It was indeed a good day for me, then seventy years old and visiting my birthplace, Avery Island, Louisiana, for the first time since leaving it in 1918. The island, owned by the McIhenny Company, has an active salt mine and is the headquarters of the famous Tabasco sauce. It is an area known for its very beautiful gardens, and the extensive wildlife, harbored by a thick forest of pine and oak trees. The island is connected with the mainland by a hard surface road and a railroad track. There is a small dwelling at the entry road where a bearded little man sits by a sign, which says, “Stop here.” But the little man waves the motorist on his way and says, “Have a good day!”
I found myself surrounded by gorgeous flowers, cleanly manicured grounds, exotic shrubbery and venerable trees. The vast green pepper fields stood as a tableau conceived by a great painter. But where are the shacks of the field workers? Perhaps, the shack of my birth, I silently inquired. I was disappointed to find no such dwellings left. The field workers are no longer housed on the island, but instead, commute from the city.
I was born January 23, 1900, six months after the death of my father. My father had been a sharecropper, and at his death, the house had to be vacated to make room for his replacement. My mother was left homeless, penniless, pregnant, and with seven other children. Some of the older children were sent to live with relatives. My mother worked at any job she could find, sometimes as a pepper picker. Shortly after my birth, she returned to work and would place me in a basket and move it from the shade of one pepper plant to that of another. At that time in the country, welfare and child support were not even in a dream stage. As I write this story, I can feel the agony of my mother as she struggled in extreme poverty to rear her children.
A year after my birth, Mother met and was married again to another sharecropper. They had four girls. We lived in a small farmhouse, and my mother and stepfather had one bedroom. The girls had the other one and we five boys slept in the hayloft in the barn. Water was derived from a pump installed in a well on the outside of the kitchen. The outhouse was out back, the barnyard some distance from the house.
We owned a milk cow or two, a horse and buggy, and a saddle horse. The role of a sharecropper was to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops with half of the proceeds going to the landlord. We raised sugarcane and cotton for market, corn and hay to feed the stock and for own uses, and vegetables for our table. We ate well, and for other items—shoes and clothing—we depended on the company. The store kept a record of our purchase. At harvesttime, we took our share of the proceeds from the crop sales and paid for our purchases at the company store. Every year, we came out a few dollars ahead, but never enough to buy neither a new buggy nor a replacement for the old stove. We felt the account had been against our better interest. But because we could neither read nor write, we had no record of our own to check against that of the landlord.
My mother, stepfather, and all my older sisters and brothers signed their names with an “X.” I spoke broken French and no English at all. It was not until the age of 12 that I learned to read and write. I had a White playmate who went to school every day and did not understand why I did not go. When he realized that there was not a Negro school within our area that I could attend, he bought me a new “Education Reader” and taught me after he returned from school. I soon learned to write my name and to work simple arithmetic problems. This was the beginning of an insatiable will to learn to read, write, and speak English. Several months later, the Catholic Church in Delcambre opened a one-room school for “coloreds”. I was glad to walk six miles a day for a chance that some schooling would provide a better living for me.
Life on the farm for a lad of 12 was rough. I cultivated and harvested the crops, fed and watered the stock, the pigs and the chickens. The drudgery notwithstanding, there were moments of great enjoyment and fun on the farm, particularly on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. The height of enjoyment was going on a rabbit hunt with two or three buddies and a like number of dogs. I recall such a hunt when three of us, armed with carefully chiseled oak sticks laden with nuts on the end, spaced ourselves 15 or 20 feet apart while the dogs flushed the rabbits out of the brown grass. In the course of an hour or more, five rabbits were flushed and our laden sticks stuck two. We killed two more rabbits in their niches. After a dip in our favorite swimming hole, we very happy lads wove our way home, proudly displaying our rabbits from our hunting belts.
There were other fun activities, like riding and racing ponies. I have a scar on my head, the result of a bareback race. I was thrown between two ponies, and the rear hoof of one of them struck me in the head. I remember a little home wagon I had which I would hitch to my old billy goat, Sam, and go for a ride. Old Sam had a mind of his own, and one day on a ride, he decided to stop suddenly to munch on hedges. When he did not respond to my “Get up, Sam!” I swished him with a thin willow branch. Sam showed his resentment with a violent, forward pull, toppling the wagon and me against a fig tree. Sam freed himself and ran off into a corn patch, ravaging the tops of the young cornstalks.
As time passed, Sam became even more rambunctious, so we decided to give him away. However, when the buyers came for Sam, deep mourning permeated the entire household. Sam began bleating as his legs were bound together, and he was placed on his side in the truck. His call for help was tugging at the heartstrings of everyone in the family, and if there was a dry eye among us, it was hidden from view. Shouts of “Untie Sam!” “Let Sam go!” “You’re hurting Sam!” had no impact. The men, without a word, chugged away on the dirt road, and shortly all we could see was dust.
In our own way, we tried to forget Sam. If we thought at all about Sam, it was all done in silence—everyone was too hurt and sad to even mention his name. I suppose each of us wondered if Sam got a good home with children who loved him, or had he, instead, suffered the cruel fate of being sold to a soap factory.
Our Cajun farm neighbors dubbed me “Le Petit Docteur” when they discovered that I was a posthumous son. They believed, by the virtue of the circumstance of my birth, that I was endowed with the power to cure “Le Blanc de Bouche,” white pimples in the mouth of a baby or small child. I was instructed to exhale in the afflicted child’s open mouth three times. Getting the child to open his mouth and keep it open was not always easy. Neither was it easy for me, as a lad of five or six, to maintain my position while a feverish two-year-old cried, squirmed, and kicked in the arms of his mother who was trying to force his mouth open. Sometimes Cajuns would gallop to my house to summon me for help. I would be swooped up onto the horse behind the rider and, arms tightly around the waist of the Cajun, galloped to cure my next patient. This treatment gave me tremendous status among my peers and kept alive my desire to achieve in school.
Eventually we moved to the city of Gueydan, leaving the farm and sharecropping behind, with the hopes of finally making money. We discovered that things were much tougher in the city than on the farm. The one great advantage for me was the availability of a public school I could attend. One day, I stopped on the street to watch a cobbler, a kindly aged Italian, at work. He had a simple shop with very little equipment. I told the cobbler I had family shoes that needed repair, but we could not afford to have the work done. I felt I could make the repairs if I knew where to buy the material and equipment, and the cobbler told me where and even gave me hints on how to make some of the repairs. I told my parents about my plans to repair the shoes, and when they were able, they gave me money for materials and a cobbler’s last. I set up shop in the corner of the living room where I immediately began repairing the family shoes. I was so successful that neighbors asked me to repair their shoes for a fee. But troubles arose when some customers were slow in paying, and I was threatened with being reported to the authorities for repairing shoes without a license. My career as a cobbler was thus brought to an abrupt end.
Shortly thereafter, I sustained a jolt that lingered with me even into adulthood. I was fourteen when I accompanied our young teacher to an evening Lenten service at the Catholic Church in Gueydan. At the conclusion of the service, my companion moved towards the center exit door, and I followed her. Suddenly, I was hit on the back of my head and jostled out of line by a White couple behind me. The woman pointed to the side door and said, “Niggers go that way!” I recovered from the physical injury, but not from the humiliation and psychological hurt. My mother admonished me not to develop a negative attitude toward the church because of the act of hateful church members. But inwardly I was boiling with hatred, not only toward the couple responsible for my injury, but toward the church, the priest, the bishop, and everyone else who had anything to do with the operation of the church. I felt that they were all part of the deeds of their membership. At least, they were doing nothing to allay the evil of racial discrimination and segregation.
In 1915, my mother died suddenly of heart failure while working in her vegetable garden. I was called in from the yard and ran, tears in my eyes, to be at her side. Funeral services were held in the church to which I had sworn eternal hatred, but the service was beautiful. My mother’s death completed the dissolution of the family unit. The remaining sisters went to live with an older sister in Youngsville. I did not see them until many years later when I had reached adulthood. I went to live with my oldest sister in Lake Charles, while my stepfather remained in Gueydan. I never saw him again, although I recently learned that he lived to be 107 years old.
Moving to Lake Charles was a great event in my life. For the first time, I attended a school with more than one room, with indoor plumbing and electricity, and a teacher for every grade. And for the first time, I had a bedroom all to myself and experienced the joy of bathing in a real bathtub with hot and cold running water.
I was a seventh grader at the age of 17, having taken off time to drive a delivery truck to help supplement my sister’s earnings. I was probably the oldest learner in the class. It was then I had a very significant experience—my participation in an essay contest for seniors in the Lake Charles Elementary Schools. The contest was designed to stimulate the purchase of thrift stamps in support of the World War I effort. I emerged as a co-winner of the contest. My name appeared on the front page of the Lake Charles Daily as a winner on a citywide basis. I was not just the best of the Negro schools but a winner among the best without reference to race. Prior to this event, my goal was to finish the seventh grade and then get a good-paying job, perhaps as a pullman porter. With this victory, however, I dreamed of “going North” to Chicago and to school, where I would have a chance to prepare myself for a professional position. The dream was nourished with my reading of the Chicago Defender. It included the writings of Allison Sweeney and the speeches of Roscoe Conklin Simmons describing the North as the “haven” of the oppressed Negroes of the South.
Having dropped out of school to work at the airbase, I finally earned enough money to make my way to St. Louis, at least a step closer to Chicago. I arrived in St. Louis on a cold, rainy April day with nothing heavier than a sweater on my back, and a five-dollar bill in my pocket.
Chicago and College 1921–1928
I arrived at the University of Chicago with $200 in scholarship from the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and from Poro College. After paying tuition of $100 for the first quarter, buying the necessary books, and paying one month’s rent, I had very little left and there was absolutely no foreseeable means of income. A job promised at the Wabash YMCA fell through on the day of the college registration. And another promise of support was withdrawn. With returning WWI veterans getting preference in employment, I was lucky to get a job as a busboy during the evening meal at a nearby hotel. The pay was small, but I was assured of one good meal a day, and I earned enough to pay rent and incidentals.
In St. Louis, I was not permitted to enroll in either St. Louis U. or Washington U. because of legal barriers in the southern states. In 1921, I found the U. of Chicago far from liberal. For example, Negro students were advised not to congregate in groups of more than three in order “to avoid the appearance that a large number of Negroes were enrolled in the school.” One economics professor was alleged to have said that any Negro in his class automatically got only a “C” because he did not feel a Negro had the ability to earn more. Negro fraternities were excluded by policy from the prestigious Washington Prom held on campus.
With the exception of one summer when I worked as a dining-car waiter, the rest of my school career, including the years in law school, was as much a struggle as the freshmen year. As I entered my second year of law school, I had been unable to save on my meager salary at the Binga Bank (the first Negro bank in the city of Chicago), and we were fast going into a depression which made part‑time employment virtually unavailable. My class attendance became irregular and my grades hit rock bottom. I was denied enrollment for my final quarter in law school.
Political Beginnings 1928–1929
I wrote my friend, Joseph McLemore, who had finished law at Howard University on the G.I. Bill and had established a law practice in St. Louis. He was unable to help me with any finances since he had given up his law practice to wage a congressional campaign against Republican incumbent L.C. Dyer. He invited me to help in his campaign, and in the event of his election he would appoint me as assistant, and I could finish the law program at Howard.
McLemore, fresh out of Howard U., had boundless energy and enthusiasm and was not a man easily discouraged by adverse criticism or temporary setbacks. In the end, McLemore lost to Dyer, and this hit McLemore like a bombshell. He eventually left St. Louis and joined federal government service as a prosecutor of war criminals in WWII, later establishing a successful law practice in New York City.
After many political campaigns and struggles, the majority of Negroes voted democratic and became a significant force in the election of Bernard Dickman as mayor, and had developed effective leadership who knew how to negotiate for the benefit of the Negro community.
With the campaign over, I found a temporary job, was accepted as a candidate to take the Missouri Bar Exam, and made plans to study. In the meantime, I had applied for a teaching position with the St. Louis Board of Education and with Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In short order, I was accepted at both schools. But despite the higher salary being offered at Lincoln, political shenanigans in St. Louis (my taste for politics having been whetted) led me to accept the St. Louis position. I stopped studying for the bar and devoted my attention to preparation for my teaching assignment in September.
Segregated St. Louis
St. Louis is described as a northern city with a southern exposure. A more accurate description would be a southern city with a northern exposure. Although Negroes were not segregated on trains, streetcars, nor in the Union Station, segregation in housing existed and was even more pronounced than in New Orleans. Separate and unequal in schools and play facilities were the same as in cities of the Deep South. Hotels and restaurants barred Negroes. Negroes attending meetings in a hotel had to take the freight elevator. At the outdoor Muny Opera, Negro seating was limited to a special section.
I frequently discussed the recreational disparities with the superintendent of recreation, Al Fleischmann, who was very approachable and sympathetic, but without the power to remedy a very bad situation. He did, however, tell me in confidence that the city was about to float bond issues. He advised me that if I presented a well‑prepared proposal, it would have a good chance to be included in the bond issues.
As a result of the proposal I presented, I was appointed supervisor of Negro playgrounds (scoring high on the competitive exam), the four Negro playgrounds which were heretofore under the supervision of whites. This action was applauded as an important “first” by Negro Democrats. Fellow teacher Bostic Franklin and I developed a study that revealed a gross disparity in what was available between Whites and Negroes. Franklin and I concluded that three community centers were needed in the center of three densely settled Negro areas. Creamus Evans, also a teacher, was a good research student and was a great help in putting together a comprehensive plan which supported the need for recommendations.
Fleischmann recommended that the plan would have a better chance for success if the proposal for improved recreation facilities for Negroes were under the sponsorship of the Urban League. John T. Clark was the Executive Secretary of the League at the time and was more than happy to have the proposal presented as the Urban League Project. A minor misunderstanding centering around my position as chairman of the proposal, but not a member of the Urban League, lead to Clark’s sponsoring me as a member of the Board of the Urban League. Not long after my election, I was named treasurer of the Urban League.
During our presentation to Mayor Dickman and his cabinet, we drove home the point that the bond issues overall had little or no appeal to Negro voters, and that the inclusion of our proposal would have an enthusiastic response from them. The proposal was unanimously voted into the bond. The playground was in operation the following year and the community centers were completed and operating two or three years later.
In 1938, a newly appointed Superintendent Turner never accepted me as having complete authority over my designated area of supervision. He assigned a White supervisor to “oversee” the Negro playgrounds who actually countermanded some of the orders I had given to members of my staff. This conflict of responsibility led to Turner’s request that I be replaced. I answered the charges in detail, that we were acting with Central Office authorization, contradicting him and by inference painting him as the prejudiced administrator he really was. The next summer, I received a notice of re-appointment as supervisor, but instead, I enrolled in the graduate school of Northwestern University.
Teaching Career 1929–1969
My first teaching assignment was in the Colored Vocational School. At this school, trade experience was the requirement for teachers rather than credentials in education. I had no courses in education, but was hired to teach commercial subjects on the basis of practical experience as a teller for two years in the Binga State Bank of Chicago. In the years as a classroom teacher, at various times I taught the whole range of commercial subjects—bookkeeping, Gregg Shorthand, typing, Business Law, and the like. Later, after the name of the school had been changed to Washington Technical High School, we began receiving a few returning World War II veterans seeking training under the G.I. Bill. I was assigned the position of veterans counselor. It was my duty to make the necessary reports to the Veterans Administration while I carried on my regular teaching load. In a few months, the number of veterans seeking training increased to such a large number, a new school shift was provided. I was named counselor-in‑charge of veterans training. I had two assistants and two secretaries. In time, our faculty was increased to 94, operating in two buildings and offering instruction to hundreds of veterans in twelve trades and all elementary and high-school subjects. Our school was the first in the country to offer veterans training in the elementary school. Our elementary and high-school classes were taught on a tutorial basis in small groups or individually, allowing each veteran to progress at his own speed. Many in the trades went on to work for established firms or went into business for themselves.
At the height of the veterans program, I was offered the principalship of Sumner High School, but I declined for two reasons. First, I enjoyed the independence of being counselor-in‑charge. I enjoyed working with the veterans. Second, my salary was considerably more than that of the high-school principal. I was paid on a thirteen‑month basis, as opposed to ten months in the high school.
After a few years, however, our veterans program reached the point of having enrolled all available veterans and within the foreseeable future, the program would have to close. So I wrote Mr. Beumer, Assistant Superintendent, that I was interested in an assignment as elementary-school principal. (I had already completed my studies for a master’s degree in education at Northwestern University and had begun studies toward my doctorate.) Despite a record of frequent clashes with minor officials, my competency was a matter of record. I was assigned as principal of a small elementary school.
I was first assigned to an ideal school for a beginning principal. It was a small, easy‑to‑manage school with grades kindergarten through fifth grade. I remained there briefly before reassignment to Bates School, a larger school with many acute problems. It was racially mixed with a preponderance of Blacks. The school had been recently desegregated and in isolated cases, there was some bad blood between the Blacks and Whites. But for the most part, racial relationships were amicable.
There were a considerable number of older boys and girls in the 8th and 9th grades who were functionally illiterate, had poor class attendance, and were disruptive. I was able to use my experience in teaching men at the elementary- and high-school levels in small groups and, in some cases, on an individual basis. I took all such older pupils out of the upper grades and placed them in a class of five to fifteen students with a teacher who taught them at their level. The two classes of fifteen students where not authorized by the board, although the small classes were not reported as such on the required room‑grade reports.
Fairgrounds Race Riots 1949
On June 21, 1949, a major race riot that shook up the city occurred at a newly opened swimming pool. As James Lawrence, staff member of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported it: “Several hundred young boys went to swim at the outdoor pool at Fairgrounds Park. For the first time, there were Negroes, maybe thirty or forty, among the Whites. A group of Whites gathered outside the enclosed pool shouting threats at the Negro swimmers. Police were summoned to escort the Negro children safely from the pool. No other Negroes entered the water that day. During the late afternoon, there were reports of interracial fighting in and around the park. Police turned Negro youths away and dispersed crowds of Whites. In the early evening, a group of young White children were reported listening to an obscene harangue by two agitators.”
Hearing of the incident over my car radio, I drove to the park to see for myself. Arriving, I parked and walked to the entrance where Al Fleischmann and a group of city officials had gathered. I told Fleischmann I was interested in presenting myself as a swimmer with the certainty of refusal in the presence of witness. Fleischmann thought I would have a better case for a lawsuit if the refusal were to a youngster.
I agreed and talked with Dr. Symington Curtis about the situation. I asked him to bring his twin sons, Robert and Thomas, assuring him that they would have police protection. The boys applied for admission to the pool and were denied in the presence of witnesses as we knew they would be. Attorney George Draper and Rose Taylor were also refused, and the four became plaintiffs in the NAACP lawsuit. Sidney Redmon, a neighbor and well‑known Negro lawyer, agreed to serve as attorney for the suit.
The night of June 21 brought out cars and truckloads of White hoodlums, armed with baseball bats and lead pipes, and roaming Negroes, looking for someone to attack. Many serious injuries were reported on both sides. One Negro man, brutally beaten, reportedly died as a result of the beating. There was also considerable property damage.
Many in the city felt this racial clash was long overdue. The Negro population had increased 234% in the past 50 years, was restricted in housing to a narrow strip of slum properties, and barred from places of public accommodation. These factors, along with rampant discrimination in employment, all contributed to an unconscionable dilemma, destined to bring about an eruption of great dimension.
Immediately after the riot, Mayor Darst appointed the Human Relations Council consisting of fifteen people who were known for their community service or who represented organizations. I was chosen, I presume, because I was president of the Urban League. Of the fifteen members, four were Negro. Henry Chahayne, liberal on racial issues and the very capable Comptroller of the American Life Insurance Company, was elected chairman and I was named vice chairman.
A report on the St. Louis situation, developed by George Shermer, director of the Mayor’s Interracial Committee of Detroit, made recommendations for improvement. The excellent report called attention to “a general community negligence in race relations and gross lack of recreational facilities for both races, but that those available for Negroes was infinitely lesser. Most importantly, the report recommended complete racial integration of city recreational facilities.
The Human Relations Council approved the Shermer report and its recommendations, but later a majority of the council reversed its decision and voted to retain segregated facilities. Despite strong urgings from the Urban League, the Metropolitan Church Federation, and several other organizations, the mayor announced he would maintain segregation.
Amongst the usual politic intrigue and backroom discussions, a lawsuit was promptly filed with the federal court under the 14th amendment by attomey Sidney Redmon for the NAACP with attorney George Draper and Rose Taylor as plaintiffs. Redmon, a Harvard Law School graduate was very successful in the practice of law and was devoted to the cause of his race. He served in some cases without any financial compensation.
While the case was being heard, one White member of council accused me of “passing out minutes and other information to the enemy,” and indeed, the charges from his viewpoint were accurate. The enemy in this case was Attorney Redmon and the NAACP with whom I was in constant consultation. Making references to the equal protection guaranteed by the constitution, Federal Judge Rubey Hulen ruled for the plaintiffs. Thus ended segregation in all recreational facilities of the City of St. Louis. City recreational facilities were operated on a non‑segregation basis with staffs adequately coached, and with the full support of the churches and virtually all community organizations.
Settling the Fairgrounds Park situation did not mean the end of Jim Crow in St. Louis. It did, however, have far‑reaching influence in the desegregation of other places of public accommodations—hotels, restaurants, theaters, and the like.
In the early spring following the decision, the major reappointed all the members of the council. I served out my second term in the council, and as president of the Urban League Board, I assisted in the city’s racial adjustment program.
Urban League 1949–1961
I continued my activities as treasurer of the Urban League and was considered a significant cog, especially in our annual request for funding before the United Way, then known as the Community Chest. It was in this position that I became aware the League was not serving the Negro interest in the best possible way. We had an occasional breakthrough here and there, but it was apparent that the cautious approach of the executive secretary no longer warranted his leadership in a changing racial climate.
For example, battles were won getting theaters in Negro areas to employ Negro operators. But little effort was made to open commercial and industrial doors which were completely closed to Negroes. The time had come to pursue a more vigorous course. I discussed this with my friend Al Fleischmann and requested his permission to propose him for president of the board. He agreed finally, but said, “Yes, but only for one year.” I agreed to serve as VP to assist him. The executive secretary was amenable to this suggestion, and Al was elected at the following monthly meeting.
Fleischmann’s presence was just what the Urban League needed. He knew personally the head of the Gas Company and the transit system and agreed to talk with them personally. After considerable negotiation and planning, they created a special district in Negro areas where Negro meter readers would be hired thus overcoming the objection previously raised that Whites would not allow Negroes to enter the homes to read meters. The St. Louis transit system was asked to establish an experimental line in a Negro area where Negro motormen would be employed. To be sure, these jobs could be thought of as token employment, but realistically, they were important doorways in two large industries, which soon employed hundreds of Negroes.
When Fleischmann retired as President of the Board, I was nominated to succeed him. Every board member stood up and applauded in approval, with the exception of John T. Clark, the Executive Secretary. Since the inception of the Urban League in 1910, there had been an unwritten rule that only a White man could serve as president. It was thought that only a white man could get the necessary funding from the Community Chest and enjoy the respect of potential White employers. To Clark, my election meant the end of the League as he knew it.
Now that I was president, the first Negro ever so elected, what programs would I offer to improve the dismal life of the Negro? First I recognized the cracks in the doors of commerce and industry that were made under the presidency of Al Fleischmann. With the ultimate objective of opening those doors fully, I appointed a special committee to outline immediate goals and another category of long‑time objectives. The committee was a mixture of liberals from commerce and industry, and others ranging from activists to able public relations persons.
My second immediate objective was to encourage the retirement of John Clark, who was not considered attuned to a dynamic program of integration. Two other members of the League and myself agreed to propose a three‑year consultancy at half of his present salary, with an office and with absolute freedom to go and come at his pleasure and to consult with whomever he wished. His would continue until he became eligible for social security benefits. The proposal was agreeable to board members, the Community Chest which funded the League, and to a reluctant Clark. Clark continued to function as executive secretary until the arrival of his successor, Leo Bohanon.
My third objective was to recognize that Fleischmann had accomplished a lot in our getting a foot in the door in three important industries. These accomplishments were viewed as cornerstones to build on while not to lose sight of the ultimate objective of complete desegregation and equality in employment. We continued to build on the foundation inherited from Fleischmann and also opened new doors. Fleischmann remained a friend of the League.
I served as president of the League for two years and was given the Urban League Award at the conclusion of each year. The first year, it was given for continuing the work started by my predecessor and for my part in the desegregation of all city recreational facilities. The award for the second year read: “For his conspicuous and unselfish service for over a quarter of a century to the cause of a better St. Louis for all of its citizens, for his concern for the board as well as singular interest of this community which affects the common welfare, and for his 12 years of service to the Urban League of St. Louis, where he served it well as its treasurer, vice‑president and president.” At the end of my term, I declined renomination and resigned board membership in order to allow more time for graduate studies.
Board of Freeholders 1956–1957
I was engaged in many civic projects, such as chairman of the Committee on Voting Facilities, member of the Social Welfare Council, and City Planning Commission. One of my roles was a member of the Charter Board of Freeholders, which has as its responsibility to write a new charter for the City of St. Louis. Although it had been amended many times, the existing charter was still not up‑to‑date, and it was felt that nothing short of an entirely new charter would meet contemporary needs.
I was one of the thirteen blue-ribbon candidates that were elected to write the charter, and one of the two Black freeholders. One of the important proposals that we were able to push through in the new charter was the aldermanic district gerrymanding to insure Negroes the same proportional representation already in place.
Board of Aldermen 1969–1975
The mandatory retirement from the St. Louis Board of Education was at age seventy, and I was scheduled to retire in January of 1970. Aware of my approaching retirement, Bill Clay, who had just filed as congressional candidate, told me a vacancy would occur on the board of Aldermen. Clay proposed that if I helped him in his campaign as committeeman of the 26th ward, he could assure my appointment of the unexpired term. I resigned as principal on April 16, 1969, and was sworn in as a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen the next day. On my first day on the board, two important bills came up for a vote. I abstained on each, explaining that I did not have time to acquaint myself with the provisions of the bills. I wanted to remain free of any political strings of my committeeman and asserted my independence throughout my six‑and‑a‑half years as alderman. I never accepted neither gifts nor fees nor did I support legislation unless I was thoroughly convinced of its worth.
My first day as an alderman, I announced my opposition to a proposed one-cent city sales tax as a possibility to meet current city expenses. When the mayor announced his decision to go ahead with the tax, I introduced a strong resolution into the board of aldermen denouncing the sales tax. The mayor and city comptroller actually did introduce the sales tax ordinances. My efforts against this tax were joined by other organizations, including churches. We wanted exclusion of food and prescription medicine. After a long struggle, the pro-sales tax proponents won, but we were able to exempt prescription of drugs, but not food.
One of the more troubling events during my tenure as alderman was the l969 Isom Combs case. Combs was working on the Washington University campus when he was accused of rape by a young woman. He was arrested and detained for twelve days despite the change in the testimony of the woman who first identified him as her assailant. Prior to finally having the charges dismissed, Combs sustained severe injury from other inmates. I immediately introduced a resolution condemning the city justice system and requesting a thorough investigation of the severe beating of Combs in an overcrowded cell and his retention after no longer being a suspect. I also sought compensation for Combs for his injury and his unlawful detention. The law, however, permitted such compensation only at the will of the city attorney. The city attorney introduced an ordinance limiting Combs’ compensation to only $5,000. In addition, Washington University agreed to restore his job. Combs, illiterate and elated at having more money than he ever had at one time, celebrated this settlement with friends from Mississippi and soon had no money left. He developed a heavy drinking habit, but the resourcefulness of a social worker in his community got him back on a straight path which enabled him to save his job at the university. He eventually married a woman with a small child and lived a normal, happy family life.
One of my ongoing battles was in regard to cost‑of‑living increases. The mayor wanted to provide a $1,000 pay increase for departments in the upper pay brackets and a 4% cost of living adjustment for all city employees. I proposed a flat increase of $400 for employees instead, arguing that the cost of a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk was the same for a $4,800-a-year garbage collectors as for the $25,000-a-year department head and that the cost of living adjustment should be the same for both. After much heated debate, the board of aldermen passed the bill, and the mayor, with great reluctance, signed it. This was the first and last time a flat rate increase was enacted.
The convention center was another thorny issue. The planners told the board of aldermen and the public in general that the center would not cost the public anything. It would be built through a special taxing district, which was to include the downtown area with its hotels and major merchants, who were expected to be the prime beneficiaries of the center. Later, it came to light that the new center would be financed through a general bond issue, taxing property owners twenty‑six cents on a hundred dollars, and, in addition, the City of St. Louis would pay six million dollars. Efforts to defeat the board issue were to no avail. This was another example of how public coffers are used to the advantage of a special interest group instead of the general welfare.
It was finally time to admit that my public service career was coming to an end. My wife Mary of 45 years and I traveled in the United States and abroad. In 1981, we retired to Santa Barbara, both of us becoming active in the community we liked so well. Two months after arriving, I was appointed to the Commission for Senior Citizens by the City Council. I served as chairman of the Sub Committee on Health Care for Seniors. We were concerned especially with those elderly whose Medicare benefits were too small to sustain them, but too large for them to qualify for Medi‑Cal.
Later, I was asked to serve on the Area Agency on Aging as a member of the council and also as a member of the executive committee. We oversaw a budget of $1.5 million from the federal government and the State of California.
I resigned from all boards and activities during the illness of my wife, who died in 1988. We had been married sixty years and without her at my side, life no longer had the same meaning. Now at the age of ninety, I travel a bit and am still moved to become involved in issues such as the sales tax, water use, and other such critical issues.
Santa Barbara, 1991. This writing was found among C.B.’s notes along with his autobiography:
With my early background of extreme poverty, I identify with the homeless and the other poor in our society. I am saddened that the United States, the richest and most powerful nation, lacks the will to solve its most disgraceful problem. Our troops and armament are displayed in far reaches of the world to maintain world peace, and our nation is concerned about hunger in all areas of the world. But discord and hunger abound in our own land. Have we really come to grips with the root cause of poverty within our own borders?
“Boy: Up from the Bayou” was edited by C.B.’s daughter, photographer Valena Broussard Dismukes, who kindly granted us permission to publish the autobiography and who provided the photographs. Clobert Bernard Broussard is listed in the 1968 edition of Marquis Who’s Who in the Midwest. His papers are held in Special Collection, Olin Library, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
© Valena Broussard Dismukes