First African-American U. City High grad recalls past with pride

Genora Jones, the first African-American graduate of University City. Photo: Diana Linsley/West End Word 

By Robert A. Cohn, Special to the Jewish Light

As a graduate of the University City High School Class of 1957, I have been proud to be a member of the first class at the school to have had an African-American student and graduate. Genora Jones was our classmate and, over the years, our reunion committee has tried to contact her to join us for the celebrations we hold each decade. We often wondered whether Genora had passed away, moved away or perhaps did not want to be contacted. Was her experience at U. City High positive or traumatic? Were we welcoming and friendly enough to her?

Those questions were answered in a moving article last month by Fran Maninino, managing editor of the West End Word. The article, “Breaking the Racial Barrier: Genora Hunt was the first African-American graduate of University City High School,” included a complete story with a current photo of Genora Jones Hunt (her married name), along with her senior year entry in the 1957 Dial, the U. City High School yearbook.

The article was exciting to members of my class. It filled in all of the gaps in our knowledge of how she came to be the first African-American student at U. City High in the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down racially segregated schools as “inherently unequal.” The desegregation ruling was accompanied by the beginnings of the American civil rights movement.

It is hard to believe that University City High School – and, indeed, the entire school district, which now has a substantial majority of African-American students – was at one time an all-white school and district. When we studied the Missouri Constitution of 1945, many of us were shocked at the provision that required “separate schools shall be established for white and colored students.”

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In her interview with Maninno and an extended telephone interview last Sunday with the Jewish Light, Genora Hunt acknowledged that she was frankly “scared” to attend a previously all-white school, especially as the only African-American student at the time.

Genora was born May 24, 1938, in Laurel, Miss., to Irene and Luther Jones. Her mother worked as a cook for a Jewish woman named Schwab on Maryland Avenue, and her father was a custodian in a building at Big Bend Boulevard and Pershing Avenue, which provided living quarters for the Jones family. Genora, an only child, was thus a resident of U. City and entitled to attend its school. She had previously attended the segregated Cote Brilliant Grade School in St. Louis, having been prohibited from attending the Hempstead Elementary School across the street from where she lived.

When Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka ruling came down in 1954, Genora was attending her first semester at Sumner High School. She recalls that Mrs. Schwab strongly urged her parents to enroll their daughter at U. City High, insisting there was no longer any reason for her to travel all the way into the city to go to school.

Genora recalls watching the disturbing scenes of angry white parents jeering and sometimes assaulting black students as they bravely entered Southern high schools. She and her mother feared the risks of breaking U. City’s color line. But her father chimed in during one of their family discussions: “They are not going to hurt her. They’re Jewish people.”

That sentence jumped out at me and Genora’s other Jewish classmates. 

In fact, there were numerous Jewish references she expressed both in the West End Word and Jewish Light interviews – all of them warm and very positive.

Of note is the fact that Hunt associates Jewishness with kindness and thoughtfulness. 

“Mrs. Schwab had called Mr. (James E.) Baker, the principal, and asked him to welcome me to the school on that first day,” Genora recalls. “I was worried why I was being called into the principal’s office on my first day. He said, in his quiet, kindly manner, ‘Hello, Genora. Glad to meet you. Welcome to our school.’ ” 

In her interview with the West End Word, Genora described the beloved, avuncular principal Baker as “a Jewish man.” When I pointed out to her that Mr. Baker was not Jewish, she laughed and said, “Because he was so kind and welcoming, I just assumed he had to be Jewish.”

Genora told the Light that she never experienced any overt racism or taunts while at U. City High. Some students were friendlier than others, but she remembers the friendly ones, including a student named Eva who was originally from Germany and another named Regina.

I heard from Regina Gordon Frederick after the West End Word article appeared. She recalls having a friendly relationship with Genora Jones in the classes they took together.

“I am so glad that we are back in touch with her after all these years,” Frederick said.

I was also able to track down Eva Mesmer, a retired high school biology teacher who taught at U. City during the mid 1980s. She now resides in Denver. Like Frederick, Mesmer was delighted to hear about Hunt’s post-U. City High life, and recalls her friendship with Genora very clearly. “Since I was from Germany, I too felt lonely from time to time, and Genora and I hit it off from the start.” She recalls their long conversations and that they often walked each other home. Genora said, “I remember Eva was pretty with curly hair and I loved the way she pronounced my name Genora.”

Genora is now retired after a 20-year career with Commerce Bank. She was ordained a minister in 2009 and was in the ministry at Carter Christian Methodist Church in Vinita Park. She is proud that her son Jeff Williams, 54, is also a U. City graduate. He, in turn, is very proud that his mom was the first U. City African-American student and graduate. 

“As we said back then,” Hunt told the Light, “we’re from U. City. Couldn’t be prouder.”