder in front of me, I know how to move it because I had to.
Toby: When I was seven, my parents divorced, and my dad decided to move from Ferguson to Dellwood while my mom and I moved into an apartment in Black Jack. Dad and his family were classic white-flighters, constantly doing leapfrog to get to another place. I always knew why we were moving.
My dad was very racist, like most white men in North County who were pretty upfront about it. The women were a little more genteel, but they did what the men were doing. All the white people started moving out when the Black people started moving in, which is what the creation of St. Charles was all about. In elementary school, I went there for a sleepover, and as soon as we crossed the bridge, I didn’t like it. It looked like a movie set for a Western where they built a boomtown overnight. I could feel fear, aggression, and this “trying to get away” mentality.
I was in third grade when the first Black kids came to our grade school at Jury Elementary in Black Jack. It was the first lesson in, “My dad is full of shit.” I started hanging out with two little Black girls in our class and realized, “They’re smart. They talk well. They’re not mean.” The things I had been hearing from white people had all been bullshit. But it wasn’t until high school that I was able to say to my father, “Don’t talk that way anymore around me.”
My mom and I landed in Black Jack in 1972 in Whisper Lake Apartments and, at that time, the government wanted to build subsidized housing on Parker and Old Jamestown Road. As a response, Black Jack quickly incorporated into a township so they could close white ranks. They said no more apartments could be built and wanted the town to be predominantly single-family homeowners, which was another classic way to keep Black families from moving in. A lawsuit was filed and it went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The ruling was that it was race-based and the court said, “Yes, they can build.” I was seven when we moved in, so I didn’t know what was happening. I learned about it years later from other kids in our subdivision. I doubt my mom was paying attention at the time. She was mostly focused on the bills getting paid and when she did sit down to read or watch things it was magazines or movies because she just needed a break.
Toby: I was a precocious and curious kid, always learning new things, and it made me an easy target. So when I got to Kirby Junior High I started getting picked on. No matter what I tried to do, I always stuck out. It continued into high school at Hazelwood Central. Going to school every day was like an obstacle course. I hated getting on the bus, and during the day I would do my work as quickly as possible. I started playing hooky because it was so unpleasant. All I ever wanted at the time was to be like everyone else so I could blend, but I ended up caving into peer pressure, and wound up in jail and then on probation. It was a good lesson on why I shouldn’t try and be like everyone else.
College was not an option for me, financially. So I left Hazelwood for West County Technical to learn graphic arts. It was the best decision I ever made. When I finally graduated, I was elated because I was free to be myself and find my people. December of 1985 I had my very first job doing paste-ups for the St. Louis Business Journal.
Toby: I started a blog called B.E.L.T.:Built Environment in Layman’s Term. To this day, I photograph and write about the built environment in St. Louis. I focused a lot on North County which wasn’t a conscious thing. I later realized I was going back and documenting my homeland.
“A few of my architectural and historian peers came to me and said, ‘Those photos that you took on West Florissant right through Ferguson are important. You have historical evidence of what was burned down, torn down, and destroyed.’ They encouraged me to do something with them. Originally, I was just going to share the photos. But when I started to trace the images down West Florissant, a bigger theme arose — White flight.” – Toby Weiss, Architectural Writer, Photographer, and Historian
In the 2010s, I started photographing the buildings on West Florissant and Chambers Road. I was doing it because things were changing. Buildings were getting torn down and sometimes they put new things in their place, but oftentimes they didn’t. After Michael Brown was murdered in August of 2014 and then the non-indictment verdict came out in November of 2014, even more of Ferguson and Dellwood were destroyed. I was devastated and stopped blogging on a regular schedule. I just didn’t see the importance in talking about buildings anymore when it was the people who were using and living in these buildings who had been put through all this trauma.
But then a few of my architectural and historian peers came to me and said, “Those photos that you took on West Florissant right through Ferguson are important. You have historical evidence of what was burned down, torn down, and destroyed.” They encouraged me to do something with them. Originally, I was just going to share the photos. But when I started to trace the images down West Florissant, a bigger theme arose — White flight. I ended up writing a longer piece titled “A White Flight Tour Up West Florissant Ave. to #Ferguson and North St. Louis County” When members of my family saw it they didn’t like it. They said, “That wasn’t us” and gave me their reasons why they moved. But it was.
Dwayne: I come from a family of educators. My mom is a retired math teacher, my father is a retired accountant, and both are college graduates. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer and my grandmothers were school teachers. I have lots of aunts and extended family members who were school teachers, too. So I couldn’t come home and blame the teacher or the school system for poor grades. I was fortunate enough to have a home life that supplemented the education and lessons Normandy provided. I look at it as empowerment. I look at it as empowerment.
I could have gone to school and listened to the stories like, “You’re not going to make it… You’re going to be a drug addict…” But I had a home environment where I heard, “Yes, you can do this. You’re going to be okay.” I also had teachers who instilled worth in me and my classmates. I thought my 4th-grade teacher Ms. Johnson was the meanest, but she was mean because she loved us. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now and I’ve thanked her over and over. I worry about teachers who don’t instill a message of worth into kids now. If the story is “you’re not good enough,” and if your parents aren’t telling you that you are and teachers aren’t telling you that you are, where are you being empowered?
Even though the narrative continues to be that Normandy is not “good,” there are great Normandy students. To me, there’s that same narrative about North County. If you’re just listening to the news about how North County is “this” and “that,” then you are missing the complete story. There are positives and strengths that are not often shared. If you’re growing up in an environment where you’re constantly being told “I am not enough,” I want you to know you are more than enough.
Toby: We live in a city that is completely divided North, South, East, and West, and I’m fascinated by it. In some ways, we’re lucky there’s been enough inattention and dismissiveness so we still have so much of our architectural history. I like to document it before it disappears. I’m sharing the stories of the built environment in words and photos like, “Here’s this building. Here’s what it was and here’s what it is today. It is devoid of resentment about the people who live there now.”
There is a two-book series called “Cruizin; North County:Remembering our “Happy Days” growing up in a St. Louis suburb.” It’s written by baby-boomer white guys reminiscing, like, “Didn’t this used to be a great place?” Well, I think it’s still a great place. I’m well aware of all of the inequities, and the families and people who live there now have to work with the cards they have been dealt. White, ex-pat, North Countians have a resentment that has to do with fear because they made fear-based decisions to leave.
Dwayne: I like how you talked about the built environment because it just wants to be loved and appreciated. I often think about the strength of community members who live, work, and play in North City and County. They’ve added their own tricks and trades to the cards they’ve been dealt, like with cooking. Our culture has a history of this, we were given greens and we made them appetizing and good. We make things better than the way they might be presented to us. Too often we point out the negatives instead of the strengths and the beauty. Yes, schools might be challenged, but look at the diversity of our schools. I went to school with future doctors, lawyers, and teachers. I also went to school with people who didn’t have the most positive profession, but I learned from them as much as I learned from others. If I went to school with everyone who was exactly the same, how am I prepared to go out into the world and work with other people?
Toby: In 1994, I was working for Famous-Barr in the advertising department. They were going to be closing their store at Northland Shopping Center to move to Jamestown Mall. That was a big deal because, at that point, Jamestown Mall was 20 years old and a move like that signaled that the mall was thriving. But by 2014, Famous-Barr became Macy’s and then left in 2015. That was the death knell. The building was left to rot and now it’s turning back into farmland on its own. Then there was Northwest Plaza, which had four department stores –– Sears, JCPenney, Stix, and Famous-Barr. It became a closed-in mall in 1989, and in 1994 they got new owners. By 1997, the owners bought Mid Rivers Mall and West County Mall, too. They started directing all the consumers and money there instead of to North County.
Dwayne: That’s what I don’t appreciate. We couldn’t have a Famous-Barr in Northland Shopping Center AND Jamestown Mall. It’s always one or the other. You see it with home improvement stores and grocery stores — one here or there, but not both places. But driving down Manchester in West County, there’s one every other block. This part is left out of the educational conversation. Once the businesses say, “We’re no longer invested in this area,” the tax base leaves. Then my driving time takes me to a different community and I might have to work there, too. So, of course, I want to move. I can’t shop here. I can’t really play here. I can’t live here because of the school districts.
“Once the businesses say, “We’re no longer invested in this area,” the tax base leaves. Then my driving time takes me to a different community and I might have to work there, too. So, of course, I want to move. I can’t shop here. I can’t really play here. I can’t live here because of the school districts.” – Dwayne T. James, Ferguson Resident
Let’s change the tax base for schools. Don’t tie it to the businesses. It’s a chess game that’s working just the way it’s supposed to work. I’m going to give you one business and take all the others to another location. This is the collective trauma of North County. People visit and are like, “Aren’t you happy you have Schnucks?” We’re supposed to be happy after businesses leave and then decide we’re enough to come back to, but North County needs to be a destination for people to visit because they appreciate it. If all you’re seeing about North County is what’s being reported on the news, you don’t understand. If all you’re seeing is the airport, you don’t understand. Get out of your car. Go to a coffee shop. Talk to people. Walk the streets.
Dwayne: I think there will be a push for unification in our region. We saw that with Better Together, but it didn’t attempt to unify the educational system. No one wants to give their tax dollars to someone else. People only want to benefit their own kids, but why can’t everyone’s taxes benefit all? I work with Neighborhood Leadership Fellows, which is an opportunity for residents who live in the Promise Zone to get access to the tables. I also work with youth as part of the Youth Empowerment Program, which empowers them to develop policy solutions to the issues they see in their community. Decisions are happening with or without you being there, so you might as well get yourself to those tables. Local-level decisions affect the entire region. Like the Costco in UCity — why didn’t they choose the Jamestown Mall location to build? Developers would say if you look at the footprint, there’s not enough purchasing power there. But there’s a whole lot of people in North County who drive to other Costcos. Why are you removing businesses to put one in when there are other areas you can develop? And how do we get people to say, “We don’t need it here, but our friends in North County do?”
“My hope is that the inequities of North City and North St. Louis County are rectified with intentional investment and energy. Let’s have conversations and do work that is sustainable, unified, and happening with the community and not just to them.” – Dwayne T. James, Ferguson Resident
My hope is that the inequities of North City and North St. Louis County are rectified with intentional investment and energy. Let’s have conversations and do work that is sustainable, unified, and happening with the community and not just to them. Sometimes organizations come in like, “This is our plan, say okay to it so we can keep on moving.” Like, say they put in a grocery store without asking what the community wants. I’m not going to support that grocery store, because we wanted one with healthy food and not just snacks. In the funder’s mind, if it fails, we didn’t want one. But it’s not that we didn’t want one, we just don’t support that grocery store because their food was rotten or they weren’t kind to their customers. And that story doesn’t get back to the funders. But if we continue to engage, empower, and build capacity in the community, at some point funders are going to have to listen. Let’s collaborate on a plan. Let people vote on whether or not they want a business. To me, 2014 showed us we were tired of the status quo. We’re going to continue to fight until someone listens. As a region, are we willing to listen?
Toby: My dad died this year. But in his last years, his eyes were starting to open and I noticed his tone was changing about race. The biggest one of all was when we were having a conversation about GI loans. My father bought his first house for his first family in Florissant with the GI loan. I commented, “That only worked for you white soldiers.” He said, “What do you mean? Anyone who served in Korea was eligible for the GI loans.” And I told him they predominantly went to white soldiers.
He went on to talk about how there was a Black battalion who served with him in Vietnam, and that he had a Black sergeant. He pointed to pictures with Black soldiers in his photo albums. So I went online and got a bunch of articles and stats from reputable places about how GI loans ended up increasing racial discrimination. I mailed everything to him. He read it and was flabbergasted. He had maintained a subscription to TIME magazine his whole life, and in 2020 with the George Floyd protests, he was reading all of those articles and starting to talk to me about them. His response to Floyd’s murder was different than his response to Michael Brown’s death and local protests. That old dog learned a few new tricks before he exited the planet. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to talk about things. White folks just get so nervous. Obviously, there is guilt, but there is also a lack of education. We get uncomfortable if we look stupid. But educating yourself is an ongoing process.