Photo Flood 31: Ferguson

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photograph by Jason Gray

Once thought to be merely a sleepy suburb of St. Louis, Ferguson is now ground zero for the most significant civil rights movement in a generation. The events which have transpired since the tragic shooting death here of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 will continue to shape the landscape of racial politics for years to come.

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photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

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photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

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photograph by Gaby Deimeke

On the morning that we arrived to photograph in Ferguson, an icy snow fell and bitter cold was being driven by uncommon gusts of wind.  It was as if the city was physically demonstrating the bristling of social politics that have occurred there over the last six months.  Still, at least one member of the group was ebullient.  Encouraged by her memories of experiences connected to this place, she had printed the group a map of Ferguson, and lovingly outlined the locations on it worth mentioning.  These locations included institutions that residents should be very proud of: Ferguson Youth Initiative, Earthdance Farms, Ferguson Citywalk, I Love Ferguson Store, and more.  Of course, the map also included sites that gained significance after August 9, sites impossible to glimmer over, that testify to a history of imbalance and frustration for residents: Andy Wurm Tire (across from the Ferguson PD, where activists gathered), the burned QuickTrip gas station, the Canfield Drive Memorial for Mike Brown (and what it symbolizes)…. No doubt, a visit to contemporary Ferguson is a visit that corresponds to the extremes of emotion present there; the place is equally happy and sad, bewildered and enraged, frustrated and hopeful.

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photograph by Santiago Bianco

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photograph by Michelle Williams

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photograph by Dawn Moss

Long before megaphones filled the air with protestation chants, the area that was to become Ferguson was a sprawling farm owned by William B. Ferguson.  Capitalizing on St. Louis’ early commitment to the trans-continental railroad, Mr. Ferguson offered up a sliver of his farm land, in 1854 (sold 1855), to the Northern Missouri Railroad with the caveat that the railroad had to establish a depot upon it.  Though rail construction in Missouri was beleaguered by several calamities, including a passenger train derailment over the Gasconade River and the disruption over Kansas’ statehood, a  depot, called Ferguson Station, was built shortly after the Civil War.  The Ferguson stop, on the then renamed Wabash Railroad, was a quick success, and encouraged William B. Ferguson to subdivide and sell the remainder of his land for the development of a future city.  By 1900, Ferguson had reached a population of more than 1,000 people, and continued to grow at an average rate per decade of about 64% until 1970, when the city plateaued at 28,759 residents.  If the world were innocent, this might be where the story would end.

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

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photograph by Theresa Harter

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photograph by Michelle Williams

“There’s an old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.  This town was that village.” -Steven Peebles, former Kinloch resident (quoted by Al Jazzera America in “One by one,Missouri’s Black Towns Disappear” by Ryan Schuessler)

The Great Migration, of the 20th century, was the northern movement of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South, who collectively sought freedom from Jim Crow-era persecution, as well as, new opportunities (mostly in urban centers).  Shortly before this movement was to really grow, the first incorporated black community in Missouri was settled next door to Ferguson, soon after that city’s formation.  This community, known as Kinloch, was accomplished at a time when segregation made it uncommon, and sometimes illegal, for realtors to sell properties directly to African Americans.  This was accomplished by first selling the homes to whites, who would in turn sell the properties at more than double their value to blacks.  Nonetheless, Kinloch thrived for a time as an insular community, and contributed several achievements of note, including electing the first black man to a school board position and leasing land for the establishment of the Kinloch Airfield (later Lambert-International Airport).  Kinloch prospered in part due to its excellent streetcar line that connected residents to factory jobs in Ferguson and work further afield in St. Louis City, via the Wellston Loop.

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photograph by Jason Gray

Although Kinloch’s arrangement might at first seem at least superficially amicable, the community, like others throughout the area, was continually plagued by lingering prejudices.  In 1915, St. Louis City passed the Segregation Ordinance, which legally restricted integration and forced whites and blacks to live apart from one another.  Although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the legal basis for the Ordinance in 1917, the practice of segregating communities according to race had already become habituated.  Restrictive deed covenants and “sundown towns” (like Ferguson) unofficially maintained the practices set forth by the Segregation Ordinance long after it was determined illegal.  The situation in Kinloch was worsened by the secession of a large part of its former municipality to form the new community of Berkeley, a decision based largely upon differences of opinion over school administration regarding integration.  Kinloch eventually lost the majority of its remaining residents in the 1980’s-1990’s when Eminent Domain razed much of the City for a runway expansion of Lambert-International Airport (that never even materialized- TWA was sold in the early 2000’s and the airport’s traffic no longer necessitated the expansion). It should be noted that parts of the original Bridgeton community were likewise bulldozed for an earlier airport expansion.

For Ferguson, the relationship it shared with neighboring Kinloch instilled a perception of racial inequality and preference for segregation that made the 1945 Supreme Court case of Shelley vs. Kraemer and the 1954 repudiation of Plessy vs. Ferguson (a judge unrelated to the city) difficult to swallow.  As the first Civil Rights Movement dawned, and African Americans were no longer restricted from living in Ferguson, the racial makeup of the city gradually began to shift, from largely white to largely black.  This was accelerated by the rapid decline of nearby Kinloch, many of whose former residents moved to Ferguson.  By the 2000 census, the population of Ferguson was more than 50% African American, which is remarkable considering that the overall population of the city did not decline significantly (meaning that, for every white family moving out, a black family moved in).  Still, despite a more diverse populace, divisions remained.  Predominately black neighborhoods in Ferguson possessed characteristics apart from largely white neighborhoods, including denser living conditions and income disparity.  The most notable and telling statistic, however, is that on the day that Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, the police department and virtually all administrative officials for the city were white, despite the fact that the population had been mostly black for more than 14 years.  To state it another way, those responsible for governance and upholding the law, who are meant to represent the people that they serve, did not well reflect the demographics of this community (at least in terms of race and class) on that particular day, at that particular time.  Of course, this is not exactly to say that the reason had to do with racism or even that those who served in these positions didn’t feel like they had the best interests of their community at heart.  After all, in the most recent election for Ferguson Mayor, James Knowles (who ran unopposed), only about 12% of registered voters came out to the polls. Likely, this is a reflection in part of the city’s divisions according to income, educative opportunities and living conditions, more than specifically of race (although the large percentage of the disenfranchised in Ferguson, who happen to be black, maybe don’t see it that way).

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photograph by Jeni Kulka

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

No matter the rationale or the correctness of it, in the days that have followed since Michael Brown’s death, Ferguson, the greater St. Louis area, and the country as a whole have been gripped in an analysis of how a progressive, industrialized society, responsible for such great technological and material accomplishments, can still be so debilitated in terms of social interaction and civil rights.  Perhaps it has to do with our legacy of slavery and cultural/racial/sexual insensitivities; perhaps it has to do with the fact that our country has never been simultaneously more poor and more rich; perhaps it has to do with us forgetting what this whole experiment of a democratic society wished to accomplish in the first place.  Who knows?  What is certain is that much work remains to be done.  Ignoring the legality of Officer Wilson’s having shot and killed Brown, the broader issue is that a young man, instead of starting college and beginning a path toward what unmistakably would have been a better life for himself, was shot and killed in the street outside his home.  This is our failure; yours and mine.  I grew up in a family with several generations of police officers, who I always felt were “the good guys”.  I grew up unafraid of police officers, nor have I ever been concerned about their intentions when one pulled up next to me on the street (as one did in Ferguson, no less).  Minority men and women should not have to fear or be suspicious of those who are sworn to “serve and protect” them.  This is our failure; yours and mine.

Now, what do we do about it?

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photograph by James Palmour

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photograph by Michelle Williams

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

Today, Ferguson is scarred by how it failed to serve its residents, but most of its residents remain somehow committed to the city.  It is understandable, with so very many great assets to show for the more than 100 years that the community has been a vibrant place to live, that people would be drawn to the importance of preserving it.  In response to recent events, changes are on the way.  The Mayor’s office and police department have been working with citizens to identify ways to make the police force more accountable and representative, and I don’t doubt that the next election cycle will introduce better diversity to city leadership.

If you are wondering whether or not to visit, just go (and please spend your money in local businesses while you are there).  Even amid such difficult and demanding circumstances, and on a day of wintry precipitation and bitter cold no less, all of Ferguson welcomed us warmly.

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photograph by Dave Adams

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photograph by Gaby Deimeke

MAP:
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Our endpoint for Photo Flood 31 was Ferguson Brewing, a cozy pub and brewery. Despite showing up with about half of the guests who I had reserved seating for (frigid snowstorm), the restaurant was nonetheless friendly and very accommodating. First, the beer was excellent. Second, so was the food. Readers, you should definitely visit this place!

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Santiago Bianco

0 Comments
  1. Patty Wente 4 years ago

    Jason….you rock.

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