Reclaiming Black Saint Louis: Blood in the Water: The Fairgrounds Park Race Riot of 1949

Fairgrounds Park currently sits in the center of Black Saint Louis, commonly known as the “Northside”. In 1949, however, the demographics were starkly different, being comprised heavily of settlers. There was a pool in this park that was maintained with taxes taken from Black people, yet which we were not allowed to use. According to Kate Boudreau of NextSTL, the original Fairground Park pool was the largest in the world. It had a diameter of 440 feet, almost one and a half times the length of a football field, and hosted between 10,000 and 12,000 swimmers per day.

This massive pool was segregated for 37 years. However, after a federal court ruling which determined that banning Black people from public accommodations (in this case, a golf course) was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, city officials decided that June 21, 1949 would be the first day that Black and white swimmers would be able to jointly use the pool. Swimming pools during this period were frequent bones of contention, with settler pseudoscience holding that allowing Black people to use the same pool as them would result in contamination. Call it low key miscegenation or rumored miscegenation, which resulted in the deaths of countless innocent Black people in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Settlers, bourgeois, petit-bourgeois, and working class alike, convinced themselves that their bodies were holy temples that would be profaned if allowed to come in any contact with Black people. Of course, this did not extend to having us cook for them, clean their houses, and do other menial tasks, but it did extend to sharing restrooms, streetcars and busses, and other public accommodations with them. As Malcolm X said, settlers are illogical and silly people.

The first integrated day of the pool initially, supposedly, went off without a hitch. Saint Louis segregation and “race relations” in the mid-20th Century was often erroneously seen to be a bit milder than places further South. This bears resemblance to Atlanta terming itself the “city too busy to hate”. But there was still violent hate just waiting to come to the surface, like always. Teenage colonizers began to gather around the fence, hurling threats and abuse at Black children. Someone called the police, but, being the police, they allowed settler violence to take place without arresting the perpetrators. By 6:30 PM, a crowd of thousands of settlers (many of whom were on their way to Sportsman’s Park, located on Grand) had stormed the park, beating, stabbing and kicking any Black people they came across. Older colonizers were heard imploring younger colonizers to use bricks and knives against unarmed Black youth. 8 arrests, 3 whites and 4 blacks, were reported. Three black youths were later charged with “inciting to riot”. How one can be charged with inciting to riot while defending oneself against a mob of colonizers is a great legal conundrum.

Saint Louis in the late 1940s was a racial powderkeg. Areas in which colonizers and colonized lived in relatively close proximity were policed violently — Blacks knew not to cross a certain street, and whites knew as well. In 1947, a Black cab driver was beaten mercilessly after daring to detour through Fairgrounds Park. Riverfront Times reported in 2002:

“An African-American cab driver, Eddie Smith, thought it was foolish to take the long way home one day after dropping off a fare on North Broadway. He chose to cut through the park, along Vandeventer Avenue. “They just stopped the car and beat him up,” says Tyson. “This happened.

“The word got around: ‘Man, they just beat up a black fellow.’ I didn’t know it was Eddie Smith, but we just got together and we were gone. Myself, my brother and some more dudes, we got our guns and ammunition. We were going over, and this was it. This was war. We knew what war was, so that’s what it was going to be.”

The article continues:

“A 16-year-old African-American, Sherman Lee White, was also standing by the fence. Soon he was on the ground, beaten over the head with a pipe or stick, his injuries severe enough that he had to be admitted to Homer G. Phillips Hospital, a few blocks away.

The African-American boys in the pool looked out on a wall of hatred. After their swim, a custodian kept them together inside the changing rooms until all were dressed. The few police on the grounds came to escort the boys out of the park. The white mob followed. As the group crossed the broad park, a white boy would gain some nerve and dart past a policeman, strike an African-American boy, then return to the crowd. In this way they followed, like wolves beleaguering their prey. The nightmare was happening — the nightmare that caused the whites of North St. Louis to flee the city, the nightmare that, says Lee Tyson, “didn’t let you sleep easy at night.” In St. Louis’ summer heat, blacks and whites crashed the racial borders to battle with fists and bats and clubs.

Four African-American men came to the pool and angrily demanded to see the manager. One of them told a policeman he was a war veteran. “If they want trouble, they can have it,” he warned. “My kid brother just got beat up by some hoodlums…. If you want a race riot, you’ll have one.” It was around 4:30 in the afternoon. The pool closed at 5 p.m., to be reopened again for evening swimming at 7 p.m. On De Soto, Jim Wilson was still playing ball. He remembers, “like it was yesterday,” a rumor spreading in his neighborhood that “blacks were coming over Vandeventer Avenue in trucks. The bigger kids grabbed baseball bats, and there was movement of people running toward Fairgrounds Park.”

So we see how colonizers responded in this city to violations of “their turf”. While there were no widespread massacres like the notorious pogrom in East Saint Louis in 1917 (the subject of the next piece in this series), there was still racial violence to match incidents in Baltimore and Detroit in the 1940s. Black WWII veterans were returning home, and the struggle to maintain imperialist hegemony over the Korean people was soon to begin. The war at home was heating up, and mob violence ruled the streets of many cities. Saint Louis was no exception.

Mass exodus from the inner cities by colonizers would soon begin, and their neighborhoods would soon become Black and Brown. North Saint Louis was secured for New Afrikan people by redlining which forbade us from living anywhere else, and its streets are watered with our blood. Gentrification is encroaching on this area due to its proximity to universities and the present building of the NGA site. Only through combative struggle on our part such as that which occurred in self-defense at Fairgrounds Park in 1949 can our neighborhoods be secured against this onslaught.

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