by Susan Maginn, guest blogger
My white family has been in St. Louis, Missouri for six generations. My grandparents met attending Ferguson High S
chool in the early 1930’s. My grandfather’s childhood home was in Ferguson which back then was a bedroom community with a train stop leading to downtown St. Louis. After my grandparents married they bought a house close to Ferguson. This is where their four children were raised, my mother, my uncles and aunt.
By the mid 70’s the children were gone and the neighborhood was becoming well-integrated with many new black families moving in, a change which my grandparents welcomed. However in 1977 their house was broken into and they no longer felt safe. They left their deep roots in North St. Louis County to move to Brentwood, in the central part of St. Louis County.
Last month I was visiting family in St. Louis and I wanted to see my grandparents’ old house, not the one in Brentwood but the one I remember from my early childhood, the one in North County, near Ferguson.
It took me a while to find the house because even though I grew up in St. Louis I have hardly ever been to North County, unless it was for funerals.
And there it is, still there looking just as my seven year old memory would have it, although much smaller, of course. There is the evergreen bush where I would break open those tiny blue berries with my tiny thumbnails and be amazed by their bright green insides and their forest floor smell. There is the upstairs porch where my grandmother would sleep before air conditioning. There is the side yard that held the tire swing.
The houses on the street are all beautiful. However, my guess is that the current residents most likely don’t have much money to maintain these century old homes. Like so many urban stories, most of the white people with the extra money to maintain the neighborhood have moved away. Some families left like my grandparents saying they wanted a safer neighborhood. Some probably left to buy cheap farmland and build their dream home on the ever expanding suburban frontier of West County.
When I was looking at my grandparents’ old house I wondered: Is this the story of all American cities? How one class, one race moves in as another leaves? Are the only options for social progress really just white flight or gentrification?
Here we are, all of us, the whole nation, the whole world looking at Ferguson, Missouri and feeling these questions arise that really have no answer. Are the decades and centuries of racial injustice just too heavy to completely heal? Are the echoes of ancestral sins so painfully loud that the best we can do is to move away from each other, to live in different parts of town, to steal from each other, to imprison and kill each other? Is this really the best we can do? Is sharing different cultures, religions, political parties, classes, races, acceptable in certain settings for a little while in polite society but not in my backyard, not for generations?
We look at Ferguson today and we see how real and unsettling these questions are. We see how easy it is for most of us white people to just move away from these questions if we want to. But not today. Even if you have never stepped foot in Missouri, for today at least, Ferguson is your messy ancestral home too.