Jews play active role in efforts to redress discrimination behind Beirne Park

Dr. Howard Phillip Venable, an ophthalmologist, practiced medicine at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which had been the only hospital in St. Louis for African Americans. 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Zahava Kiernan, a seventh-grader at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, would not be born for five more decades when Creve Coeur residents and city officials in the mid-1950s kept a dozen African American families from building homes on land they bought in a neighborhood called Spoede Meadows.

Today, some of that land makes up Beirne Park, named after a former mayor who led the racial segregation effort.

That history has recently received renewed public attention, thanks in large part to activism by Jewish lawyer Jim Singer and his synagogue, Congregation Shaare Emeth.

About 150 Creve Coeur residents, activists, elected officials, Jewish clergy and students gathered Nov. 6 to talk about the need to illuminate and redress past discrimination in the St. Louis suburb.

Zahava spelled out the cause, which includes renaming the park for a black physician, Howard Phillip Venable, whose property was seized for the park.

“We have come so far from a past of racism and discrimination, yet remnants still show today,” Zahava said, standing alongside her classmate Audrey Roberts during the meeting at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.

“Beirne Park is an example of this. We need to continue to clean our acts up. I’m all for changing the name to Venable Park, but that is not enough. We cannot forget what happened there. Our Jewish tradition teaches us to remember past discrimination and injustices so that when we see it happen to other people, we can step in and act because we know how it feels.”

The crowd gave Zahava what appeared to be the largest ovation of the night. Will Ross, who is black, a nephrologist and associate dean of diversity at the Washington University School of Medicine, reached out to shake Zahava’s hand.

But people bothered by what occurred at Spoede Meadows are interested in more than heartwarming moments. The Venable family has outlined a series of recommendations that they would like to see Creve Coeur implement.

City officials said that while they are motivated to try to address the municipality’s wrongdoing, they are unsure whether they will be able to fulfill all of the Venable family’s requests.

Struggle against discrimination takes root

Jews and African Americans also were linked when the housing discrimination first occurred. As 12 African American families were purchasing lots in Spoede Meadows and trying to build homes in 1956, Congregation Temple Israel was trying to move from its building on Kingshighway in St. Louis to a location a mile south of the Meadows, which was closer to where most of its members lived, according to court documents.

But after the Reform congregation agreed to purchase the land, the city changed its zoning ordinances to prohibit the authorization of churches in the city — even though there were already Protestant and Catholic churches there — and then denied Temple Israel’s permit application.

Meanwhile, a few Creve Coeur residents, including an alderman, formed a corporation, Spoede Realty, to pressure the prospective African-American homeowners to sell their lots, according to a report produced by Singer, the lawyer, who researched legal documents, meeting minutes and newspaper archives.

The city refused to issue Venable a plumbing permit for his home. When he hired a contractor to install the plumbing anyway, the city sued Venable, accusing him of violating the building code, according to an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

The other families gave in and sold their lots to Spoede Realty. Venable, who practiced medicine at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the city’s only hospital for African-Americans, and his wife, Katie, refused.

The city formed a Citizens Advisory Committee on Parks, which included the former mayor, John Beirne. Its sole purpose was to keep the Venables out, according to Singer. The city then used its power of eminent domain and condemned Venable’s lot.

“The attempt by the Creve Coeur Board of Alderman to condemn Dr. Venable’s property in order to establish a city park is clearly an example of racial discrimination which has not been successfully disguised by the transparent cloak of legal maneuvers,” Samuel Guee, chairman of the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee, wrote in a 1956 letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “One could not have asked for a more suitable beginning than to have a Negro citizen of Dr. Venable’s intelligence, ability, education and background initiate a program of racial harmony in neighborhood relations.”

Venable sued the city, accusing it of racial discrimination. The Creve Coeur city attorney told the Post-Dispatch that the charge was “ridiculous.”

The Missouri Court of Appeals in 1959 ruled against Venable because the city had taken the property for public use: a park. The court relied on a prior court ruling in making its decision. In effect, Singer explained, the court said, “If a city is exercising its power of eminent domain for a public purpose, the courts will not review why the city is exercising that power.”

The city reimbursed the Citizens Advisory Committee for legal fees it incurred fighting the Venable lawsuit and changed the zoning restrictions to make it easier for Spoede Realty to resell the other lots. The city paid Venable $31,000 to settle the lawsuit and take ownership of the land.

Congregation Temple Israel also sued Creve Coeur. In 1959, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in the temple’s favor, declaring that the city could not keep it from building a synagogue.

Venable felt he and Temple Israel were engaged in a common struggle. When the St. Louis Argus, an African American weekly newspaper, endorsed U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo., after he refused to speak before a segregated audience in Little Rock, Ark., Venable noted in a letter to the editor that Symington had not spoken out against discrimination closer to home.

“If this dinner had been held in Creve Coeur, there would have been no separation of tables because Negroes would not have been invited. In this respect, Creve Coeur is much worse than Little Rock,” Venable wrote. “For three years, Temple Israel and I have been waging a battle against religious and racial discrimination as practiced by the City Fathers of Creve Coeur. Has the senator spoken out against this? He has not. In fact, by his silence he has condoned their vicious practices.”

‘Remembering the past correctly’

Singer, 69, grew up in Olivette and recalls visiting Beirne Park as a child in the ’60s. His parents told him that a prominent African-American physician had tried to move to Creve Coeur but was not allowed to build there. The park clubhouse would have been his home. He had planned to build a putting golf course on the land, too.

A couple of years ago, Singer took his grandson Levi to Beirne Park and had a realization: “This is the park that my mother told me about all those years ago and there is nothing at the park to tell the story.”

“I have always been a lover of history, and it just kind of intrigued me to research the history of the park and try to raise public awareness about the park’s history,” Singer said.

After about 100 hours of research over the past two years, Singer tried to generate public interest in St. Louis but got a lukewarm response. But then, “out of the blue,” he received a call from a lawyer with the St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council (EHOC) asking him whether he would be willing to talk with a Harvard University professor, Walter Johnson, who was writing a book about the history of race relations in St. Louis. Singer agreed and later sent Johnson his report, which Johnson used as a source for his book.

Johnson returned the favor by sending two Harvard students this past summer to St. Louis to work on the Beirne Park effort. Kale Catchings is black and from O’Fallon, Mo. Saul Glist is white, Jewish and from New York. The students met with local legislators and helped establish the Venable Park Coalition.

Catchings and Glist also met with Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth. A couple of years ago, the Reform synagogue’s leaders conducted a “listening campaign” with about 500 members and asked them two questions: What is it about the world today that breaks your heart? And, what is it about the world today that gives you hope?

Singer talked about the history of Beirne Park, which led to the tipping point for his effort. In August, more than 100 Shaare Emeth members attended a Creve Coeur ward meeting to get city officials’ attention. Goldstein said about 10 people usually attend such meetings.

The Jewish people are concerned with “remembering the past correctly, appropriately and honoring the past in the hopes that the situations like this do not happen again,” Goldstein said. 

“And we can’t do that if the whole truth of a story is obscured in any way.”

Dr. Venable’s descendants get involved

After being blocked from Creve Coeur, Venable purchased 11 acres in Ballwin and built a home and a three-hole golf course. He died in 1998 at age 85, and none of his family live in St. Louis. However, Joel Levy, an amateur genealogist and member of Congregation B’nai Amoona, managed to locate some of Venable’s descendants in Detroit. 

“Ironically, in French, Creve Coeur means ‘broken heart,’ ” said Rossalind Venable Woodhouse, the physician’s niece, who spoke alongside other family members via a conference call to the meeting at which Zahava Kiernan spoke earlier this month. 

“The expropriation of the property … was a source of heartbreak to the Venables and continues as such in the lives of their descendants. It was a source of the denial of an essential element of the American dream: the right to own a home.”

The family then detailed their recommendations for the city: 

• Rename the park as the H. Phillip Venable Memorial Park 

• Donate $250,000 for a scholarship fund in the Venable couple’s name at the Washington University department of ophthalmology 

• Pass a proclamation establishing H. Phillip Venable Annual Diversity Day in Creve Coeur “allowing stakeholders to celebrate diversity, inclusion and equity efforts.”

• Establish a fund to provide city-owned land or down-payment assistance to racial minorities who seek to buy land or build homes in the city.

Before learning that the clubhouse had been demolished, the family also recommended the establishment of a museum documenting the history of the Venables and the other African-Americans who attempted to integrate the city. 

After the Venable family spoke, Jack Beirne, son of the former mayor, slowly approached the microphone. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have lived in the city of Creve Coeur since I was 4 years old — 1937 — and I have no problem with the renaming of the park,” he said. “The people who were on the council at that time and made this decision were good people. They thought that this was right and proper. … We have gone through 60-some years, and things have changed.” 

What happened in Creve Coeur to the Venables and the other black families was not unique for the times in St. Louis, according to “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles,” a report produced by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. 

The report cites a 1974 conclusion from a federal appeals court that “segregated housing in the St. Louis metropolitan area was … in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state and local governments.”

Kalila Jackson, a lawyer with the EHOC, said, “We are right in the heart of the revolution to excavate these lost histories.

“And Creve Coeur is just but one example, and part of the work of the Venable Park Coalition is to help create a blueprint for how other communities can face these tragedies of the past,”  said Jackson, who attended the meeting, as did state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page.

Working to right a wrong

Questions remain about how many of the Venable family’s recommendations the city will implement. 

“I was really pleased with the conversation the other night,” Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz said. “I thought it was very positive, and I was very happy.”

Glantz, who is also a member of Shaare Emeth, said that a lot of what the family is seeking can be implemented.

But when asked about those recommendations involving money, Glantz said, “I think it’s very difficult for a public entity like Creve Coeur to spend taxpayer dollars giving to a charity or a scholarship fund, but I think there is a possibility, and we need to talk about it as a city council, where we can create some sort of foundation and that everybody can contribute to it.”

In renaming the park, the city must also consider the 11 other prospective homeowners who were not able to move into Creve Coeur,said Heather Silverman, a Creve Coeur council member and member of Shaare Emeth.

I think Creve Coeur today has a commitment in my mind to diversity, and we have seen that in some of the steps that the city has already taken, including our police officers have implicit bias training,” she said. “We have a comprehensive plan that calls for diversity of housing stock.” 

At a work session Nov. 12, council members reached a consensus to rename the park — though they have not determined to what — a first step in a “more comprehensive effort,” Glantz said.

The council will discuss the matter again Nov. 25.

Meanwhile, Singer was recently honored by the St. Louis County Council for his work on the project. Jackson, the EHOC lawyer, said she gets emotional when thinking about Singer’s efforts.

“Hopefully, his story will continue to spread,” she said. “It’s just that infectious quality of empathy or humanity and what we’re capable of when humans are at their best.” 

Singer thinks that Allen Venable, the grandnephew of Dr. Venable, put the goals of the Venable Park Coalition best when he told him:

“The city needs to show the same determination to right this wrong that they demonstrated in creating the wrong.”