What is Healing for Kirkwood?
by Jim Baker, Former Editor of the Kirkwood Historical Review
History isn't always nice and neat or happy. Horrific events often become the most remembered and best documented even though they are but moments in time and are but a tiny part of the history of a town, state or country. Kirkwood has been tragically struck by violence and death of dedicated public servants. A sense of violation and sadness permeates the town. How could this happen in Kirkwood? Is the racial divide as deep as statements to the press seem to indicate? How will we Kirkwoodians face the challenge to come together and heal? Does healing mean change or a return to the status quo, business as usual?
As one who moved to Kirkwood long after its schools were integrated and who lived in the western part of the city, I didn't notice overt racism. As my children progressed through school, I noticed racial separation. High school and middle school groupings in the cafeterias were largely self-sorted by race. I was aware of a rumbling of discontent among Kirkwood's African American community about low achievement scores. I read of discontent when Kirkwood Commons displaced part of the Meacham Park community. Like many others, those situations did not seem to directly touch me. I briefly considered these situations and then went on with family, church, and work obligations.
After annexation of Meacham Park by Kirkwood, actions viewed by well-meaning Kirkwood government officials as efforts to improve the quality of life in Meacham Park were viewed by some in the newly annexed community as unfair harassment. Ordinances and rules were enforced once Kirkwood gained jurisdiction of Meacham Park from St. Louis County. When Kirkwood Commons was approved, some property and homeowners were forced to sell. It has been stated that some owners did not gain enough in the sale of their property to relocate in Kirkwood or stay in Meacham Park, thus causing a loss of access to the Kirkwood school district. Others were happy to have made money in the sale of their property and supported the development and new housing that came to Meacham Park. While Kirkwood's middle class whites were viewed by a segment of the African-American community as being, at the very least, passively racist, those same white Kirkwood residents did not believe that they had discriminated against the African-Americans in the Kirkwood and Meacham Park communities, nor did they feel that they were racist. Obviously different views of the same circumstances and different reactions to the history of Kirkwood and Meacham Park were in effect. For years both communities had representatives working hard to bridge the divide that seemed to come into sharp focus for the majority of Kirkwood residents only at times of crisis, such as the shooting of officer Bill McEntee, and the murders of February 7th.
What emerged after annexation was for some a perception of racism on the part of Kirkwood's government and its law enforcement officers. Whether the white establishment enforcing rules on a black minority included racism as part of the equation or not, the history of discrimination against African-Americans in Kirkwood has tainted inter-race relations and perceptions to this day. As was obvious by statements made to the press following the murders, a divide exists. Community leaders in both Kirkwood and Meacham Park expressed concern that the tragic events would set back the healing progress that had been made in bringing the two communities together after the killing of Officer McEntee. In order for Kirkwood and its Meacham Park community to come together and heal following the murders of February 7, there needs to be an understanding of the perceptions and concerns that were stated to be factors in the build up of a rage that ended with such horrible results. It would be much easier just to dismiss the murder of McEntee and the murders of government servants of Feb. 7 as acts of disturbed individuals. One point on which we all can agree is that the murders were wrong and they, as well as the death of "Cookie" Thornton, were tragic. To move on, it behooves Kirkwoodians, of all races, to take a fresh and unblinking look at the history of race relations in Kirkwood, a town which began with numerous slave owners as early prominent residents. Even later, after slaves gained their freedom, it was the norm to have segregated schools and facilities. Freedom did not mean equal treatment or opportunities. That becomes very clear when reading local newspapers printed at the turn of the century and during the early 20th century. The memories and injustices of those times were passed on and still linger with some. More recent memories and perceived injustices from the last twenty years irritate others. Perceptions of unequal treatment and resulting resentments may be passed along to new generations unless there is a concentrated effort to ensure equal treatment and to build bridges between the communities.
Subtle signs of racism in Kirkwood are still evident. Are there those in Kirkwood who complain about a M. L. King day or see it only as an opportunity to shop? Do some wonder why a Black history month is needed? Do some feel fear or question when an African-American youth or young adult walks in their neighborhood? Are some afraid to go into Meacham Park? All residents of the Kirkwood area need to analyze our actions - both governmental and individual, confront our beliefs and perceptions, and come together to heal the divide that exists. Let us write a new chapter in Kirkwood's history that is the story of a united community. Let us write a chapter on a time in which residents on both sides of the racial divide changed negative perceptions to positive, affirming perceptions. Let us not forget what happened; let us not play the blame game; but after sincere reflection, take action to ensure that we live in a community that values everyone and treats all with dignity, respect, and equality.
It is my fervent hope that our actions in the coming months and years will ensure that our children and grandchildren can look back to 2008 and be proud of our response to the seemingly incomprehensible violence that entered our lives on February 7. I hope they can be proud that we took action to break down racial divisions and tensions and came together to heal our community, and that we ensured that Kirkwood became a wonderful place for all its residents no matter what their place of residence, race, income, gender, politics, or religious beliefs. May our future generations never have to face a repeat of such violence in their lives, and may Kirkwood become a shining example of a community triumphing over adversity.