ST. LOUIS — The history of slavery and racism is a horrible, shameful part of American history. It is a scar on the face of the ideals that our democratic nation holds dear.
Before the Civil War, millions of men, women and children of African descent were held in legal bondage. As slaves, they were denied the most basic of human rights. They were whipped, raped, separated from their families, forced to work horrendous hours, always fearful of being sold to another, more brutal master. Or they were simply killed by their owners.
Many slaves, in an effort to free themselves and their families, escaped to the North. Nearly 100,000 slaves made their way to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Notable former slaves like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass helped fugitive slaves find freedom. Their history, the history of slavery, racism, the struggle against it, and the history of the Underground Railroad, are important parts of our nation’s heritage.
Underground Railroad site
It is no secret that abolitionists worked in Missouri, a slave state before the Civil War. In fact, St. Louis has a dynamic history of abolitionist activity. People like Rev. Elijah Lovejoy, a pastor whose church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, are an integral part of our history. Unfortunately, certain parts of that history are in danger of being forgotten.
At 3314-16 Lemp Ave., just south of Lemp and Utah, on St. Louis’ southwest side, sits an old one-room brick house. It is boarded up and in need of stabilization. From the street, it looks like any number of old, boarded-up brick homes, but many people in the community believe it, and the empty lots surrounding it, were a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Lemp Ave. structure dates back to at least the 1850s. German immigrants, possibly abolitionists, owned the property. Germans were very active in the abolitionist movement of the time. But given the nature of the Underground Railroad — a network of loosely linked, secret safe houses and abolitionists, who illegally guided slaves to free states or Canada — it is difficult to find evidence directly identifying this as an Underground Railroad stop.
In 1999, St. Louis Gateway Magnet High School teacher Chip Clatto began an archeological dig at the Lemp Ave. site. Clatto said the excavation was “very successful.” The archeologist and his students found three artifacts of possible African origin: a hand-carved elephant bone, a cowry shell and a bone bracelet. They also found a small aqua bottle with the words “MAW & Son,” dating to the mid-1800s.
In addition, they found, under a layer of bricks and limestone, a clear medicine bottle with small animal bones surrounding it.
According to Clatto, this is a “possible indication of an African or Voudun ritual or possible ‘folk magic,’” indicating an African American presence.
The dig also turned up many other artifacts of lesser importance. However, it was unable to find a suspected underground passage to the Missouri Cherokee Caves, a network of caves where several “entrances and exits” to the Underground Railroad have been documented. At least one entrance to the Cherokee Caves was near the Mississippi River, just across from Illinois, a free state, and just miles from the Lemp site.
Clatto’s further archeological digs had been thwarted. The house that stood at 3314 Lemp was demolished by the city of St. Louis in 1999, even though permission had been granted to continue further investigation on the site. In 2001 the archeologist and his students had to cancel their dig prematurely due to a lack of funding.
In Clatto’s summary report, he wrote, “There is no doubt that further excavation is needed … this site has opened up an incredible glimpse back into the life of South St. Louisians, particularly those of both German and African heritage.”
For three years, the dig could not resume. The site sat vacant, deteriorating more as time passed. Under mounting pressure from St. Louis city officials and the local business community, in December 2004, Ward 9 Alderman Ken Ortmann (the Lemp Ave. property is in Ward 9) and the Benton Park Community Development Corporation (CDC) began the process of hearing bid proposals on the Lemp Ave. site. The bids indicated a desire by site developers to have 3314-16 Lemp developed as private, high-cost condominium housing units, with prices ranging from $350,000 to $450,000 per unit.
Take back St. Louis
After the CDC announcement, Ward 9 residents knew more bid proposals would be heard at the January CDC meeting. With little time to spare, they formed a grassroots community organization called Take Back St. Louis, a coalition of religious, trade union, gay and lesbian and political leaders. The coalition’s immediate goal was to encourage Ortmann and the CDC to have the site developed as a historic site.
“While a direct connection to the Underground Railroad remains unclear, several scenarios provide us with an opportunity to bring important elements of our history together,” said Mark Sarich, director of the Lemp Neighborhood Community Arts Center.
“The possible collaboration of German immigrants and African Americans in the struggle to abolish slavery is clearly an heroic act and should be reserved.”
In just a few days, Take Back St. Louis mobilized a network of volunteers who collected petition signatures from the ward’s residents, calling on Ortmann to support development of the site as a public, historic site.
Take Back printed educational literature, informing the community of the possible historical significance of the site and that private, expensive condominium housing units would add insult to injury by denying the African American community its heritage and further gentrifying the community, pushing people of color and working class people out.
“3314 Lemp is a part of our shared, common history, and should continue to be owned by the public, not sold to private, for-profit condominium developers,” said Glenn Burleigh, Take Back’s volunteer coordinator.
“In a racially divided city like St. Louis, this site should stand as a lesson from the past — a lesson that shows us the way to a future based on unity and justice, not division and inequity.”
Over a three-week period, Take Back volunteers collected nearly 800 signatures. The coalition hoped not only to educate and mobilize resident support for the campaign, but also to send a clear message to Ortmann, who is running for re-election this year. Historically, around 1,000 people vote in off-year elections in Ward 9. That Take Back was able to sign up nearly 800 registered voters is clear indication of community support.
Take Back made the campaign public just one week after volunteers started door knocking. By the end of the week, all of St. Louis’ major newspapers had contacted coalition leaders and expressed interest in running articles on the issue. By the middle of the second week, a public access TV show and a Fox News affiliate invited members of Take Back to speak about the coalition and their efforts to preserve the site. Also, hundreds of Ward 9 and St. Louis-area residents called the alderman’s office and home, expressing their concern about this issue.
According to Ortmann, the CDC’s main concern was that the site might become a public health and safety issue. To answer Ortmann’s concerns, Take Back proposed a 90-day plan to stabilize the structure. First, they asked for 30 days to contact contractors and get estimates on stabilizing the structure. Second, they asked for an additional 60 days to begin soliciting funds to pay a contractor to stabilize the structure, and to start that work. Take Back made clear that all contract work done on the site would be done by union laborers, some of whom have already volunteered their time to the project. While all proposals to develop 3314-16 Lemp into private, high-cost condominium housing units were denied, both of Take Back’s proposals were accepted.
“This is a wonderful turn of events. Take Back has selected the Benton Park area as a community project designed to draw together people from all walks of life, people of all races, genders and sexual orientations,” said Sarich, who is also a member of the Benton Park CDC. “I am certain that the amount of cooperation shown by the alderman and the CDC was greatly enhanced by Take Back’s participation.”
As a grassroots, community-labor coalition, Take Back was able to mobilize Ward 9 residents, attract significant media attention, turn the site into a citywide concern, involve trade unions and present a solid plan with timelines included.
The fate of 3314-16 Lemp remains undetermined. With the renewed attention that the site has received, hopefully archeologists and historians will once again seek ways to investigate it further and ascertain its specific historical significance. Take Back St. Louis would like to see future archeological digs take place so that the history of this site can become the property of all of St. Louis.
While a lot of work remains to be done, Take Back St. Louis, through its coalition efforts, has insured that this site will continue to get the attention it deserves.
For more info: www.digstlouis.com/discover.htm