“Separate and Unequal”: The Story of Race-Based Educational Access in St. Louis is the second installment of a three-part series on housing, accessibility to education, and the Voluntary Student Transfer Program. The Globe is dedicating three issues to discuss these topics because, as we dove into this story in May and have continued to learn more and more, the story we want to tell has grown. We felt in order to do this story justice we had to dedicate the space, time and in-depth, long-term reporting to these issues.
When Minnie Liddell filed the lawsuit against the City of St. Louis Board of Education, she had no idea that it would become the longest-running and most contentious desegregation case in the United States.
After three years, in 1975 Chief Judge James Meredith, who heard the Liddell v. Board of Education for the City of St. Louis case was ready to approve a settlement created by both parties’ attorneys, but the NAACP disagreed with the settlement and sought to step into the case.
The original settlement was mostly based around hiring more minority teachers, but the NAACP intervened because this would not address the deeply rooted problem of the segregated system; they wanted to treat the sickness not the symptoms.
Attorney Veronica Johnson represents the NAACP in the Liddell vs BOE case.
“The [original settlement] plan was for an interdistrict remedy. In other words, within the boundaries of the St. Louis Public School Districts,” Johnson said. “That is when my client, the National Office of the NAACP got involved and worked for an intra-district transfer program that would include the suburban schools.”
The NAACP succeeded and this intra-district transfer program would evolve into the longest running public school desegregation program in the nation.
The VST program began in 1982. The program bussed black kids from the St. Louis City districts to the county and, in smaller quantities, white students from the county into charter schools in the city in hopes of desegregating both school systems.
“The purpose of all of this is to provide the victims of the dual, or the segregated system which had been in effect, the eighth circuit said, for five generations, to provide them the opportunities for an integrated learning experience which they had been denied. So there were a number of ways to do that,” Mark Bremer, lawyer for the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC), said. “[Black students] can go out to the county schools where they can get an education in an integrated, predominantly white, but integrated school district now because they’re there. Also, you [could] bring the white kids from the county into the magnet schools in the city so that they’re not all black, so that they can be integrated. But the whole purpose of this is to provide a remedy for the victims of the dual system, which are just the black kids in the city.”
Each year the county schools accepted city students and vice versa and the demographics began to shift. The amount of black students entering the county schools was much greater than the amount of white students entering charter schools in the city.
But then Missouri got tired of footing the bill. In 1996, the state of Missouri filed for unitary status which would effectively terminate the program.
“At that time the amount of money that the state of Missouri had payed for desegregation of the St. Louis schools as well as to a lesser extent the Kansas city schools, was more than the total spent by all states in the United States historically except for California,” Bremer said. “So the state of Missouri wanted to end the program. So they filed that motion to end the desegregation programs and particularly to end the state’s obligation to pay for all of it.”
Qualifying for unitary status would mean that the school district is completely integrated and the vestiges of the dual system have been eradicated. Under the Equal Protection Act, the VST program is only constitutional as a remedy for prior wrongdoings of the segregated system, so if the district were to achieve unitary status any race based program, including the VST program, would be considered racial discrimination and thereby unconstitutional.
“Ordinarily you can’t make decisions based on race, but where you have had a violation of the Equal Protection Act where blacks have been discriminated against, then in order to remedy that you have to have race-based decision making otherwise you can’t diversify and integrate and provide them the lost opportunities that they were deprived of,” Bremer said.
The state did not get this motion for unitary status, however it did spark the re-negotiation of a new settlement plan.
“When we settled the agreement in 1999. [The State of Missouri] did not want to keep funding the schools forever. So as part of the deal, we agreed to changes in the foundation formula. That is how much is paid for each student. We agreed to certain changes in the foundation formula that weighed poverty a little heavier and all the parties agreed that we would submit a sales tax to the voters in the City of St. Louis to get their approval,” Johnson said. “The sales tax then along with changes to the foundation formula funded all the remedial programs, the magnet schools, improvements to academics, vocational educational aspects of it.”
The new settlement created the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC), a non-profit organization that oversaw the VST program. Under the previous provisions of the lawsuit, the court created the Voluntary Interdistrict Coordinating Council, also VICC, but the new corporation would take over for the court appointed committee.
So now with the state of Missouri not being responsibile for funding, the VST program changed from being supervised by the judge to being led by a board of directors made up of the superintendents of participating schools as part of the new VICC.
The plan was never meant to be permanent.
“We were contemplating that the program would phase out in about a 20 year period reduced by about five percent per year because in my view as a lawyer, under the Supreme Court decisions construing the constitution, the desegregation remedies cannot go in perpetuity – they can’t go forever,” Bremer said. “Now that’s still a very long time though because it started in 1980 and then in 1999 it was contemplated over another 20 year period. It’s not forever, it’s not in perpetuity, but it’s many generations of students.”
Ultimately, the complexity of the dual, segregated system in St. Louis has drawn the case out over generations of participants.
“[W]ith this case we have gone through two or three federal judges. In other words, the case has outlived two or three federal judges. It has outlived Mrs. Liddell, the first named plaintiff and her son, Craton, they both passed. There was an Erleen Caldwell who as a parent who worked with the NAACP, I think she has passed and most of the lawyers who are working it now are the second generation of lawyers,” Johnson said. “It is a case that has a life of its own and that is something that I think reflects the difficulty of the problem and the inadequacy of the judicial system to remedy societal problem.”
The VST program is not a remedy for the societal problem of institutionalized racism that has entrenched American society for the whole of its existence, but it is hard to ask any law or judicially instituted program to do that. Even so, the VST program has certainly touched the lives of so many families that have gained access to integrated education.
Minnie Liddell started her legal battle as a concerned mother fighting for her children’s education, but as her passions grew stronger, her fight for equality in public education helped provide opportunities not only for her own children, but for black children throughout the St. Louis region.
“She opened up a lot of doors for a lot of African-American people as a result of this case,” Michael said. “She has an impact on people that’s so far reaching in the surrounding areas of this city. For her to be able to do that and for me to know she was responsible for that, that means a lot to me and I’m sure it would’ve meant a lot to her. She never ever ever stopped fighting, all the way until the end.”
Minnie Liddell died in 2004 at 64-years-old.
While she was living, her dedication never waned even as the scope of the case expanded.
“She was always on the phone with the lawyers even after the program had been settled. She was always trying to find new ways and new ideas to make the system better,” Michael said.
Keith Foxworth was looking for an opportunity to continue playing the sports he was passionate about, so he came to Clayton High School as a sophomore in 1982 through the Voluntary Student Transfer program.
Prior to entering the School District of Clayton, Foxworth attended Beaumont High School in North St. Louis, which was just a short distance from his home.
“At that time I think because tennis and soccer, which were two of the sports I played no longer being in the city schools, I decided to make a change,” Foxworth said.
And make a change he did.
For the remainder of his high school career, Foxworth rode what he remembers as a 35 to 45 minute bus ride before and after school in order to get to CHS.
“I had to get up early,” he said. “It made my day longer but it was one of those things where you feel like it was worth it.”
For Foxworth, attending Clayton meant he could participate in athletics, which he thrived in. While at CHS, Foxworth was number one on the boys’ tennis team and has continued his tennis career both in college and professionally.
But, Foxworth’s decision to go to CHS through the VST program was not strictly because of athletic opportunities.
“Going to Clayton was just the opportunity to go to the better school system,” Foxworth said. “Not just the sports but also the idea of being in a better school system and having access to a better education.”
When Foxworth was attending CHS, the VST program was in its first years.
“I think the year I went to CHS I think there was maybe three other African Americans in my class at that time,” Foxworth said. “I think there were actually one or two African Americans who grew up in the Clayton School system. They knew pretty much everybody there. So they were maybe a little more acclimated that I was.”
Although more acclimated than he, Foxworth did not struggle in these aspects while at Clayton.
“[Coming to Clayton] wasn’t that difficult for me because I had been playing tennis since I was 6-years-old and had been around every nationality you could think of. Also, my church was pretty mixed as well, so I had a wide variety of people I came in contact with,” he said. “Whereas some of the other transfer students, I think their interaction with other nationalities was probably limited. For me, it did not feel like a culture shock. I was not particularly uncomfortable that way.”
Even so, Foxworth did experience some racism while in high school.
“I do recall having at least one incident where there was some racial tension,” Foxworth said. “A kid made a comment about the size of my lips and we almost got in a fight about it.”
Due to the educational differences in Beaumont and Clayton, Foxworth found himself less educationally advanced in certain situations than some of his peers.
“As far as the educational side of it. It was tougher. There were certain things that students who were already at Clayton knew, that I didn’t know,” he said.
Foxworth believes the educational disparities between the Beaumont and Clayton were striking while he was in high school.
“I felt like the programs in the city weren’t as accelerated as they could have been, for whatever reason,” Foxworth said.
Trina Dyan Clark James, Class of 1989
When James first entered the School District of Clayton in eighth grade, she noticed a distinct difference between herself and the other students in her classes.
“I was the only black in my classes,” James said. “I was placed on the honors track based off my testing. I remember being really pissed that I wasn’t in the class with any other black kids.”
So, James tried to do something about this situation.
“On the first [math] test I purposely failed because I wanted to be in the regular math class. [My math teacher] called my mom and my dad and they had a meeting. So they forced me to retake the test. I took the test for real and got 100 percent on it.
They already had me pegged as, ‘You’re going down this route,’” she said.
And go down this route she did.
James was in honors and AP classes during her four years at CHS. This is where the distinct divide between her academic life and social life became more evident.
“When I went to my classes, I felt like I was in this other world,” she said. “When it got to lunch time when I could hang out with my people, at the black table, and then the bell would ring again, and I would go back into this other world.” In addition to excelling in the classroom, James was an active participant in Clayton’s extracurricular activities.
“I was the only black official for CHS club,” James said. “I was the first black to be part of the homecoming court. On paper I was still succeeding, I was the poster child for desegregation.”
But, starting the Organization of Black Awarness (OBA) during her sophomore year was what she remembers as her biggest contribution to CHS.
OBA was a school sponsored program which strove to acknowledge and celebrate black culture within the walls of CHS.
This group did not exist without some struggle. After being a congressional page in DC for the first semester of her junior year, James returned to CHS and led OBA’s organization of events surrounding Black History Month.
“I came back to being told my junior year to be told by [CHS principal] Dr. Burr that we wouldn’t be allowed to have Black History Month because he felt like we were separating ourselves. So, we could have Peoples Month at Clayton instead. That wasn’t fair,” she said. “Clayton had Peoples Month, while OBA, we did our own thing. We protested by doing our own thing anyways. By our senior year, he got the message that we were not backing down. So we did have Black History Month as a school.”
Although James was able to find a way to have acknowledgement of black culture in CHS through the formation of OBA, she believes that the VST program was harmful to the black communities in St. Louis.
“I think [VST] actually did a disservice to the black community, because it caused to fragment us even more,” James said.
After moving back to St. Louis from California, James moved to Clayton so her two oldest children could attend Clayton Schools. Her oldest son graduated in 2012 and her daughter graduated in 2015.
But James did not initially put her youngest son in the District, instead he attended Jamaa Learning Center – the charter school she founded in North St. Louis – from 2011 to 2015.
“I ultimately left [California] to accomplish what was the end goal from when I left engineering, which was to open a high-performing charter public school in the Ville neighborhood,” James said. “So that in my specific neighborhood, no child would have to leave to receive the quality of education that I had received.”
But, after conflicts, Jamaa Learning Center lost its funding and closed its door at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.
“My son is now at Glenridge, our home elementary school. He is there now as a fifth grader. I know that I am getting my child a great education, but it does kind of hurt that we put that effort in so that a lot of kids in the city of St. Louis could receive a quality education, and it didn’t quite work out,” she said.
James’ inspiration to have this charter school came from her frustration with the remedies St. Louis has put in place – namely the VST program – which she participated in 28 years ago.
“I feel like [VST] was kind of a band aid policy,” James said. “I don’t think they were thinking in the long-term when it was created. That’s a problem.”
Stefanie Moore, Class of 1990
“Like a week before school started, she was like, ‘This is where you’re going’ and I was like, ‘What the hell!’” CHS alum Stephanie Moore said, recounting when her mother told her she would be going to Clayton High School through the VST program for her high school career.
For Moore, going to Clayton, which was not in her neighborhood, seemed like a ridiculous idea. But, she did as her mother told her, and attended CHS from 1986 to 1990.
Racially speaking, going to CHS did not differ too widely from Moore’s previous educational experiences.
“It was somewhat the same. The schools which I had went to prior – a private school and a catholic school – I was always the minority,” she said. “That wasn’t an issue for me.”
But, Moore certainly did take issue with other aspects of CHS, namely, the social environment.
“We weren’t welcome there,” Moore said. “And that I wasn’t used to. You’re outside of your element. You are with people who have a very different economic status than you. I had issues where some of the teachers automatically assumed that you weren’t as smart as the people that were already there. And that was very evident by either how they talked to us, how we were berated in classes. There were very few minority teachers there.”
Moore found that minority students were treated differently, but, in Moore’s observations, involvement in sports further complicated this treatment.
“There was a big difference in how you were treated if [were black and] you played sports, so that was interesting,” she said. “If you play sports and were a varsity athlete, you were put in a different category. You were kind of seen a little bit differently. I played varsity sports all four years, but I was also very radical in how I accepted the world that was presented to me all the time.”
This radical viewpoint stemmed from a frustration with the environment at CHS – especially involving racial tensions.
“We didn’t talk like they wanted us to talk, we were easily angered, we didn’t socialize with them outside of school because we had no way home for the most part,” she said.
Moore does not believe that attending CHS through the VST program was the best for her.
“I do wish that I had a different experience, but I will say that being at Clayton taught me a tolerance to deal with very racist people that I may not have had the opportunity to deal with outside of that,” she said. “And it taught me a lot about privilege and that I had none. And I had to work hard and no matter how hard I worked people would be like, ‘It’s only because you went to Clayton.’”
Moore has gone on to be a social worker, and has one daughter, who graduated from Ladue in 2013.
“We moved to Olivette and she went to Ladue for two reasons: one, I needed her to be able to learn how to deal with racism as time went on. I don’t think racism has gotten worse, it’s just more in the open now,” she said. “I needed her to learn how to deal with it in order to survive in life.”
Secondly, Moore wanted her to be in a school environment which was conducive to learning, she feels as though the SLPS would not have been that for her daughter.
Although Moore recognizes the benefits of diversity in schools, she does not agree with the principles of the VST program.
“It was interesting that the idea was to give black kids in the city better experiences better education, opportunities by putting them in these county schools versus putting the same amount of money into the city schools,” she said. “I don’t agree with it.”
Ryan Smith, Class of 1990
“Eighth grade year you’re looking for a high school and in my mind [I was going to] Sumner. There was really no doubt about it. I had been looking forward to that for forever, but my mom had a different perspective. She wanted to expose me to a different way of living. She wanted to introduce me to some other sorts of people, so that’s when [VST] came into play,” CHS alum Ryan Smith said.
So, Smith went to CHS for all of his high school career.
Smith attended school at Bryan Hill Elementary school in the St. Louis City School
District from kindergarten to eighth grade.
“Nobody white lived in the area I grew up in. The area I went to school in, out of the nine years of going there, I don’t think I went to school with one white guy,” Smith said.
Smith wanted to go into high school with his friends. His neighborhood was his home and he did not want to be bussed away from it.
“Most of my family went to the Sumner School District and I didn’t think it was fair that I didn’t get to go to a school that had such historical value that was in my neighborhood. I didn’t feel like I needed to be catching a school bus to go to a school that wasn’t even in my area where I can go to a school that is so close,” Smith said. “Clayton just seemed to be a long way to me.”
But despite Smith’s objections, he found himself boarding the bus the first day of his freshman year on its way to the suburbs.
“The bus thing, that’s a daily reminder. It’s like getting shipped in. I hated it. I hated the bus ride,” Smith said. “Pulling up in front of the school where you’ve got parents looking at you like you’re some animal.”
But Smith’s problems did not end when he got off the bus.
“It was a huge adjustment for me. I went from a school that was super small, I think my graduating class in eighth grade might have been 14 people to now starting completely over and basically feeling like I was the odd ball out,” Smith said. “I was very smart, so going from feeling that the world was all at your hands to feeling I don’t fit here, I don’t belong, the adjustment academically was tough.”
One of the reasons Smith thought the academic transition was so difficult was because the curriculum of his old school and that of Clayton did not line up.
“In mathematics, which was my strong suit, my school wasn’t teaching what Clayton was teaching, at least at that grade level. So, I didn’t have Algebra. Coming to Clayton at that point all of the freshmen coming in had already had algebra,” Smith said. “So now I feel like I’m playing catch up to some guys that I felt like I was on the same level academically, but I guess I wasn’t.”
This led to an extreme lack of confidence for Smith.
“It felt like I had to be two different people. I felt like when I leave home I turned into this guy that was not as confident. I had to be this guy who was constantly proving himself all the time and then going back home and being that confident guy who feels like I can do anything,” Smith said.
Smith had to deal with these insecurities and try to find his place within CHS, but he never felt like he fully belonged.
“I couldn’t spend weekends at Clayton. It wasn’t good for my psyche,” he said. “I felt like I had to unplug in order to recharge in order to deal with the feeling of not belonging.”
Through these conflicting feelings Smith never stopped trying.
“But that effort came at a cost. My sophomore year I dealt with depression. I had to go see somebody about it. It was a huge culture shock to go from the community I grew up in to go out and getting mixed with people who come to school in BMWs. The whole open campus thing, it was like dealing with a whole different world. And at that point I didn’t know how to adjust to it,” Smith said. “I dealt with depression and of course it wasn’t strictly because of that, other things played in, but having to transition mentally every day, it wears on you, especially as a youngster.”
Arlo Henderson, Class of 1990
“I was born in St. Louis and lived around Natural Bridge and Goodfellow. It was a pretty nice neighborhood until mid 80s when crack cocaine hit it. Lots of drug sales and violence hit the community,” CHS alum Arlo Henderson said.
Although Henderson lived in North St. Louis, he attended the Wilson School, in Clayton, from Kindergarten through fourth grade.
“My parents placed me at the Wilson School due to a test score I got on a Pre-K assessment. They thought the environment would best foster my academic abilities,” he said.
Being a person of color, Henderson took notice at a young age of the limited amount of black peers he had while at the Wilson School.
“At Wilson there were about three or four black kids in my class. I was used to being around more black people,” he said. “But I never felt like that was an issue.”
When Henderson was in the fifth grade, in 1982, he entered the School District of Clayton through the VST program, he attended Glenridge Elementary.
As Henderson grew up in the District, he made friends with both other VST students and students who resided in Clayton. Even so, he found himself having to be different versions of himself in his home-life and his school-life.
“At CHS, you almost have to develop a new personality but I had already done that when attending private school early on,” he said. “I knew I could not be the person I was in Clayton and survive in the environment I grew up in because there was too much going on, it’s so much different. You had to be a nice guy in Clayton.”
With this reality, Henderson had feelings of not belonging.
“You kind of felt like an outsider a little bit,” he said. “At the end of the day you would get on a bus and leave the District.”
In the classroom, Henderson recalls excelling. He was in honors and AP classes while at CHS, which, as he remembers, surprised some of his classmates.
“Some of my peers may not have realized that there were smart black people who were of my background, I grew up in a pretty rough area in the city,” he said.
Henderson also believed that teachers and parents in the District were not sufficiently knowledgeable on all that the VST program would entail, even on the day to day scale.
“I don’t think the teachers got nearly as much preparation for us as they needed,” he said. “I don’t think the parents got as much information as they should have. I think there should have been a quarterly check-in to find out what was going on.”
After graduating from CHS 27 years ago through the VST program, Henderson finds it to be something that negatively impacted St. Louis.
“I’m not a big fan of [the VST program]. I think, in retrospect, it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to St. Louis,” Henderson said. “It took all of us out of the communities we were in, and if they hadn’t, those schools would have been better places. Clayton didn’t need our help.”
Even with these negative feelings about the program, Henderson returned to St. Louis in 2012, moved to Clayton, and placed his children in the District.
“I came back to Clayton because I liked the educational opportunity there. We looked at other districts, but I felt that the kids they would interact with on a day to day basis would be better in Clayton,” he said. “I like the community, it’s safe.”
His daughter, Taylor Henderson, graduated from CHS in 2015.
Although Henderson does not support all aspects of the VST program, he does find a benefit in racial diversity in schools.
“It’s great to have white people to have discussions with as you grow up. Clayton has a different level of intelligence because of its academic environment. You come out as a thinker. You’re able to understand more diverse perspectives,” he said. “There were a lot of great things that came out of it.”
But, Henderson also finds that the VST program has had damaging effects on the St. Louis Public Schools.
“Look what happened to the city schools, because of the [VST] program, its effects were astronomical. I think it was a very selfish program,” he said. “Nobody thought about what it was doing to everybody. It was like, “Hey, we’ve got a program with diversity. Let’s try to fix it. Here’s our solution.”