During my time in the “U. City” school system, located just outside the city of St. Louis, the community was undergoing systemic change. The fall and demolition of Pruitt Igo, the construciton of the symbolic Gateway Arch and its surrounding Western Expansion plaza on Laclede’s landing, the desolate “Peabody Coal Company” in East St. Louis just across the Mississippi river (E. St. Louis is actually located in Illinois), the devastating corruption and poverty of East St, Louis, a strong tradition of Italian America’s stalwart standing on “The Hill” district, bleak poverty with miles of boarded up brick housing structures in North St. Louis — almost entirely black, against the lower middle class German/Italian/Irish commuities of South St. Louis –almost entirely white, were the backdrop for my unique education. The University City school district (reflecting the city itself) experienced a demographic change from 30% black when I entered to 30% white when I graduated. I was living in an educational system that would be a learning resource for me for the rest of my life. Reflections of that time continually provide insight into today’s menacing race clashes .
Ferguson, MO, the site of the police murder of Michael Brown, was one of our sports rivals.
As a child, while I saw and felt cultural differences between black and white students, I did not understand the signiciance of the disparities I experienced competing at Clayton’s luxurious sports facilities, and those of our own. It was simply an enviable pleasure to swim in their pool at our away meets. That they always won, with bench depth and elite coaching was a given. I accepted it as just teh way things were, I didn’t question it, and I certainly didn’t see systemic racism as its cause. (If I looked now, I would see the redlining, the property rules and raciism, the general social rules that kept the unwanted out).
Now I can see the privilege of legacy, money and whiteness. This is a lucky and fact for me to draw on. I am white and I own the privilege that comes with being white skinned in colonial America.
And I recognize and am grateful that the experience of growing up in the University City school system has given me my values and conviction. Black pride existed in my school, and my brothers and I experienced profound integrated friendships. There were also many many conflicts that rose because of differences in both race and class.
I have benefited from the conficts and uncertainty AND from the harmonies gleaned from my peers during that time — relationships that conttinue today. The experience of U. City formed my values and continue to inform me as I work in The Movement, the American (human?) struggle for compassion and human rights. And I am especially called to assert and assure that if black lives don’t matter, clearly no life matters.
Lisa Nicole WIlkerson
Nelly (Cornell “Nelly” Haynes Jr.)
U. City student, Merrick Hoel studies student’s changing views of police and racial bias in a Pullitzer center project, (June 2020)