The Ville. Yes, it’s still there, and there are still proud residents who are working to bring it back to its former glory and status as one of the most culturally rich African American communities in the United States. One such group is 4theVille. Founded in 2017 by two longtime residents of the Ville, Julia Allen and Thomasina Clarke, its board has grown to include other members who live around St. Louis who share their vision:
“4theVille is a community-based tourism and arts organization created by multi-generational Ville residents and volunteers to restore pride in the legacy of The Ville, a historic African American community in the heart of St. Louis, Missouri, and inspire reinvigorated community ownership.”
I met up with Aaron Williams, a member of 4theVille last Saturday morning as he was giving a tour of the Ville for Shakespeare in the Streets, which has chosen the neighborhood for its performance in September of this year. Before we began the tour, I spoke with Williams about 4theVille’s upcoming bus tour of the St. Louis area on February 29, which will feature historic sites focusing on African Americans, “all the way from the Mississippi River to Kinloch.”
“We founded 4theVille out of a shared frustration of the ignorance for this neighborhood,” Williams explains, “A place with so much history than most neighborhoods in this country is ignored by this city and most of this region. We started this organization to teach this history. There are people who are proud of this neighborhood and want to see it come back.”
While the tour 4theVille hosted last year focused on sites just in The Ville, this year’s tour on the 29th will entail, “either started in the Ville, passed through the Ville, or ended in the Ville—it’s through the lens of the Ville,” Williams says.
For example, one stop will be the building that currently houses the Old Spaghetti Factory, which during the Civil War was the old Missouri Hotel. With the city firmly in the control of the Union, contraband slaves came to St. Louis via the Mississippi River and stayed in the hotel until it became too crowded, and then moved to what is now Fairground Park, just to the north of The Ville. The critical contribution of music from the African American community in St. Louis, perhaps most famously represented by performers such as Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, or Josephine Baker, goes back even further to the site of the Enterprise Center, where ragtime music created by Scott Joplin began in the Chestnut Valley, another stop on the tour. The original Sumner High School, now a landmark in The Ville, was originally located near here, as well.
Williams took us around The Ville to some of the sites that feature on tours, including the tennis courts where Arthur Ashe honed his skills in front of the historic Sumner High School during his senior year by coach Richard Hudlin. But I also learned that Stowe Teachers College was once located on the top floor of Sumner, as well. For generations, Stowe taught African American educators there as well as in its own building located about a block away. It sits abandoned, having served as a middle school, after Stowe combined with Harris State Teachers College in the former location of Vashon High School, another historic African American high school in St. Louis. Nearby was the Tandy Community Center, named after Charleton H. Tandy, who aided the Exodusters, African Americans who ended up in St. Louis after the Civil War on their way to Kansas.
Perhaps one of the most important landmarks no longer standing in The Ville was Poro College, founded by Annie Turnbo Malone. It’s hard to fully convey how important of a figure Malone was to St. Louis history, and not just African American history. She was a millionaire, at a time when society did not like that, and she built a successful business empire in St. Louis right here in The Ville, in the midst of segregation. Poro College was part beauty school, manufacturing facility for Malone’s products, community center, guest rooms and even her own personal apartments. Malone moved on to Chicago, but her legacy continues with her philanthropy in the field of family and children’s services. The building that once housed her Orphans’ Home still operates under her name on the same block as Homer G. Phillips Hospital offering the same services Malone provided a century ago to her community.
The City of St. Louis shut down Homer G. Phillips Hospital back on August 19, 1979, which is a day Julia Allen will never forget. The co-founder of 4theVille had joined us on the tour, and she related to us the shock of waking up and realizing how she would never be working at the beloved African American medical institution when a reporter knocked on her door, bringing her the news. Her family’s corner building is still standing, but due to redlining, the illegal practice of denying home loans in neighborhoods by banks, they were forced to abandon it. I think what makes stories such as Allen’s so powerful is that it gives a human face to what would be just “another abandoned building” to the casual observer.
Kinloch Doc director Alana Woodson and Griot Museum of Black History director Lois Conley are also collaborating on the tour. It is sponsored by a grant by the Missouri Humanities Council. I hope that everyone begins to realize how important The Ville is to the history of St. Louis, and how its rebirth is critical to social justice in this city. I thought of this in regards to one of Williams descriptions of the tour: “We frame it around this legacy. This place is important, so you should invest in it and you should give back to it.”
Credit: Source link
Leave a Reply