Erasing a Vestige of Racism in Creve Coeur

Creve Coeur plans to change the name of Beirne Park to honor the African-American ophthalmologist who in the 1950s had hoped to live on that land.

In moving to change the name of Beirne Park to the H. Philip Venable Memorial Park, Creve Coeur is taking a long overdue step to erase a blatantly racist stain on that city’s history.

As reported by Jewish Light Associate Editor Eric Berger, the new name of the park, which still needs to be ratified by the  city council, would honor the late Dr. Howard Philip Venable, an African-American ophthalmologist who in the 1950s was blocked from building a home on the site of the park. The city went out of its way to keep him out, appropriating the tract involved and converting it into the small park that was given the name of former Mayor John Beirne.

It should have been clear then, and is crystal clear now, that this shameful seizure of land and its cynical creation of a “park” was an act of pure racism. It received renewed attention through the commitment of a small but effective group known as the Venable Park Coalition and the leadership of local lawyer Jim Singer.

Singer, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, learned about the park history as a child and then a couple years ago, decided to research and write about it in an effort to inform and inspire others. Singer and members of the Reform congregation then approached the Creve Coeur City Council with a request that it set right this historic wrong.

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The result was last Monday’s unanimous move by the council in favor of the name change. Descendants of Dr. Venable, who died in 1988, supported the decision, as did Beirne’s son.  In addition to Dr. Venable’s family, 11 other black families were blocked from moving into the community during the same period.

Singer’s efforts were also helped by Harvard University interns, whose creation of the Venable Park Coalition was a key to advancing efforts around the park.

City council member Heather Silverman told the Jewish Light, “I just believe it was the right thing to do.”  She added: “While I recognize what happened to Dr. Venable and the other 11 families was a different time, it was the wrong thing then, and it’s the wrong thing now.” 

The next step in the long battle will be writing an ordinance for the city council to vote on, most likely early in the new year.

Righting wrongs from long ago and reviving old debates are never easy, and keeping the pressure on at times can seem like a hopeless task. But Silverman’s perspective is a valuable one in any situation: An action that was wrong, no matter how long ago it occurred, shouldn’t be simply accepted when change is possible.

Silverman, Singer, Shaare Emeth and others who joined the effort to remove the six-decade stain from Creve Coeur’s history deserve praise and thanks for their relentless and ultimately successful pursuit of justice.