The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s series on our city’s vacant property problem has me in a Déjà vu state.
Apparently, Mayor Lyda Krewson and other city leaders are searching for effective ways to rid the city of its 25,000, according to the PD, abandoned properties and vacant lots. For me, I see a huge opportunity to transform some of our long-ignored North St. Louis neighborhoods. Yet, the problem reminds me of another time when lack of vision and leadership led to a blown opportunity to advance a large-scale agenda for economic and social empowerment. The following (condensed and edited) excerpt from my soon-to-be published book, “When We Listen,” speaks to my fears and outlines the possibilities I anticipate.
Chapter Nine: When they are Empowered
The year was 2009. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and I had parted ways and I was working as a consultant and researcher with SmileyBooks, owned by TV commentator, Tavis Smiley. Barack Obama was into his first term as president. At the time, I was in the company of or in close observation of some of the top black thinkers in America. I was working with Smiley when he and the Rev. Al Sharpton embarked on a bitter fued revolving around the issue of Obama creating and publicly promoting a “black agenda” …or not.
The topic took on a more public focus the following year during a 2010 Chicago summit organized by Smiley. Guest panelists included, Dr. Cornel West, Minister Louis Farrakhan, economist Julianne Malveaux, Rev. Jessie Jackson Sr., Angela Glover Blackwell, director of PolicyLink, scholars and writers Ron Walters, Michael Eric Dyson and Tom Burrell, whom I had helped on his new book, “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.”
I at the time on my blog. More time was spent by this intellectual group calling for an Obama-led black agenda than was dedicated to them defining and implementing one of their own. This was unfortunate considering the influence and following these individuals possess. Some, like Smiley, had talked about a “black agenda” for years. I couldn’t understand why they felt the need to bash Obama for not uttering the words instead of creating and delivering it to the Obama Administration, then promoting it among their legions of followers.
The impotence of the black leaders back then impacted me greatly. It was part of the reason, two years later, that I started the Sweet Potato Project. I felt a need to do something that was in line with Obama’s federal programs, such as the initiative. Also, I was searching for something that would lead to self-sufficient black neighborhoods.
De-industrialization has had a devastating impact on urban cities, including St. Louis. The aftereffect of labor-intensive, manufacturing jobs sent overseas and technological inventions that require less manual labor has left many metropolitan areas, especially black areas, broken with our kids devoid of real-life opportunities for do-for-self success.
Industry may have fled many urban areas but there’s one reliable, vibrant, needed, yet unexplored, area for serious community-wide wealth-building: Land ownership and collective food growing and production. After all, everybody eats. Why not build food systems geared toward creating jobs and small businesses and community revitalization in North St. Louis?
After some seven years of operating SPP, I’m convinced we’re on to something powerful. However, I also realize that what I imagine will never come to fruition until we, as a people, adopt an agenda that involves, engages and challenges our young people to step up, reclaim communities and become stewards of their own neighborhoods.
To make this a reality, we must go back to move forward.
“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” - Malcolm X, 1963
When Malcolm X addressed the necessity of land-ownership, he was simply echoing a call articulated by other black leaders since the demise of slavery. In fact, as the Civil War was coming to an end, a group of black ministers were instrumental in crafting and implementing what became known as the “40 Acres and a Mule” doctrine.
What Dr. Henry Louis Gates described as the “first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations,” was the result of meetings initiated by Union General William T. Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and 20 black religious leaders from Savannah, Ga.
When asked, the chosen leader of the group of mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, Rev. Garrison Frazier, answered Sherman and Stanton’s question resolutely:
“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
Although the “mule” part of the proclamation wasn’t added until later, Sherman’s “Special Field Order No. 15,” the land redistribution plan, was officially adopted by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 16, 1865. By June of that year, some 40,000 freed blacks had settled on 400,000 acres of land. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s successor. Andrew Johnson, a staunch southern sympathizer, overturned Sherman’s order and the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts was returned to the original owners, aka white southerners.
Still, the mandate for land-ownership remained a priority among prominent black leaders such as Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), Scholar, WEB Dubois, Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and many others. They all believed that land ownership coupled with entrepreneurism were critical components to community development and the overall self-reliance of their race.
Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the importance of land as a valuable tool for self-sufficiency. While promoting his “Poor People's” campaign in the deep South in 1968, King charged the United States with parceling out “free” land to whites while ignoring blacks:
“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
Two years before King launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, he promoted legislation that would put the onus of control in the hands of African Americans. In an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1965, King outlined a preferential, $50 billion-dollar federal program that would specifically benefit “the Negro” and “disadvantaged of all races.”
King’s proposal included a massive public works project, investment in disadvantaged areas, job training efforts and subsidies to spur reasonable home and small business lending. Likening the plan to the G.I. Bill of Rights, King argued that the policy-based initiative, over 10 years, would lead to “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils.”
More than 50 years ago, Dr. King predicted that empowering poor people would be the remedy for many of the ills our children face today such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, crime and “other social evils.” That directive still has merit today.
The government’s land-reallocation plan may have failed some 150 years ago, but it has potential in our modern times. Educational and civic institutions, religious and political leaders and wealthy benefactors should un-apologetically revisit the mandates of Garvey, Muhammad, King. Malcolm X and others. Adopting a self-sufficiency agenda doesn’t necessarily have to happen on a federal level. In outlining her “,” Mayor Lyda Krewson noted that the City of St. Louis sits on 13,200 privately-owned vacant properties, nearly 11,500 city-owned parcels with 3,400 vacant buildings, and 8,100 vacant lots. The data-heavy site provides valuable government resources, current programs and partners related to property and land reutilization.
As of this writing, Ald. John C. Muhammad’s “$1 Housing Program” had passed the Board of Aldermen's Public Safety Committee. Another bill he sponsored in 2017 would have designated urban areas as “agricultural zones," which would have qualified them for local, state and federal funds. The bill didn't pass but needs revisiting. Full passage and implementation of these bills would not only benefit poor neighborhoods they perfectly complement Mayor Krewson’s plan to reduce vacant properties in the city.
-End of Book Excerpt-
Educational and civic institutions, religious and political leaders and wealthy benefactors should unapologetically revisit the mandates of Garvey, Muhammad, King. Malcolm X and others.
Without a serious agenda that involves and engages low-income people and provide funding to rehab properties or revitalize land for food growth, Muhammad’s bill could wind up being just another boon for wealthy developers itching to capitalize off cheap, North St. Louis land. A revolutionary, people-oriented agenda aimed at using land to empower millennials and low-income residents is a priority...right now!
North St. Louis didn’t become overpopulated with crumbling buildings and vacant properties by accident. The city’s "crisis" was man-made. More than 40 years ago, city leaders, backed by willing politicians, held a moratorium on investing, building or cleaning up North St. Louis. Mayor Francis Slay cherry-picked Paul McKee’s outlandish redevelopment plan. His administration turned a blind eye as the developer secretly bought slum properties and let them further deteriorate the neighborhood. The Slay administration gifted McKee with city money that paved the way for additional state and federal funds.
All this was done because McKee’s project held the potential of attracting middle-to-upper-class homeowners to the downtown area. With the new government mapping agency being built near the old Pruitt-Igoe site, it’s really no surprise the city is pushing the idea of re-utilizing vacant city land.
There’s “a plan” afoot alright but I’m concerned it’s not one aimed at helping the people who’ve been surrounded by vacant properties for decades. Either way, black leaders should view the city’s crisis as an opportunity to flip the region’s stale and elitist script. Instead of gifting land, tax dollars and special perks exclusively to wealthy developers, create a new agenda. Hell, how about politicians draft a new "Homestead Bill," designed to instigate a vested population in North St. Louis. In brief, surely, there are enough creative minds to initiate a replicable template for community empowerment through land and home-ownership in designated areas of North St. Louis.
Back in my days with Smiley, I realized that the black leaders I admired weren’t prepared (or interested) in leading a “do-for-self, with government help” agenda. That would have meant publicly articulating the plan and its possible benefits. All the powerful players would have to have been corralled to speak from one playbook. It would have meant creating powerful, repetitive narrative as persuasive as “We shall Overcome!”
It would have meant UNITY, the collective Achilles Heel that doomed the agendas of Garvey, DuBois, Malcolm, Martin and so many other black visionaries.
Perhaps I’m just an old, naive dreamer. But the young students of the Sweet Potato Project have convinced me that they are up for a bold community challenge. Surely, they are but a mere reflection of thousands of young people in our region.
What if we answered their call and need for equity with a do-for-self agenda and the necessary resources to implement their own version of self-reliance in their own neighborhood?
Here’s hoping my Déjà vu moment results in a different outcome. Maybe we can do locally what black leaders failed to do nationally during Obama’s presidency. Maybe, just maybe, Black St. Louis can pave a powerful path toward real empowerment.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a journalist, former Post-Dispatch Metro Columnist and founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an agricultural/entrepreneurial program for urban youth. His upcoming book, "When We Listen" will be available soon.