A short history of how racism became institutionalized in St. Louis

As far back as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which permitted slavery in Missouri while prohibiting it in the unorganized territory of the Great Plains, St. Louis has had a complicated, ugly history regarding race.

Nearly a century later, in 1916, two-thirds of St. Louisans voted in favor of a ballot referendum that became the first in the nation to legalize housing segregation. When that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1917, St. Louis turned to “restrictive covenants,” clauses attached to property deeds and neighborhood association contracts drafted by real estate agents and White homeowners that prevented homebuyers from selling or renting to African Americans.

It wasn’t until the Supreme Court prohibited these covenants in 1948 in the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer case that African Americans were even allowed to live in most of the towns in St. Louis County. As “White flight” began to change the demographics of St. Louis City, restrictive covenants in the city gave way to exclusionary zoning policies in the suburbs, and segregation continued.

St. Louis was also one of the last cities to desegregate its schools following Brown v. Board of Education, with the implementation of the St. Louis Interdistrict Transfer Program coming in 1983, nearly 30 years after that landmark ruling.

The effects of centuries of segregation and unequal treatment show up in the data today. When both the Ferguson Commission and the Equity Indicators Project looked at data sets examining health, education, employment, criminal justice, and more, in nearly every set of outcomes, black St. Louisans fared worse than their white neighbors.

And for many, these disparities feel almost inescapable, as St. Louis ranks 42nd out of the 50 largest metro areas in the country in economic mobility, or the likelihood that a family will move up the income ladder from one generation to the next (Chetty, 2014).

Adapted from "Advancing Positive Change: A Toolkit for Equity and Empowerment,” produced by Forward Through Ferguson.

See Also

About the Equity Indicators
An overview of the City of St. Louis equity indicators project

Frequently Asked Questions
Addressing common questions about the Equity Indicators project

How we identified priorities, collected data, and calculated scores

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