Creve Coeur council moves to change park name to honor black doctor who faced discrimination

Creve Coeur plans to change the name of Beirne Park to honor the black ophthalmologist who in the 1950s had hoped to live on that land. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

The Creve Coeur City Council moved unanimously Monday night to draft an ordinance that would change the name of Beirne Park to the H. Philip Venable Memorial Park. The proposed change comes in response to local activists’ efforts to bring attention to the racial discrimination behind the creation of the park.

The city staff will now create the ordinance, and the council will likely vote early next year on changing the name in honor of the black ophthalmologist who in the late 1950s was not allowed to build a home on land that the city then seized for creation of the park, according to council member Heather Silverman.

“I just believe it was the right thing to do,” said Silverman. “While I realize what happened to Dr. Venable and the other 11 families” who were also not allowed to build homes in the city “was in a different time, it was the wrong thing then, and it’s the wrong thing now.”

The name change follows Jewish attorney Jim Singer spending two years researching and writing about how Creve Coeur city leaders, including former Mayor John Beirne, who the park was named after, pressured black families and then used legal maneuvers to keep Venable from moving into the city. Singer also enlisted more than 100 members of his synagogue, Congregation Shaare Emeth, to attend an August Creve Coeur ward meeting to get city officials’ attention. He also worked with interns from Harvard University to create the Venable Park Coalition, a local group, to advance efforts around the park.

“It was a great, great moment that I really appreciated,” said Singer. “I have been working on this for two years, and there had been such resistance at first. If you had called me, even as of May 2019….and said, ‘Jim, what’s going on?’ I would have said, ‘There’s almost nothing going on. I’m working on this article [about the park], trying to get the Missouri Historical Society interested,’ and that was about it. So in basically six months, this caught on. I almost have to pinch myself that this happened.”

Venable’s descendants also made a number of other recommendations that they would like to see Creve Coeur implement. Among these proposals is donating $250,000 for a scholarship fund in honor of Venable and his wife to the Washington University department of ophthalmology and passing a proclamation establishing an annual diversity day in Creve Coeur “allowing stakeholders to celebrate diversity, inclusion and equity efforts.”

“I think we will have to take them one at a time,” Silverman said of the recommendations. “I have heard loudly from the members of the Venable Park Coalition that they don’t plan on going away, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the council had voted to approve the drafting of an ordinance to change the name of Beirne Park. The council has not yet held a formal vote.