What history can tell us about Ferguson, Mo. and why it exploded

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

History professor Ian Hartman

Ian Hartman teaches U.S. history from the Civil War on. He participated in the BSU panel regarding civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., offering details on historical housing discrimination and racial policies that lead to combustible incidents such as Ferguson. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA's Black Student Union recently  hosted a panel discussion on the continuing civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo. following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a local police officer on Aug. 9.

Organizer Andrew Freed, president of the BSU, included a retired APD officer, an English professor, a former assistant attorney general from Missouri now living in Anchorage, and a history professor. Three panelists were black and one was white.

Freed showed a few clips of news accounts to set the stage, and then began his questions. A small but attentive group gathered to listen in the campus multicultural center.

The discussion quickly moved from the actual shooting incident to its historical underpinnings in St. Louis, a place where blacks and whites have persisted in a vastly unequal landscape.

The former assistant attorney general, Stephanie Thorn, herself a daughter of rival Kansas City, said the trouble in St. Louis today simply reflects a history of racist public policy.

"St. Louis has the seeds of 'you can live here, you can't live here. You are black, you can't live in this neighborhood.' It's built into the contracts," she said.

In 2008 and again in 2010, St. Louis was named one of the most racially segregated cities in America, Thorn said. "(Ferguson) was always going to happen."

Ian Hartman, a UAA professor who teaches American history from the Civil War on and is particularly interested in questions of power, wealth and inequality, backed up the picture Thorn had painted.

"Let me give you a couple of statistics," he said, and rattled them off quickly:

  • In 2013, black Missourians were 66 percent more likely to be stopped by police, but white Missourians were more likely to be found with contraband-40 percent compared with 22 percent.
  • In 2013, blacks constituted 92 percent of the searches and 80 percent of the traffic stops in Ferguson. Yet they make up just 67 percent of the 21,000 residents.
  • The Ferguson police force of 50 has three black officers, less than 6 percent.

These statistics are the aftermath of discriminatory housing policies that strategically ghettoized blacks to the north and west of St. Louis, Hartman said.

The history professor described an historical St. Louis-area newspaper advertisement about a vote on housing discrimination measures. The ad warned of a "Negro invasion" and urged residents to "Save your home! Vote for Segregation." "This was going to be a concerted public policy strategy to segregate this particular metropolitan area," he said.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that made restrictive covenants illegal, Shelley v. Kraemer, came right out of St. Louis.

In 1945, a black couple, the Shelleys, purchased a home without realizing that a restrictive covenant had been in place on the property since 1911 barring "people of the Negro or Asian Race" from occupying the home. Kraemer, who lived 10 blocks away, sued (and lost), trying to keep the Shelleys from moving in.

But the roots of Ferguson's unrest go even deeper. Hartman asked the audience how many of them knew about the East St. Louis race riots of 1917.

They happened, Hartman said, when blacks and whites from the south moved north to work in World War I industries around St. Louis. People of European descent didn't like that African Americans were being hired to work along side them on production lines. They rioted.

"Whites went in to East St. Louis and killed between 100 and 200 black workers. On the spot," Hartman said, calling it one of the largest episodes of racial violence in the nation's history.

That tragic event was echoed in a 1962 shooting of an African American man by a white police officer in Kinloch, a St. Louis suburb bordering Ferguson. Then, as now with Michael Brown's death, people began to ask how historical patterns of housing discrimination and systemic levels of racism contribute to these single, combustible moments.

What was going on in Missouri was going on across the U.S., Hartman said, eventually instigating riots in more than 100 American cities and culminating in the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

An unusual figure in American history, Republican George Romney, made the connection, Hartman said.

After Romney lost the 1968 Republican nomination for president, Nixon named him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was law, mandating a federal commitment toward housing desegregation.

Much to Nixon's dismay, Romney embraced the mission. According to a 2012 series on segregation by ProPublica, Romney prepared these notes for a meeting with Nixon: "Equal opportunity for all Americans in education and housing is essential if we are going to keep our nation from being torn apart."

In a confidential memo to HUD staff , Romney said he planned to use his Cabinet-level authority to remake America's housing patterns, which he described as a "high-income noose" around the black inner city, a chilling reference to lynching.

What happened next is history; Nixon resisted. He squeezed HUD funding, choked off Romney's initiatives and eventually forced him from the Cabinet. The status quo prevailed.

And 50 years later, we have Ferguson.

Listen to a podcast of this panel discussion. A version of the story written by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014.

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