A tall oak tree stands at the corner of Geyer and Monroe. That tree, now part of the Kirkwood swimming pool, is the site of my family home that my grandfather had built. My grandfather and I planted that tree. Growing up, that stretch of Monroe comprised a neighborhood of all black families. Our block was home to more than a few people of distinction, notably a Buffalo soldier, a baseball Hall of Famer, and a decorated Tuskegee Airman. My parents were instrumental in creating a kind and caring place to live, not just for our family, but for our community.
If you don't care about the people around you, home is just a place to put down your hat. That is a mantra I learned from my parents - and I try to continue to live by every day.
My parents were active in the Kirkwood community through the church and civic activities that advanced the Civil Rights movement. They believed interacting within the community was the most effective way to reduce prejudice. My father was a pastor at Olive Chapel A.M.E. Church and was a founding member of the Kirkwood Ministerial Alliance, an organization of white and black ministers dedicated to strengthening racial relationships. He also understood that safe housing was crucial for black families and worked as Chairman of a non-profit foundation that built affordable housing throughout St. Louis.
My siblings, Wilma, Larry, Natalie, Paul, Aaron, and I had no shortage of adventures with Kirkwood Park as our backyard. Together or with friends, we'd search the park for snakes and errant foul balls behind the baseball fields.
Life in Kirkwood was much different for black people in the 1950s. Many businesses were segregated, and banks had covenants that restricted black people from property ownership.
My oldest sister attended Turner, a segregated elementary school located in Meacham Park. My mother would walk my sister to school, crossing two railroad tracks and two highways. By the time I entered elementary school in 1958, Pitman was desegregated. I walked to school with my sisters, and although our walk was short, it still required us to withstand verbal assaults from homeowners who did not want us walking on the sidewalks in front of their homes.
My memories of Pitman are filled with thoughts of warm, caring, supportive, and protective teachers. Friendships were made and are still treasured today. It warms my heart to meet someone I went to school with at the grocery store and be transported back in time as we catch up.
My family and I have benefited in untold ways from living in Kirkwood. My children have grown up in safe neighborhoods and schools. I have had the opportunity to build relationships with an expansive network of friends and family through serving the city and the Kirkwood School District. My brother Paul also created strong community connections through working with the city and civic organizations. My oldest sister has a park named in her honor as recognition of her life’s work serving others in the community.
Growing up in Kirkwood was idyllic but not without obstacles. I'm grateful for the many people who have helped me throughout my life. I feel a deep sense of connection to my family, friends, and parents, who have guided and instilled in me that caring for those in the community is simply the right thing to do.