Reclaiming Black Saint Louis Part 1: Kinloch: The Lost City

Image of a Newspaper clipping of St. Louis police involved shooting in 1962

For the month of February 2020, I will dedicate myself to researching and writing on the history of New Afrikan people in my city, our struggles, and triumphs, our defeats and victories. Knowledge of history is important because it is what shapes our present. Why does the Delmar Divide exist? Why is the life expectancy of our people cut short in North STL? Why was there very little rioting in STL after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968? These questions and more I will be investigating all throughout this month and this series I hope will be in the service of the masses of Black people in STL. 

Let’s start with Kinloch. I was raised partly in North County and Kinloch was a frequent topic of discussion. Right now, it’s perceived as a corrupt pseudo ghost town. Ben Westhoff writes: “As of the last official US census in 2010, fewer than 300 people populated Kinloch. The place has a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel, with vagrants burning fires in bombed-out buildings, crater-sized potholes, and discarded semi-trailers. There were once barber shops, chicken shacks, pharmacies, a YMCA, turkey farms, and even a cab company. B. B. King played a club here, called 12 Oaks before it closed in the 50s. But now, beyond a salvage yard and an auto body shop, Kinloch doesn’t have a single business, according to its city manager.” Kinloch is seen locally and nationally as a lesson in failure. But as students of history, we know that nothing happens in a vacuum. 

This place is remarkable and valuable historically because it was the first city in Missouri incorporated by New Afrikan people. This city boasted a bank, law offices, doctors’ offices, and a variety of other trappings of a small but solid New Afrikan “middle class”. It was self-sufficient and self-governing, maintaining its own police department and administration. It was home to Division 198 of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA organization, chaired by Elijah Woodson. It also boasted a variety of black bourgeois social organizations and fraternal groups. Throughout the early and mid 20th century, Kinloch was an example in the eyes of many of the ability of New Afrikan people to govern ourselves and establish communities unbeholden to colonizers. This was the era of segregation. We were unable to access white restaurants, barbershops, clubs, and other businesses, and before the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer decision struck down the legality of oft used restrictive covenants, we were not allowed to live among colonizers in their neighborhoods. Colonizer residents founded the neighboring town of Berkeley after a spat over establishing a separate school district for themselves in the 1930s. Ironically, this city is now 81 percent Black. We were restricted to the Ville, Mill Creek Valley, Kinloch, and a variety of other patchwork neighborhoods scattered around the city. The argument is often made that desegregation gutted the foundations of Black social and community life. It is certainly a compelling one, although I personally believe that it’s a bit more complicated than that and it has a dual aspect. The allowance of middle-class and wealthy new Afrikans to integrate with the rest of the petit and big bourgeoisie and move away from our historical communities demonstrated how little they were committed to our development and liberation of our people in the first place. As Malcolm X said, as soon as the big hotels and convention centers downtown were open to us, the well-to-do started flocking to them and spending all their money to be seen hobnobbing with wealthy white liberals and acting brand new to our people. Desegregation was not liberation, it was co-optation and integration of certain elements of our people into the American project over the heads of the masses. We must view it through this context, and must look at the decline of Kinloch through the context of the era of desegregation and also neoliberalism. 

Kinloch rioted in 1962 after 74-year-old Black police officer Israel Mason shot and killed Black teenager Donnell Dortch after a traffic stop. A report states: 

“Crowds of hundreds assembled before Kinloch’s city hall in the days after Dortch’s death, chanting “We want Mason! We Want Mason!” (The police officer was suspended from his post and eventually resigned.)

Some people were setting the town ablaze, razing an elementary school and a string of empty houses in the process, trying to light the police chief’s new home on fire. (UPI writes that the police chief, “acting on a hunch, drove home, discovered the blaze and extinguished it himself.”) The same UPI article reports that there were two shotgun blasts fired into the Kinloch police station and that a bomb threat was called into a high school. Residents carried signs, inscribed with phrases like “Was Murder Necessary?” and “How Much Training Have Our Officers Had?” and “Will Our Son Be Next?” One resident who spoke to the UPI writer described the town police as “Kinloch Cowboys” and “village police,” and said that they wanted the “St. Louis County Police to protect the area.”

Local officials stepped up their reaction. Almost a hundred county and town police were ordered to man Kinloch’s streets and were equipped, according to UPI, with machine guns and police dogs. Fifty people were rounded up and questioned about the violence that had unfolded following Dortch’s death. Missouri Gov. John Dalton assured folks that he’d do whatever necessary to “preserve the peace.” He consulted with the Missouri highway patrol, and debated whether to send in the National Guard.”

So behind this facade of New Afrikan national unity that many view Kinloch through, we saw violent class contradictions and corruption starting to take root in the early 1960s, along with militant response from the New Afrikan youth in the community. We also saw a “liberal” wing demanding the city being patrolled by the colonizer Saint Louis County Police, and a conservative wing siccing pigs armed with machine guns and dogs on the masses. Behind everything, there is always class struggle.

Neoliberalism had its day in Kinloch in the 1980s. The City of Saint Louis, which owns Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport, literally bought most of the city’s land and razed it to the ground. Generations of work put in by New Afrikan hands were wiped out by bulldozers and wrecking balls for a proposed airport expansion that never came, displacing thousands of people. The vast majority of them ended up in neighboring, formerly colonizer dominated towns such as Florissant, Ferguson, and Berkeley. Former residents told Al-Jazeera News: 

“Whether you chose to accept it or you chose to fight it, you knew eventually you’d have to leave,” Steven Peebles, who grew up in Kinloch, told Al Jazeera in April as part of a look at Missouri’s disappearing black towns. “There was this feeling of helplessness. We were essentially and effectively gobbled up.”

“The airport took that sense of community,” he added, “and eradicated it.” Whether you chose to accept it or you chose to fight it, you knew eventually you’d have to leave. There was this feeling of helplessness. We were essentially and effectively gobbled up.” The article continues: “In 1980, more than 4,000 people lived in Kinloch. Today there are not even 300, and the entire municipality has been reduced to less than one square mile of land, drained of most of its tax base. What used to be streets lined with houses, churches, and corner stores now resembles an undeveloped plot of land, sprinkled with decaying buildings and cracked empty streets. Much of the land belongs to the City of St. Louis. Nearly the entire town was torn down to accommodate a runway that, in the end, was never built. The ground shakes when landing planes pass over, an ironic homage to the fact that the city’s first airstrip was in Kinloch, a point of pride for many of its former residents.”

So we see a Black town literally demolished and destroyed for a project that was never completed, and the population displaced. This reminds me of how James Yaki Sayles told us that population removal is a part of this country’s genocidal warfare on New Afrikan people. Many cities and districts across the country that once carried with them the hopes and dreams of our people went this way. Some, like Rosewood, Florida and the Black district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was destroyed by colonizer mobs envious of our success and self-sufficiency. Some were razed to the ground by city governments or institutions. Others, who were able to hold on until the present day, are currently in the grasp of gentrifiers. 

Sources:

Ben Westhoff. “The City Next to Ferguson is Even More Depressing”. VICE. June 2, 2015. 
Kat Chow. “An Officer Shot a Black Teen, and Saint Louis Rioted – In 1962.” NPR. August 21, 2014. 
Ryan Schuessler. “Kinloch Connection: Ferguson Fueled By Razing of Historic Black Town”. Al-Jazeera America. August 20, 2014.