The African-American Heritage of St. Louis: A Guide

The Central Corridor
Mill Creek Valley and Mid-Town St. Louis

The central corridor of St. Louis, from Tucker Boulevard (formerly Twelfth Street) on the east to Grand Boulevard on the west, was densely populated at the turn of the century. its population was racially mixed and most often poor. mansions and tenements, shops of all kinds, businesses, factories, dance halls, taverns and clubs, restaurants, churches, schools and other institutions crowded into the area running from downtown through the center of the city. Plans for redeveloping the area began early in the century as the Civic Improvement League, organized in 1901, called for crating a central parkway. The 1920s saw the clearing out of a portion of the area with the creation of the Soldiers Memorial and Plaza, Kiel Auditorium, the widening of Market Street and the construction of the Aloe Plaza opposite Union Station.

The renovation of the Scott Joplin House Historic Site will bring new development to the area.

The Mill Creek Valley, running from 20th Street to Grand, and from Olive to the railroad tracks on the south, was home to a large African American population. Along with cheap tenements that housed black laborers and more substantial housing, the area was home to a thriving entertainment area in the Chestnut Valley, the district along Chestnut and Market streets near 20th. Scott Joplin and other musicians played ragtime and jazz music here at Tom Turpin's Rosebud Cafe and other nightspots. The Mill Creek and nearby areas were home to such institutions as the Pine Street YMCA, the Wheatley YWCA, Vashon High School, St. Paul AME Church, St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church and School, and Union Memorial United Methodist Church. After World War II, thousands of rural blacks from the South moved into the area. When a massive civic improvement bond issue, which included plans to redevelop the Mill Creek area, passed in 1954, the area's estimated population was nearly 20,000 persons, or roughly 5,600 families, nearly 95 percent black. Demolition of housing and other structures in the valley began in 1959. As thousands of people moved from the Mill Creek Valley, mostly into northside neighborhoods in the 1960s, many of the institutions followed in their paths. Some institutions, like Central Baptist Church, remained.

6. The former Targee Street, site of "Frankie and Johnnie"

Targee Street, which ran north-south between 14th and 15th streets, near Market, was the site of the legendary shooting that became the basis of the ballad of Frankie and Johnnie."

As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 20, 1899, 22-year-old Frankie Baker, "an ebony-hued cake-walker" shot two-timer "Johnnie" - 17-year-old Albert Britt - at 22 Targee Street on October 15, 1899. The "other woman" was Alice Pryor. Baker claimed that she used self-defense in fending off a knife attack and was acquitted of the murder of Britt. Though released by the authorities, the ballad allowed Frankie Baker no peace of mind. She left St. Louis, hounded by the song, and settled first in Omaha, Nebraska, and finally in Portland, Oregon. Her attempts at legal remedies to quiet the song and film portrayals were in vain. Baker died in a Portland mental institution in 1950.

The song Frankie and Johnnie has become a classic of American "low-down" music based on the "tragedy of a jealous sporting woman who has dropped her man."

7.      Central Baptist Church
        2843 Washington Avenue
Central Baptist Church, the fourth-oldest black church in St. Louis, was organized as the Second Colored Baptist Church in 1846 and met in a hall near third and Cherry (later Franklin Avenue) streets. Later located at Eighth and Green streets and 23rd and Morgan streets, since 1914 the church has been located at its present site on Washington Avenue.

The Washington Avenue site was purchased from the Pilgrim Congregational Church where the distinguished minister and orator, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, preached.

In March 1971, the church was destroyed by fire. In December 1975, the newly-constructed Central Baptist Church opened. The Reverend T. E. Huntley, who served as pastor of Central Baptist from 1942 to 1981, was prominent in the civil rights movement in St. Louis.

8.      First Baptist Church
        3100 Bell Avenue
The oldest black church in St. Louis was established as the First African Baptist Church in 1818. Its first pastor was John Berry Meachum (1789-1854), who opened a clandestine school for blacks, known as "Candle Tallow School", at the church. Meachum later taught slaves to read and write on a boat anchored in the Mississippi River, thus circumventing an 1847 Missouri law which prohibited the education of slaves. He also was one of the architects fro the St. Louis fugitive underground railroad and a founder of the National Negro Convention.

The first church building was erected in 1825 at Third and Almond streets in the downtown area. First Baptist Church bought its present site on Bell Avenue in 1917. The adjacent four-family flat was purchased and later converted into an educational building. The church burned to the ground in 1940 and was reconstructed on the same site within thirteen months.

9.      Harris-Stowe State College (see also #25)
        3026 Laclede Avenue
The Laclede Avenue location of Harris-Stowe State College was originally Vashon High School, the second black high school and at one time the largest black high school in St. Louis. Vashon, which opened at this site in 1927, is now located at 3405 Bell Avenue. It was named for a father and son, George B. Vashon, the first black graduate of Oberlin College, and John B. Vashon, a teacher and principal in the St. Louis Public Schools.

Harris-Stowe moved into the Laclede Avenue address, which was designed by architect Robert M. Milligan, in 1963. In a 1980s capital improvements program, the interior of the building was extensively renovated.

Stowe was the teachers college for blacks once operated by the St. Louis Board of Education. White students attended Harris Teachers College, which was started as the Normal Department in the St. Louis Public High School in 1857 and later renamed for William Torrey Harris, superintendent of St. Louis' public schools from 1867 to 1880. The two schools merged after the U. S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated education in 1954. In 1979, Harris-Stowe became part of the Missouri state university system.

Harris-Stowe has traditionally been the city's primary source of new teachers and the leading producer of black teachers in Missouri.

10.     Jefferson Bank and Trust Company
        2301 Market Street
Jefferson Bank & Trust Company was the scene in 1963-64 of a seven-month -long demonstration (August 30, 1963-March 31, 1964) aimed at forcing the bank, then located at Jefferson and Franklin (now Martin Luther King) avenues, to hire four black clerical workers. The demonstrations were organized by the St. Louis chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to end discriminatory hiring at the bank, which had a large black clientele, as well as at other stores and businesses in St. Louis. Demonstrations proceeded in spite of injunctions obtained by the bank to halt the protests. A number of demonstration organizers were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to fines and jail terms. The demonstrations finally ended on March 31, 1964, when the bank hired five black clerical employees.

Among those taking part in the protests were U. S. Representative William L. Clay, State Representative Louis Ford, State Senator J. B. (Jet) Banks, and community leaders Charles and Marian Oldham and Norman Seay.

11.     Phyllis Wheatley Branch YWCA
        2709 Locust Street
In 1941, this building became the new location for the YWCA for black women which had been organized in 1911 and named in 1912 in honor of Wheatley, an African American poet born in Africa and brought to Boston as a slave. The building, designed by architects LaBeaume and Klein of St. Louis, opened in 1927 as the St. Louis Women's Christian Association.
12.     St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock) Church
        1118 North Grand Boulevard
This Roman Catholic Church, established as a parish for Irish immigrants in the late 1860s, is representative of many Catholic churches in north St. Louis whose congregations have become predominantly African American.

Although Roman Catholic parishes in St. Louis were never officially segregated, African American Catholics were most often excluded from white congregations. A city-wide parish for African American Catholics was organized in the 1870s by Bishop Patrick Ryan and located in the refurbished St. Elizabeth's Church at 14th and Gay streets. The Oblate Sister of Providence, an order of black nuns, started a school at the parish in 1874, and later opened an orphan asylum on Page Avenue. The orphanage was moved to Normandy in 1896. In 1912 St. Elizabeth's moved to Pine Street, between Beaumont and Leffingwell, in the Mill Creek Valley. Although the Oblate Sisters remained behind in the old neighborhood, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, founded by Mother Katharine Drexel to work among the African American and Native American peoples of the new world, opened a mission in 1914 in the 2700 block of Pine Street, adjacent to the church, and in 1916, started a school enrolling 125 children. After an illustrious history of social concern, St. Elizabeth's was closed in 1947.

St. Alphonsus may be known as the "Rock" church because it was the congregation's first church built entirely of stone. It was designed fro the Redemptorist Fathers from plans by the Reverend Louis Dold, with much of the work done by the St. Louis firm of Conradi and Schrader. St. Alphonsus Rock is also know for its gospel choir.

13.     St. Louis Black Repertory Company
        23rd Street Theater, 2240 St. Louis Avenue
        Offices at 634 North Grand Avenue
The St. Louis Black Repertory Company was founded in 1976 by Ronald J. Himes, its owner, producer, and director. The Company presents a full season of theater and other entertainment in a renovated church on the corner of 23rd Street and St. Louis Avenue. Its mission is to provide platforms for theater, dance, and other creative expressions which heighten social and cultural awareness of the African American perspective.
14.     Scott Joplin House State Historic Site
        2658 Delmar Boulevard

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917), who was born in Texarkana, Texas, resided in St. Louis from 1885 to 1894, and again from 1900 to 1906. he and his wife, Belle Hayden Joplin, lived at this address (at that time, 2658 Morgan Street) in the four-family, post-Civil War structure from 1901 to 1903. A fruitful time for Joplin, he composed a "lost" opera, "A Guest of Honor," and the rag "The Entertainer". It marked the shift in his lief from being an itinerant piano player to a composer and teacher. At this time he worked under the direction of Alfred Ernest, the leader of the St. Louis Choral Symphony Society.

Joplin's Morgan Street home was opened to the public as a Missouri State Historic site on October 6, 1991. It had been designated a National Historic landmark in 1976. The home's trun-of-the-century appearance has been restored. It includes a room for musical performances, displays centering on Joplin's life and music, and a gallery fro displays related to African American history and culture.

Joplin's other residences in St. Louis, as well as the Rosebud Cafe at 2222 Market Street and clubs along Chestnut and Market streets where he played his music, have been demolished.

15.     Sentinel Newspapers
        2900 North Market
The "Sentinel", a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 50,000, was started in 1968 by Howard B. Woods, its original publisher and editor. he initiated the "Yes I Can" dinner as an annual charity even and fundraiser for the "Sentinel". In 1976, upon the death of her husband, Jane Woods became the publisher of the paper, and her son-in-law, Michael Williams, its editor.
16.     Vaughn Cultural Center
        525 North Grand Boulevard
The Vaughn Cultural Center was established in 1977 as a cultural enrichment program of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The Center was named fro Ermalene Vaughn who contributed the initial funds for its establishment.

The Vaughn Center strives to increase awareness and understanding of black history and culture by sponsoring cultural events and activities. It houses a gallery for exhibitions by African American artists and travelling exhibits and a library collection open for onsite use.

17.     Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church
        3200 Washington Boulevard
The Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church, for several generations the church home of several of the area's important black leaders, was the site of a major civil rights rally in May 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., attracted more than three thousand participants to a demonstration held just before the March on Washington.

Tabernacle Baptist, which was organized in 1902, moved to this site in 1926. The Gothic Revival stone church, recognized as a City Landmark since 1984, was completed in 1879.

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