“A Northern city with Southern characteristics”: Ferguson and the History of Race Relations in the St. Louis Region

On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Overnight, Ferguson, a previously unknown St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people, became a symbol for the often-contentious interactions occurring across the United States between police officers and African Americans.[1] The incident set off protests (both peaceful and violent), a much-criticized militarized response by the authorities, and a national discussion of race and policing.

In this blog post, I will provide an overview of the racial context of St. Louis, with the hope of enhancing readers’ understanding of the events in Ferguson. Although the confrontation in Ferguson shared many characteristics with other episodes around the country, it also occurred in a specific regional context. Not intended to be comprehensive, this post will highlight a few key historical antecedents shaping the current racial environment in St. Louis.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Find out more on the Ferguson protests.

Residential segregation, the separation of ethnic groups within urban space, is particularly pervasive in the St. Louis region. As sociologists Massey and Denton argue, the extreme racial isolation present in cities like St. Louis “did not just happen; it was manufactured by whites through a series of self-conscious actions and purposeful institutional arrangements that continue today.”[2] These institutional arrangements result in highly segregated communities. Even when whites and blacks live in the same city, they are often living in segregated neighborhoods. Additionally, as more African Americans move into an area, a majority of the white population moves out. Typically, control of political power and policing lag behind the population shift, this results in a lack of representation for the African American population. For example, in 1970, Ferguson was 99% white and 1% black; in 2010, Ferguson was 29% white and 67% black. However, the town leadership and police do not reflect this shift—only three of the community’s fifty-three police officers are black. This sharp racial divide and resulting white authority over a black population is nothing out of the ordinary in the St. Louis region and contributed to the anger over Michael Brown’s death.

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Image source: Scott Olson/Getty Images. Additional Scott Olsen pictures from the Ferguson protests.

Sitting near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, St. Louis proudly wears its title as the “Gateway to the West,” a status displayed in the Gateway Arch, the city’s iconic landmark. However, another nearby landmark speaks more truthfully to St. Louis’s complicated relationship to its racial history. The Old Courthouse is a symbol of the city’s status as a leading city of the 19th Century, but also is testament to a legacy of slavery. On the steps of the Old Courthouse, estate auctions separated enslaved families; inside, enslaved couple Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom in the famous Dred Scott case. This landmark reminds us that a north-south axis along the Mississippi River shaped St. Louis’s history as much as the relationship between east and west. In short, St. Louis is a Northern industrial city with Southern characteristics. The effects of this combination caused one anthropologist to argue that St. Louis holds a Deep South ideology and social structure “straitjacketed in northern-style industrial infrastructure” resulting in an “astounding record of poverty and ethnic segregation.”[3]

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Kenny Bahr. The St. Louis Arch with the Old Courthouse at the base. More information on the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse

St. Louis has a long history of racial and economic inequality, exhibited through slavery, de jure, and de facto segregation. Ferguson and other communities in the region are products and producers of this history, and the anger expressed by the African American community go beyond the issue of Michael Brown’s death. There are grievances against the deep-seated systemic inequalities present in greater St. Louis, an area acknowledged as one of the most hypersegregated areas of the country since 1980. According to sociologists, hypersegregation occurs when segregation is high in at least four of the following five dimensions. For example, African Americans “may be distributed so that they are overrepresented in some areas and underrepresented in others, leading to different degrees of unevenness; they may also be distributed so that their racial isolation is ensured by virtue of rarely sharing a neighborhood with whites. In addition, however, black neighborhoods may be tightly clustered to form one large contiguous enclave or scattered about in checkerboard fashion; they may be concentrated within a very small area or settled sparsely throughout the urban environment. Finally, they may be spatially centralized around the urban core or spread out along the periphery.”[4] Consistently, St. Louis ranks in the top fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas, alongside Detroit, Gary, Cleveland, Newark, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia among others.[5]

African Americans have always been present in St. Louis, but the Great Migration led to a marked increase in black residents. This increase led to various methods of asserting white control, sometimes violently. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, an industrial suburb directly across the river from its namesake, white mobs rioted against African Americans, destroyed black neighborhoods, killed dozens of people, and attempted to drive the black population from the community.[6] The mob violence of the East St. Louis riot was something of an anomaly; typically, white supremacy in St. Louis shows through existing social, business, and political institutions.[7] In St. Louis City, the reaction to the increased black population from the Great Migration was to codify residential segregation. In 1916, the city passed, by a three to one margin, an ordinance that prohibited African Americans from moving into areas in which more than 75% of the residents were white. A year later, after the Supreme Court disallowed a similar ordinance, segregationists turned to restrictive covenants to keep African Americans from buying houses in white neighborhoods. These covenants remained the norm in St. Louis until 1948, when the Shelley v. Kraemer decision invalidated them.[8] After Shelley v. Kraemer, segregation against African American residents often took the form of restrictive zoning to keep out multi-family housing, “steering” by real estate agents, or concentrating African Americans in segregated public housing projects like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe.[9]

Long before its hypersegregated designation, St. Louis was a racially divided community, but one that showed little inclination to resolve this divide or examine its causes.[10] As one group of historians wrote, “St. Louis, with its sordid record of slavery, civil rights abuses, and racial antagonism has been as guilty of selective memory as any other place in the United States.”[11] This selective memory was possible for two reasons: regardless of its segregation, St. Louis did not carry the stigma of Deep South cities during the Civil Rights Movement, and St. Louis avoided the racially related riots that engulfed Northern and Western cities in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to its selective memory, many political leaders were surprised at the level of anger held by the Ferguson protesters. The selective memory has combined with a patina of civility to cover the inequalities and segregation present in St. Louis. Until the death of Michael Brown, this patina often remained in place. During the Civil Rights Movement, St. Louis had successful demonstrations, but they were not at the level of demonstrations in more Southern communities. Unlike the Deep South, St. Louis’s “civil” nature meant the white community’s response to civil rights was not “massive resistance. Rather, white opposition was manifested in progrowth, urban planning and reform movement of ‘massive redevelopment’ coordinated by local corporate leaders and City Hall.”[12]

Inequality in St. Louis is so insidious because urban planning and development have long been racialized. Community leaders often made decisions based on keeping political and economic power under white control and ensuring residential segregation.[13] Additionally, St. Louis’s unique political structure exacerbates de facto segregation. In 1876, in an act known as “The Great Divorce,” the growing city of St. Louis became an independent city, officially seceding from St. Louis County. At the time, St. Louis County was mostly farms and small communities, but it now has a much larger and more affluent population than St. Louis City. Bordered by the Mississippi River on the east, and St. Louis County on the north, south, and west, the city’s boundaries remain permanently fixed. From the mid 19th century through 1950, St. Louis city exhibited population growth, peaking at 857,000 people in the 1950 census. However, since then, through deindustrialization, suburbanization, and white flight, the city population has precipitously declined while the region’s population has grown.[14] As one geographer notes, “no city which achieved the scale of a half million residents has lost a larger percentage of its population in peacetime than St. Louis But as is the case for many “shrinking cities,” the region outside the municipal boundaries has continued to grow. In 1950, the population of the metropolitan region (as currently defined) was 1,940,000. By 2009, the metropolitan region had grown to 2,890,000, for a population increase of nearly 1,000,000 (more than a 50 percent increase).”[15] National trends of deindustrialization and suburban growth further enhanced this population shift from St. Louis City to St. Louis County.

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Dustin Cable/University of Virginia This St. Louis Metropolitan Area residential segregation map features information from the 2010 United States Census. The Mississippi River separates Missouri from Illinois. Blue dots represents white residents, green dots represent black residents. Maps of other cities.

Because of the city/county split, suburbanization, and sprawl, St. Louis County is politically fragmented. Ferguson is one of 90 municipalities in St. Louis County; 81 of these municipalities have their own court systems. Many of these communities are all white or nearly all white, the result of long-standing policies to encourage residential segregation. Although the African American population of St. Louis County is 23.7%, many of these county residents are concentrated in a few communities.[16] Those communities that are not fully segregated still lack black representation in police forces and city governments. As The Washington Post points out, of the “31 St. Louis County municipalities where blacks made up 10 percent or more of the population,” in only one town was “black representation on the police force…equal or greater than the black presence in the town itself.”[17] Many of these communities were the result of white flight from St. Louis City, and increasingly, white suburbanites viewed the city as a black space, a place to avoid. The United States Census reports that although African Americans are 11.7% of the population in Missouri, African Americans are over 47% of St. Louis City’s population. As the African American population has moved out of the city to inner suburbs (especially in North County), the white population has moved further west, and continues to do so. Ferguson, an inner ring suburb of St. Louis City, is a microcosm of the changing racial demographics: in 1990, it was 74% white and 25% black; in 2000, 52% black and 45% white; by 2010, 67% black and 29% white.[18] While zoning still segregates African Americans, control now is often in the form of white authorities policing black neighborhoods. Such an instance occurred during the confrontation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, and their confrontation carried the weight of St. Louis’s racial history.


[1]In the weeks prior to the incident in Ferguson, police officers also killed unarmed black men in Los Angeles, California, New York, New York, and Columbus, Ohio.

[2] Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 2.

[3] Philippe Bourgois, “If You’re Not Black, You’re White: A History of Ethnic Relations in St. Louis,” City & Society, V. 3, No. 2 (1989), p. 108.

[4] Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, p. 74-77.

[5] Using block-level data, Lois Quinn and John Pawasarat at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee argue that the method used to determine hypersegregation is obsolete and penalizes communities with high African American populations, thus crediting cities that actually have very few African Americans (Salt Lake City, for example). “Racial Integration in Urban America: A Block Level Analysis of African American and White Housing Patterns,” (Dec. 2002), http://www4.uwm.edu/eti/integration/integration.pdf

[6] The death toll is still in dispute; officially, it was estimated that 48 total people (39 black, 11 white) were killed. African American sources put the death toll at hundreds. Harper Barnes, Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, (New York: Walker and Company, 2008), p. 2.

[7] The riot, of course, was not the only example of white mob violence in St. Louis. In 1836, a white mob burned alive Francis McIntosh, a free black man accused of murder, and in 1949, a white mob rioted during the integration of Fairground Park swimming pool.

[8] Kenneth S. Jolly, Black Liberation in the Midwest: The Struggle in St. Louis, Missouri 1964-1970, (New York: Routledge, 2006), 4-5 and Priscilla A. Dowden-White, Groping Toward Democracy: African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis 1910-1949, (Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 2011), p. 7 and 91.

[9] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 113-117.

[10] Gordon, Mapping 31.

[11] Timothy Baumann, Andrew Hurley, Valerie Altizer, and Victoria Love, “Interpreting Uncomfortable History at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri,” The Public Historian V. 33, No. 2 (Spring 2011), p. 40.

[12] Clarence Lang, Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics & Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009), 104.

[13] In Mapping Decline, Colin Gordon persuasively argues that these decisions, often made for racial reasons, have significantly contributed to St. Louis’s struggles during deindustrialization.

[14] The St. Louis metropolitan region includes St. Louis City, eight Illinois counties, and eight Missouri counties (including St. Louis County).

[15] Wendell Cox, “Shrinking City, Flourishing Region: St. Louis Region,” http://www.newgeography.com/content/002013-shrinking-city-flourishing-region-st-louis-region 1/27/2001.

[16] United States Census, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/29189.html

[17] Radley Balko, “How Municipalities in St. Louis County, MO Profit From Poverty,” The Washington Post, September 3, 2014

[18] Missouri Census Data Center, http://mcdc.missouri.edu

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About Bryan Jack

Bryan M. Jack is Assistant Professor of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is the author of the book, The Saint Louis African American Community and the Exodusters and his research focuses on African American history. He lives in the city of St. Louis.
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