Americanist scholars discuss progressive activism in St. Louis

| Staff Writer

The University’s American Culture Studies program hosted an Americanist Dinner Forum on Zoom titled “Introducing ‘Left in the Midwest: St. Louis Progressive Activism in the 1960s and 1970s.’” The web panel discussed the book Left in the Midwest, a work published in 2022 that explores St. Louis’ historical struggle for civil rights. Three scholars presented their research during the session this past Tuesday evening, Jan. 31.

In the 1960s and 1970s, St. Louis was a hotbed for activism and advancement of civil rights for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Ezelle Sanford III, professor of American history from Carnegie Mellon University, commenced the discussion with his research on segregation’s impact on health inequity. He illustrated the subject with the case of St. Louis’s Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which provided indispensable medical services to the city’s Black-majority Northside.

Established in 1937, the Homer Hospital was the only public hospital serving Black St. Louisans, who “tried to establish an institution to address the problems brought by a growing population,” Sanford said.

The hospital rose to prominence during the 1950s and became a “Mecca of Minds” for Black professionals, according to Sanford. Nevertheless, problems such as “faulty equipment and insufficient [staff and funding]” due to segregation still haunted the institution.

The hospital dealt with poor financial circumstances and was rumored to be shut down, which incited a large uprising. The gesture was perceived by the public as a “genocide,” and police were mobilized to quell the protesters, who put up barricades to confront law enforcement. In the following years, St. Louisans engaged in “work stoppage” and “boycotts” in attempts to economically paralyze the city.

“Black activists wrote proposals to the [municipal government] to let the Hospital stay open…it’s a coalescence of activists that tried to stop the decision,” Sanford said.

Ultimately, the city carried through with their decision and closed the hospital in 1979.

The original site of the Hospital was registered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, recognized by many as a “site of memory,” according to Sanford.

Mary Maxfield, a postdoctoral fellow in Women’s and Gender Studies at Saint Louis University, continued the discussion from the perspective of the feminist movement that took place during these years.

“During the 1970s, a lesbian collective called Woman’s House was established,” Maxfield said. “These lesbian alliances reflected a broader pattern of organizing [in terms of] operating in St. Louis…offering services such as support groups, legal assistance, [a] library, and recreations for women.” 

As a consequence of their services, these venues and their organizers were “systematically marginalized” and frequently under the threat of harassment and violence. Federal agencies, such as the FBI, targeted these alliances under the guise of the FBI’s search for Susan Saxe, who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. 

In 1975, one such venue was destroyed by a firebomb. The bombing of the venue, according to Maxfield, was not covered by any mainstream media in the city.

In spite of these difficulties, many collective projects succeeded in gathering support and resonance from fellow feminists.

Maxfield introduced the Red Tomatoe Inc., an organization that held pop music concerts attended mostly by women. One of the featured songs was titled “Fight Back,” which described the danger women faced when walking alone at night. 

The song inspired a local and worldwide march movement called “Take Back the Night,” aiming to address violence against women. The St. Louis chapter of the march was held on June 8, 1979 in the Forest Park area and was attended by more than 1,000 people.

Keona Ervin, associate professor and director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, ended the discussion by talking about the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR).

According to the NAARPR’s website, the organization was founded in Chicago in 1973 with the mission to “mount organized action against unjust treatment of individuals because of race or political beliefs.” 

The organization was an “inspiration from the Black racial struggle,” according to Ervin. Ervin added that African American women were involved in many causes during the 1950s, leaving behind a “dense network of progressive organizations.”

The NAARPR’s St. Louis chapter remains active. Ervin said that members are “adamant [about] rebuilding the movement in a changing social environment.”


Editor’s Note: This article was edited after its original publication to clarify details and reflect a speaker’s true statements.

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