Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Ville Neighborhood

The Ville is a north St. Louis neighborhood bound by Taylor Avenue to the west, Sarah Street to the east, St. Louis Avenue to the north and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive to the south:
I must admit, I've really been looking forward to this day trip following the reading I've done in advance of my visit.  There is a lot of historical information available on the this important neighborhood.  The Ville should be one of our greatest sources of regional pride based on its impact on African American culture and society.  A remembrance that St. Louis was a place where African Americans could thrive and make their own way as middle and upper class citizens in the early 20th century.

This neighborhood was the childhood home to Chuck Berry for pete's sake.  That alone makes this place noteworthy, but the history is much richer than even the brown eyed handsome man.

From the Ville's website (I set out to find some of the structures mentioned on their website, the photos are mine, not the Ville's website):
The Ville was for many years the cradle of African-American culture and home to many black professionals, businessmen and entertainers. The Ville nurtured a rich heritage for the black population of the City of St. Louis.

Out of this diverse group, many institutions emerged: Sumner High School, the first high school for black students west of the Mississippi, Turner Middle School, Marshall and Simmons Elementary School. St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church and Antioch Baptist Church have been providing spiritual support to this community since the late 1800's and continue to be leaders in stabilizing and revitalization efforts. Tandy Parks acts as the front yard of Sumner High School providing many recreational activities for area residents. The Homer G. Phillips Ambulatory Care Center is the major health care facility in the Ville community which is housed in the former Homer G. Phillips Hospital.
The Ville is included in a local historic district.  As of the 2000 census data, 97% of the 2,695 residents were black.  That is a 25% decline from 1990's census count.  1,492 housing units existed in 2000, 73% were occupied, 36% owner occupied and 64% rented.

Some more prominent locations and people from this pivotal area in African-American history:
The Ville originally belonged to Charles M. Elleard, a florist and horticulturist who maintained a conservatory and greenhouses on the tract. Elleard donated most of the products of his nurseries to his friends. During Elleard's twenty or so years at his property on Goode and St. Charles Rock Road, the area became known as Elleardsville. In the late nineteenth century, Elleardsville (later shortened to "The Ville") attracted German and Irish immigrants, along with some African Americans. The neighborhood's first black institution, Elleardsville Colored School No. 8 (later renamed Simmons School), opened in 1873.

Between 1920 and 1930. The Ville went from being 8% African American to being 86% African American. More and more African American institutions were established and the area thrived. Much of the "eliteness" in the Ville's reputation dates from this period. The most famous resident of The Ville at this time was Annie Malone.
Annie Turnbo Pope Malone came to St. Louis in the early part of this century and began making and selling beauty products. She called her products "the Poro System". She then became so successful that she was able to build her own million dollar building to house her various enterprises. The Poro Building became an important symbol of African American enterprises and was located near Sumner High School in the heart of the Ville. The building housed her Poro College of Beauty Culture and her manufacturing plant as well as a number of other organizations.
While in St. Louis, Annie Malone was a generous contributor to the St. Louis Colored Orphan's home and the St. James A.M. Church . She successfully pushed the city to pave streets in the Ville. Annie Malone is remembered as a generous philanthropist, a civic leader, and one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs in the city's history. The St. Louis colored Orphan's Home moved to the Ville from Natural Bridge Road in 1922 thanks to a large gift from Annie Malone. The Home was later renamed the Annie Malone Children's' Home.
St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1885 and further established an African American presence in the community. As part of a "turnkey" project, St. James A.M.E. helped finance a home for the elderly, know as James House Senior Citizens, across the street from the church, at the former site of Poro College.
The Charles Henry Turner Open Air School for Crippled Children, the first of its kind for African American children in the city, opened at 4235 Kennerly, in 1925. The school was named for a distinguished entomologist with numerous scientific publications to his credit who taught at Sumner High School from 1908 until 1922. The Open Air designation had to do with the belief at the time that fresh air was helpful to those suffering from tuberculosis and fresh air was part of the regimen at the school. The school later became the C.H. Turner Middle School Branch.
 Sumner High school opened in 1875 as the first African American high school west of the Mississippi. The school is named for Senator Charles Sumner, who in 1861 became the first prominent politician to call for full emancipation. Originally established at 11th and Spruce streets, Sumner moved to 15th and Walnut streets in 1895. It acquired its present home in the Ville in 1910 when citizens petitioned the Board of Education to move the school away from the saloons and pool rooms near its downtown location.
Sumner Normal School, which had been a department of Sumner High School, became a college in 1925 and took the name Sumner Teachers' College. In 1930, the name was changed again to Harriet Beecher Stowe College and it was housed in a portion of the Simmons School. In 1940, a new facility was built on Pendleton to house the teachers' college. With desegregation in 1954, Stowe College merged with the all white Harris Teachers' College.
Billups Avenue, named after Kenneth B. Billups, a musician, teach and Sumner alumnus, who served as chairman of Sumner High School's music department and founded the Legend Singers, and opera star Grace Bumbry was one of Billups' most successful students. Billups Avenue runs west of Sumner High School, on a section that was formerly part of Pendleton, extending from Kennerly on the north to Martin Luther King on the south.
Homer G. Phillips, a lawyer and community leader who lived near the Ville, is associated with the successful passing in the 1920's of an $87 million bond issue that included a million dollars for an African American hospital. In 1931, after the bond was passed but before the hospital could be built, he was assassinated by unknown assailants while waiting for a streetcar. The hospital, with a 177-bed capacity, opened in 1937 and was named after Phillips. The hospital remained open until 1984 and employed 800-900 people.

In 1938, the Tandy Community center, named for Captain Charleton Tandy, and early politician, equal rights activist, and Civil War hero, opened its doors. Since that time it has offered recreational facilities to the members of the Ville, specifically such sports as boxing, basketball, swimming, dancing, crafts, and dramatics. In the adjoining Tandy Park are the tennis courts where Arthur Ashe, among others played.
Antioch Baptist Church, one of the oldest Protestant churches in the Ville, was incorporated in 1884. The present church building, at Annie Malone Drive (formerly Goode Avenue) and North Market, dates from 1920. Rev. James Cook, one of Antioch's most memorable pastors, gained recognition for his direction of the Pine Street YMCA and his activity in the civil rights movement.
John Marshall Elementary School, built in the 1900's, is the only school in the Ville area not originally intended for African American students. In 1918, Marshall became an intermediate school for African Americans. It has served the area as an elementary school since 1927.
 In 1972, Easton Avenue and a portion of Franklin Avenue were renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive as a tribute to the Baptist clergyman and civil rights activist who was slain in 1968.
Holy cow, that's some amazing stuff.  With this being black history month, I was thinking the SLPS system should focus part of the curriculum not only on MLK, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, etc, but also direct the focus squarely upon a the history of the Ville. This place is teeming with American history, especially African American history.  Annie Malone, Chuck Berry and others should be part of my kids public education.

However, upon my visit today, the Ville would not be described as welcoming; not a place to explore and cherish the history.  Obviously, the German and Irish immigrants who settled this place are long gone, the black middle and upper class that called this place their own starting in the 1920's and 30's are long gone.  Sadly, this neighborhood is literally falling in on itself.

I find beauty in most places in the city, and the Ville is no exception.  I'm a sucker for history, and I wish the natives had taken better care of this neighborhood and protected it's great history for all to enjoy for years to come.  Sadly, I think the residential base will continue to dwindle and the historic homes will continue to fall.  There is a lot of new suburban-styled construction in the Ville that I chose not to profile, but most of the structures look similar to this:
You get the picture.

Here are some photos of the devastating losses as well as some of the beautiful homes/businesses/structures hanging on:




Here are some interesting signs, businesses from the past and present, etc.  Sara-Lou Cafe is not technically within the boundaries of the Ville, but I couldn't resist.  You've got to respect a place that offered frogs and liquor.

Dr. Martin Luther King Drive has some nice new sidewalks and parking meters.   The street must have been the "Main Street" of St. Louis in its heyday.  This street is an American urban photographers treasure trove!  Check out some scenes on MLK drive in the Ville:

The Harlem Tap Room is at MLK and Whittier:
There is a tribute above the entrance to it's 1946 founder Ezell Nance Senior who passed in 1992: 
The former Enterprise Cleaning Company building:
The more solid parts of the neighborhood are right around Sumner and along St. Louis Avenue.

As with nearly all St. Louis neighborhoods, there are beautiful churches.  Man, the Catholics got down to business when it came to cathedrals.  St. Matthew's is no exception:
And this is what I love about America....freedom of choice:
Being a former product of Belleville, Illinois not unlike the Stag Brewery, I had to embellish this next scene.  But it isn't just too contrived, the empty Stag bottle was directly in front of the wall.
 Hey, STL Style and Belle Vegas...interested in a postcard collaboration?

Go check out the Ville.  It's cool and it's sad and it's rapidly vanishing.  So go soon.


  1. Thanks for the historical shots. I've been reading up on Annie Malone and as a former St. louis, I never knew or heard about her before. My father grew up just blocks from there along Cote Brilliant Ave too. This is amazing history. The younger generation needs to know this stuff, so they can no long make excuses for not being able to succeed in life. If Annie Malone can do, anybody can.

  2. ^Well put Irv, thanks for reading.

  3. As I sit this afternoon doing some research for a presentation that I will make for our Black History program at church, my mind drifted back to my childhood in St. Louis and my experience in the "Ville". I started Kindergarten at Marshall School and attended 3rd - 5th grades at Turner and Turner Branch. I remember fondly going to the parades and playing in the summer at Tandy Park. I remember going to Homer G. Phillips Hospital when I got my hand catch in the wringer washing machine at the age of 5 and being treated. How proud I have always been to know that I lived in an environment where Black people who were doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, maids, laborers, etc. all lived in the same neighborhoods. How protected I felt that I had so many role models around me.

    On another note, I also remember playing with some of the children who lived at Annie P. Malone orphange and how angry some of them were due to no fault of their own. Unfortunately, it is sad to say but they were blessed compared to what children who have no one to care for them go through today.

    I might add that we lived on Kennerly, Cote Brillant, and St. Louis Avenue during the early to late 50's.
    Well, back to my research! Thank you for the memories.

  4. My Mom went to Sumner, where she graduated in 1943. She went to Antioch Baptist Church where her Pastor was Rev Berry. She and her five sisters sang in the Choir with his son Charles (who later became known to the rest of the world as Chuck). She went Stowe College. She talks a lot about her father who was a carpenter when Blacks were not allowed in the unions that got the best carpenter jobs and how she lived in a house whose basement had a dirt floor and had a outhouse in back. I attended the funerals of my grandfather, my grandmother and my aunt at Antioch Baptist as well as a couple of services when we stayed in St Louis over the summer as kids in the 1960s (Beautiful Church on the inside. Best I've ever seen, and that includes the National Cathedral and the National Basilica in Washington DC.) In this day of government cutbacks it is hard to get government money for projects but St Louis should really do something to restore this area of the city like Philadelphia has done to its historical area around Indiependence Hall and like Baltimore has done to its Fells Point area.

  5. Also my mom attended Sumner High School with Robert McFerrin who became the first African-American male to sing with the New York Metropolitan Opera, and whose son Robert McFerrin Jr became famous as grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin.

  6. I am desperately seeking a photo of the sumner High School Marching band in the years, 1931, 1932 or 1933. Looking specifically for a trumpet player named Ralph "Buddy" Hayes, from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Can anyone help me?

    B Mack

  7. Thank you so much for your information on The Ville. When I moved to St. Louis in the 70's, my former husband took me on a bicycle tour of the Ville and surrounding areas. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the area and later to attend productions of the Black Rep at one of the former churches (I can't remember which church) on St. Louis Avenue.

  8. I'm deeply touched by this post being that I lived in the Ville as a child before moving to New York City with my family. However, I used to come back every summer where my grandmother owned a confectionary store on Newstead Ave, and North Market. By the way, I went to Turner Middle School when it was an elementary school :-)

    Thanks for such an informative post. I never knew about the Ville's rich history until I started reading blogs like yours!

  9. I don't remember what neighborhood my brother lived in when he worked at Railway Express in the mid 60's.

    The abandoned homes in these photos look similar to the place he lived in. This blog has brought back some nice memories.

    It goes without saying that these homes were much nicer then. I loved going there. I remember that the alley in back was paved with granite blocks but so was a lot of other alleys in STL. As a kid I thought it was neat that they even had the alleys paved.

  10. My mom and I both graduated from Sumner. She attended with Dick Gregory, and I attended with David Peaston, who recently passed. Great times in The Ville. I remember Tandy and swimming and playing checkers outside, and my brothers fancied themselves boxers. Also attended Simmons and Turner Middle. I love the historical information, and as an adult, am digging the pictures of the cool architecture, which I paid no attention to as a child. Thank you for your article.

  11. It was so nice to see my house that I grew up in this site

  12. When I was 9 years old I work at this corner store on Newstead and Aldine down the street from the house I grew up in. Family sir names Davis, Brown,Wren, Moore, Van Treese,

    1. I know who this 9 year old was.

  13. I was born in Homer G Phillips, went to Marshall elementary went to Turner middle and went to Sumner high.My whole family is from the Ville from my father's side to my mother's side. I love the Ville wish they would do something with the neighborhood. I am Robert ' Bootsy'Brown

  14. I was born and raised in The Ville. So sad to see how it was allowed to go to ruins. My name at the time was Rose Thompson. I got married and left The Ville but my heart is still there. I still go through the neighborhood and remember what it was.

  15. I really appreciate this blog. Does here happen to know of a man named Victor Charles Wright? He was an adopted son who was from the ville. He was born in the 40's and his father was the first black civil service worker at the neighborhood swimming pool. I am a family member seeking out lost family roots. If anyone has any ideas, information, or leads it would be very much appreciated! Blessings

  16. I recognize some of the people posting. Glad you are still around. I was a little disappointed that "Charlie's Pool Room" on MLK Drive wasn't mentioned. Charlie's was and still is a staple in The Ville. Go by and check on him sometimes. Shout out to the Carr family!!

  17. Outstanding piece. I too grew up in the Ville and attended Simmons, Turner Middle and Sumner, Class of '70. During the '60s STL was a dynamic city and the Ville had values that contributed to the success of your truly and many others. I remember the annual Annie Malone's Parade that started at Sears Roebuck parking lot and made it's way down to Kennerly Ave and around to Sumner for the finale. I still believe that this community has economic potential with our people making the capital investment. The revival of this hood can become the talk of Wall Street. We can resurrect this community and drive out the criminal element bent on keeping it deceased. If Black Lives Matter, let's start here.

  18. Just looking at some of the pictures has me in tears. I was raised in The Ville as was my grandparents. What happened to our "village"? It was a wonderful time to live in 1950's and 60's "Ville". Remember the Cool Sounds singing group? How about all the stores along Easton? Who destroyed this wonderful neighborhood? Will it ever be restored?

  19. Thank you for the great shots of the great historical structures of the Ville. My parents migrated from the windy city in the 70's. It had begun to decline, but was still busseling with children playing in the streets, attending schools in our neighborhoods,neighbors helped and watched out for each other, respected elders; and though there where drug dealers, they weren't blatantly obvious with their activities...of course the outcome of that lifestyle was jail or death. That was a time when the police upheld justice and worked for the safety of the residents who weren't involved. The Ville isn't the same, but I am optimistic about its potential and future... despite deliberate plans to blight the area.