The past three years have been rough for the Annie Malone Parade, an annual springtime event that, in its 100-year history, has grown to become St. Louis' largest African-American celebration.
Last May nineteen-year-old Robert Woodson was shot to death in broad daylight while leaving the parade that attracted nearly 100,000 people. Not one of the dozens of onlookers surrounding Woodson at the time of his death could immediately identify the killer who reportedly walked away after pulling the trigger.
The year before, a shotgun blast ripped through a crowd of adolescent parade-goers, leaving five of them injured. Farther down the parade route, two seventeen-year-old girls entered a brawl that ended only after one of the teens stabbed her assailant in the face.
And in 2003, a 23-year-old was shot to death while waiting in traffic after the parade concluded.
Each act of violence brought unwanted media coverage, linking the parade with random crime in north St. Louis.
"There are societal things going on that are not connected to Annie Malone or the parade," former Annie Malone director Jean Patterson Neal told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch prior to her retirement last summer. "There is violence in some neighborhoods and the community has to take a broader look at what's going on there on a daily basis."
Neal repeated that message often during her tenure at Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, the 118-year-old institution originally founded as the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home.
In the wake of the 2004 shooting, Neal told the Post-Dispatch, "It's just unfortunate that we have people in this world who have little respect for having fun and celebrating. They're angry, for whatever reason, and I pray for them."
Yet for all the attention that the violence has brought to parades past, the issue has not surfaced during the firestorm of debate and news coverage that followed the Annie Malone board of directors' decision to move the event.
Now, two months after the announcement to change the route from Natural Bridge Road to a course along Market Street downtown, community activists and politicians are demanding that the Annie Malone board not abandon north St. Louis.
On February 24 the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a unanimous resolution imploring the Annie Malone directors to reconsider. The latest challenge goes so far as to urge residents to boycott the parade, and threatens a rival march to be held the same day, May 21.
"We made the decision on the basis of the parade having swelled and grown over the years and the need to increase revenues for the parade," says Annie Malone's current director, Richard King. King adds that the parade is one of the agency's chief fundraisers, earning $167,000 last year money used to provide a range of services for children, including day care and academic instruction.
By moving the parade downtown, the Annie Malone board believes it can accommodate even larger crowds and, by having more entrants in the parade, increase revenues 30 percent.
"Of course safety is always an issue," says King. "But I don't know if that would matter whether it's downtown or in the previous location. I don't believe geographic area will necessarily provide more safety."
Annie Malone board chairman Aaron Phillips sings a slightly different tune.
"Since we made the decision to move the parade, some people have told us they'd increase their participation because they feel safer," allows Phillips, who first brought up the notion of moving the parade last year. "But safety isn't something we deliberated on for very long, and it wasn't the main reason for the move."
Phillips says the agency discussed the move with the police department prior to changing the route. But he maintains the decision was ultimately made by the Annie Malone board. "The police are our partners in staging the parade and providing public safety," Phillips says. "We discussed the move with them as an idea whose time has come."
Phillips shies away from the question as to why he and other defenders of the move haven't raised the specter of violence as justification for the route change.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is also reticent to discuss the topic. "The department has no comment on whether it's downtown or not," says police spokesman Richard Wilkes. "Yes, we know there have been incidents associated with the parade in years past, but those have mostly occurred on the outskirts of the event, and you can find the same thing at other large gatherings."
As recently as 2003, a nineteen-year-old man shot and killed a reveler during a Mardi Gras celebration in the predominantly white neighborhood of Soulard. Four years earlier things got so out of hand during the neighborhood's Fat Tuesday party that then-police chief Ron Henderson ordered his officers to clear the streets.
"They were hurling beer bottles, beer cans and chunks of concrete at us," Henderson told the Post-Dispatch.
Those outbursts, in part, led Soulard to cancel its Fat Tuesday celebration. In recent years the Mardi Gras parade has resurfaced along Washington Avenue downtown. Whether the Annie Malone Parade can make a similar leap remains a point of contention.
"I plan to fight this up until the day of the parade," vows 21st Ward Alderwoman Bennice Jones King, who called the move a "slap in the face" to the black community.
In an aldermanic committee meeting last month, Jones King and Third Ward Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. blasted Aaron Phillips and Richard King on their board's decision to move the parade. The parade's traditional route cuts through both aldermen's wards. At the end of the heated session, Phillips fumed, "I'm not going to sit here and be your whipping boy." (To watch video of an exchange between Bennice Jones King and Aaron Phillips at the meeting, click here and scroll down.)
Further alienating the aldermen and other politicians was the fact that Annie Malone's board contacted the police department before announcing the move, leaving the politicos to read about it in the papers.
Recalls Jones King: "My phone was ringing off the hook with constituents complaining. It made me look negligent that I didn't know anything about it beforehand."
The alderwoman adds that the violence associated with the parade isn't a major concern. "There may be a fight or two, but that all happens after the parade, and it's certainly not enough to terminate the parade. I'm not buying that reason."
Community activist Jamilah Nasheed, a candidate for state representative in the 60th District, says, "The Annie Malone group says that the violence is not an issue, but let's not play around. It is an issue. The fact is, we need more police presence in north St. Louis, not only during the parade, but at all times."
Phillips, meanwhile, says the move downtown is not permanent and that the parade may return to north city.
That's not good enough for Nasheed, who argues that the Annie Malone board has already lost credibility in the African-American community.
"They're going to lose a huge audience," she predicts. "It's like little children: When they do something bad, you spank them and tell them to get back home. The same thing will happen here. They'll get spanked and come on home."