St. Louis author praised for his memoir about a black community displaced in the name of “progress” | Joe’s St. Louis

ST. LOUIS — “There is a hole”, Viviane Gibson said about his memories of Mill Creek Valley. “And there is a wound.”

That wound was inflicted on Gibson in 1959, when she was 10 and one of 20,000 people driven from their homes on the southern outskirts of downtown St. progress game.

Vivian Gibson signs books recently at the Missouri History Museum.

Joe Holleman, post-shipment

But Gibson has gained some solace from the accolades she received recently for writing her memoir, “The Last Children of Mill Creek.”

Published in 2020, Gibson was recently named Author of the Year by the Missouri Library Association. Her book also won a Missouri Humanities Literary Achievement Award.

In a recent interview, Gibson said the saddest part of Mill Creek’s destruction is that it’s invariably described as a slum.

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“That’s how it was phrased when the city was going after a bond issue to pay for demolition: they were going to ‘eradicate a slum,'” Gibson said.

“But it was a neighborhood. Black people had lived there for decades. When you were driving Market Street, all you had to do was look right or left and there we were, a whole black community.

“We were the people who worked on the railroad and in the hotels, laundries and foundries in the area. We had our schools, our churches and our stores,” she said.

"The Last Children of Mill Creek" by Vivian Gibson

“The Last Children of Mill Creek” by Vivian Gibson

And while the official line was that the land needed to be cleared to make way for Highway 40, Gibson said city planners took up far more space than needed.

Seeing a similarity to Native Americans — restricted to unwanted land, then moved when land was sought — Gibson said highway building was secondary to plans for commercial redevelopment.

“So in the name of urban renewal, Mill Creek was gone.”

Gibson grew up in a three-room house in the 2600 block of Bernard Street, now a vacant space in an industrial block of businesses.

His father, Randle Ross, worked on a road crew for St. Louis Public Service Co., which later became Bi-State Development Corp.

His mother, Frances Ross, worked to raise eight children. “Nine if you count my brother’s friend who came over for dinner one night and ended up staying for three years,” Gibson said.

Gibson admitted that parts of Mill Creek have their weak points.

“Some of the buildings along the train tracks were in poor condition. But much of the housing stock was no different from Soulard,” she said.

Mill Creek Valley

Housing in Mill Creek Valley is photographed from the driveway between Chestnut-Lacaton and Market streets, west of Compton Avenue, circa 1948.

Post-shipment photo

She also made special mention of the former People’s Finance Corp building. at Jefferson Avenue and Market.

“It was where all the black doctors and lawyers had their offices, and it was the only place that loaned money to black people to buy a house,” she said.

Emphasizing that she does not endorse segregation, Gibson noted that it had, albeit accidental, a positive aspect.

“The city had restrictions on where we could live, to keep us confined to certain areas. Even successful black people, like doctors and lawyers, couldn’t live where they wanted, so they stayed in Mill Creek.

“And it gave us all role models,” she said. “It gave us hope.”

Gibson spoke in more detail about civic leaders’ concerns about the “lockdown” of black residents.

“That’s why the first bond issue in 1947 (to pay for the demolition) was rejected. White people were worried about where all the black people would go,” she said.

But a few years after the 1947 defeat, the city began building the Pruitt-Igoe housing project – also located downtown, but well north of the Market Street commercial road.

“So in 1954, when they went and got another bond issue, they could say that this was where we all went,” she said. “And that bond issue passed.”

After Mill Creek was leveled in 1959, Gibson and his family moved to the West End, largely due to an accident his father had at work.

“He was working on streetcar tracks on South Broadway and he was hit by a car; had to have surgery and walked with a limp for the rest of his life,” she said.

“But he got some settlement money and ended up using it to buy a house, so we didn’t have to move to Pruitt-Igoe,” she said. “After that, he always joked that it was well worth losing an inch of leg.”

For the past 20 years, the Gibson family has been the subject of an exhibit, “The Ross Family,” at Missouri History Museum.

After graduating from Vashon High, Gibson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then worked in the fashion industry in New York City for 10 years.

After returning to her hometown, she retired after 25 years working as a volunteer coordinator for St. Louis Public Schools, then held a similar position with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“And I live in Mill Creek now, near 14th and Spruce streets,” Gibson said before smiling. “I’m looking directly at the train tracks.”

Lola R. McClure