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Lost World

Local professor compiles a roadmap to a St. Louis many never knew existed


Most St. Louisans move through life -- working, raising kids, often just trying to find a short stretch to relax in. Typically we're far too busy to care about local history, to contemplate the slow tides of political and cultural change.

For instance, near Norwood Drive and St. Louis Avenue in North County you'll find a street called Tyus Court. Named for former state representative Leroy Tyus, this avenue honors a man who tried, unsuccessfully, to integrate Missouri public schools in the 1950s. It's easy to forget that this street and so many others are named for local freedom fighters past and present.

Dr. John Wright doesn't want us to forget the pageant of local African-American history; what's more, he considers his book, the recently published second edition of Discovering African American St. Louis, a collection of vital events and landmarks ignored in just about every other telling of history.

"What I'd like to do is make St. Louis history a more inclusive history," says Wright, an assistant superintendent in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. "It's like if you went to a family reunion and people took out the family album, and all branches of the family tree were included except yours but you're supposed to feel happy about the reunion. I think we sometimes ask everyone who makes up this community to feel happy about the community, but to a large extent many of them are excluded from the album. If we're trying to bring people together, we have to educate people that everyone has made a contribution to the community and played a part in bringing the community where it is."

Wright's book splits St. Louis into fourteen regions, east and west of the Mississippi. He directs the reader to nearly 400 landmarks, including boxer Sonny Liston's home, James "Cool Papa" Bell's tombstone and various elementary schools named after black achievers. Many of these places stir strong memories of local civil-rights struggles. With more than 200 photos and maps, the book is fun to read and easy to use as a guide to visit these sites.

This edition of the book features 83 new entries. Wright says these include Sandtown, an African-American community that once stood on the bank of the Missouri River across from St. Charles. "I was pleased to find pictures and information on it, because that's one site, now that it's gone, that could be removed from our collective memory," he says. Wright says he also "found a document on Kathy Williams, the only known female buffalo soldier," who was trained at Jefferson Barracks.

This book is a perfect template for what is missing in history books -- the overlooked contributions of minorities. Exploring these sites can really make us think about what was and what might be. Indeed, Wright dedicates the book to his wife, children and grandchildren "with the hope that they will one day see our city live out the true meaning of brotherhood."