Introduction: the shaping of an activist and scholar: Gerald Horne: contributions to African history and African American studies.

Author:Taylor, Ula
Position:SYMPOSIUM - Biography
 
FREE EXCERPT

As a seven-year-old paperboy in St. Louis, Missouri, Gerald Horne became a voracious reader of his wares. He started with comic strips and moved on to the sports pages, eventually adding the local news and editorials to his daily study. Horne was not the only person in his family of eight who was fond of reading. His three older sisters provided an academic model in their home that mirrored a dynamic classroom. Their mother, Flora Horne, had graduated from high school in rural Mississippi, but her ambition to attend Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College was thwarted. In the tradition of many African American mothers, she no doubt pushed her daughters "as the fulfillment of [her] own dreams" to acquire the education that she had been denied. (1) Horne watched and emulated his savant sisters, developing a passion for reading that he fully explored at the local public library. In 2010 Horne could still recall his St. Louis library card number 57-15980 (57 indicates the year that he received it; he was eight years old).

In many ways Horne's library card was a passport. Books gave him access to the world beyond his racially segregated environment. Horne was born in St. Louis on 3 January 1949. His parents came from large Mississippi sharecropping families that moved to this industrial city during the pre-World War II period. (2) The north-south borderland directly across the Mississippi River was a final destination for many families trekking out of the poverty-laden and violently racist state of Mississippi. At the end of World War II, St. Louis emerged as having the "nation's second largest rail and trucking hub." (3) Gerald's father, Jerry Horne, whose work ethic belied his fourth grade education, was employed as a truck driver. Horne's mother supplemented their household income by working occasionally as a maid. Although Flora Home was one of the approximately 9 percent of African American women in St. Louis who had earned a high school diploma, discrimination restricted her paid labor to the category of "personal service." (4) In fact, racially segregated African Americans in St. Louis were 37.6 percent of the unemployed in 1950. (5) Nevertheless, this city harbored a thriving civic life and culture that was unimaginable in rural Mississippi. (6)

During the 1950s St. Louis was a predominantly white city. The Homes lived in Mill Creek Valley, a largely black working-class settlement near the downtown with pockets of working-class white residents. This 460-acre "Negro district" was in desperate need of repair: "Eighty percent of its homes lacked private baths and toilets--67 percent were still without running water." (7) In response, city planners and redevelopment corporations targeted this central corridor for "urban renewal," which quickly translated into "Negro removal." Beginning in 1959, close to 20,000 African American residents, including the Horne family, were bulldozed out of their homes. (8) Haphazardly relocated to the "already blighted" North and Westside neighborhoods, African Americans branded the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority as "Local City Rip-off Artists." (9) Mill Creek Valley's mass destruction earned the local moniker "Hiroshima Flats." (10) The cleared properties remained vacant for years.

The destruction of Horne's old neighborhood, paved over in time with expressways to the suburbs and shopping malls, provided Horne with a major lesson regarding the creation of amenities for those other than the black poor and working class. (11) Power and politics catapulted the Horne family into an environment initially filled with poor whites who lived in dilapidated tenements. Yet despite their own abject poverty, racism provoked these men and women to look at their African American neighbors with disgust. Horne recalls that as African Americans settled on the north side quadrant, white people fled, "as if we were lepers." It was here in a space with gloomy lighting, a poor sewer system, decaying housing, marginalized workers, and all-black schools that Gerald Home would come of age.

After the 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision declaring segregated public schooling unconstitutional, Missouri moved swiftly and school "integration was achieved without fanfare." (12) Each year after 1954, however, desegregation slowed, and by 1958 it had come to a screeching halt. The main reason that "Negro pupils" such as Home "attended segregated schools stemmed from residential housing patterns." (13) African American parents complained to the school board that in turn argued for "neighborhood schools," contending that "school authorities were not obligated to change deliberately the character of a neighborhood or its school." (14) It was at the "almost all black" Beaumont High School that Home's extra-curricular activities--editor of both the school newspaper and the yearbook--reflected his reading and writing interests. (15) Yet he also flexed other talents at Beaumont such as acting in school plays. Drawn to the medium of comedy largely due to his interest in Hollywood, Home appeared in a couple of high school plays, including farces. Sports (he was on the football team) was also an important activity for Home's "legitimacy and socialization," but he freely admits that he "did not excel by any means." (16)

Although efforts to desegregate public schools did not impact Beaumont High School, during Horne's sophomore year the St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set a new agenda. As "Freedom Now" became the activists' slogan, CORE targeted the Jefferson Bank, a repository of state and city funds. CORE members demanded that Jefferson Bank hire at least four African American tellers. In the fall of 1963, African Americans rallied to picket the bank. This demonstration is noteworthy as "the most significant event in modern St. Louis civil rights history." (17) Gerald's older brother William Home, now a judge in Kansas City, was involved in the struggle and brought him there "more than once to picket." (18)

As a teenager, Gerald Horne would cross the river to have fun in East St. Louis. He remembered it as a "wide open town, meaning clubs were all over the place and stayed open to the wee hours of the morning." Organized crime controlled the red-light district, which nationally was known as a "wild and woolly gambling town," and a "frontier vice oasis." (19) During the early 1960s the African American population in East St. Louis continued to grow and soon...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP