The Author

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Meet the Author

Drawing on a perspective from 45 years in East St. Louis

 

It always brings a laugh when I say my family moved from the Soulard market area of St. Louis to East St. Louis when I was about 2 to get into a better neighborhood. But as a Southern Baptist family surrounded by Catholic Polish families, that's how they felt. And compared to the narrow brick tenements of St. Louis, Oak Park in East St. Louis was more appealing to the former rural residents of Arkansas and Texas, where my parents had lived before they married; and there were plenty of Protestants.

So my roots in East St. Louis go back a long way. I lived there from about age 2 until after my marriage in 1950, when my former wife Ruth and I moved to what is now Fairview Heights. I worked in East St. Louis until I resigned as editor of the Metro-East Journal in 1971 at the age of 46 to publish the Mascoutah Herald and New Baden News. I have been out of East St. Louis 19 years now, but I feel like I never left. And when I'm away and someone asks me where I work, I am just as likely as not to say "425 Missouri Ave., the East St. Louis Journal, Upton 4-2500."

As a youth I lived in Oak Park, for a stint on 27th Street, back to Oak Park and then at 1133 Cleveland Ave., within walking distance of high school and the slots in the drugstores and taverns and bowling alleys downtown. Bus tokens three for a quarter worked well in the dime slots. I went to the teen dances in the YWCA on the second floor over gambling dens on Missouri Avenue, within sight of the old City Hall. I ushered at the Avenue Theater, and I remember the first racial picketing of the Majestic Theater. I ate chop suey in the curtained Chinese restaurant over a downtown dime store (Newberry's?). After I graduated from high school I worked as a machinist helper in the Brooklyn Shops of the Terminal Railroad Assn. I walked each morning to the Relay Depot, past the Second Street Red Light District, and caught the shop train, heated by a pot-bellied coal-fired stove, to the Brooklyn shops.

After World War II and a hitch in India fighting the war in a darkroom, I returned to the railroad job for a few months, until the fall term in 1946 when my high school buddy Clarence Hibbert "Hibby" Raede and I virtually forced our way into the overcrowded University of Missouri. I became deeply involved in the student YMCA, became vice president of the student body, and en route authored a platform that called for a student referendum on the admission of Negroes to the then all-white University of Missouri. It carried 4 to 1. With the support of some militant Missourians, including particularly one Gordon Parks, the student government was able to lobby through legislation that ended the segregation of Mizzou.

I graduated June 7, 1949, and went to work the next week for the East St. Louis Journal. Tom Duffy was the news editor, Bob Barracks the editor, and P. H. "Perley" Wire (who truly was born in a sod hut in Nebraska) the general manager.

One of my first assignments was writing "color" stories supporting the coverage by investigative reporter Charles O. Stewart of the Sen. Estes Kefauver Crime Investigation Committee hearings in St. Louis. Carl Baldwin was among those covering the hearings for the Post Dispatch. Carl has written much authentic history of the very beginnings of East St. Louis.

After the Kefauver hearings, I wrote some in depth pieces, drawn from information garnered from the hearings, about Frank "Buster" Wort man, leader of the Southern Illinois link of the Chicago Capone mob.

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The old East St. Louis Journal was a vigorous newspaper with a heavy emphasis on investigative reporting. As a new face on the team, Charles used me to verify the continuation of gambling. That is he drew little maps and told me what I should find in, say the basement of a tavern at 16th and St. Clair. I entered the tavern, followed his direction to the basement (via a door marked "Ladies") and verified that there was a horse betting parlor in the basement with race results blaring from speaker, results chalked on big boards on the walls, and a throng of people their identity almost obscured in cigarette smoke.

I checked for Charles from Brooklyn to beyond Marissa at Harry's Red Horse Ranch on the County Line, and from the Cat and the Fiddle to the Stock Yards and Whiskey Chute.

I saw my share of blood and violence as I reported the "trunk murders" some may remember, including that of Charles Koenig, and the police news over several decades. I can tell you now that it was with the help of Lizzie Nezzlerodt, she of the bright dyed red hair who ran the tavern under the Veterans Bridge approach, that I knew daily how many girls were working in the Valley, and what cop was bag man and how much the girls' pimps paid.

And I wrote the nomination for the East St. Louis All America City Award.

When I became editor, the headline in Clyde Jordan's Crusader black weekly was something like "White Racist Named Editor of Journal." I came to know Clyde fairly well as a man, not a close friend. I had a high regard for him. As a member of the East St. Louis School Board, it was he who called for the "honkey" state police force to be brought into East St. Louis and restore order in the schools - a racially unpopular action but one needed. The meeting was in a secret room at the old Stop Light Restaurant, which later burned. I hope that he also learned to respect me. Bob Rice, then school board attorney, was at that meeting.

I was editor during the great teacher strike, and when the golden tongued Charles Cohen of Cairo, the "Pied Piper" turned out the schools in a racial protest. While I was editor, Sweed Jeffries of the War Lords was a frequent visitor in my office. I was editor of the Journal when the GlobeDemocrat ran a daily page one box on East St. Louis "snipings."

I have a million memories of the East St. Louis in which I grew up. They are pleasant memories. I have a million more of the violent years when I worked at the Journal as a reporter and editor: the gangster years, the racial revolution, the white flight. They are exciting memories of turbulent times. I have deep feelings about East St. Louis and the people who live there; the abject poverty that grips so many of the people; the frustration young blacks must feel with a generally inferior education and practically no worthwhile job opportunities. While I celebrate the few who have risen above these odds, they are the exceptions in a rotten system.

I am disheartened that most of us in the "outer county" just wish we could close our eyes and all of East St. Louis' problems would go away. They don't, and they become our problems in the outer county in infinite ways.

Now you know something about the author/photographer who has created this book.

As this is written, there is a disagreement between Mayor Carl Officer and a state study group over how much East St. Louis "owes." The state says that it owes $47 million, while Officer maintains that the city only owes $4 million.

What does the city owe? Who does the city owe? What are the debts?

To pay for past goods and services? Or to restore and repave streets? To repair or replace storm and sanitary sewers that have sunk to the bottom of the American Bottom? To remove derelict buildings, firegutted, stripped of salvagables? To condemn unsafe and unsanitary housing? To restore parks? To bring under control crime and drugs? To make the city safe for businesses to thrive again, providing tax revenue and jobs? To haul away the hundreds of tons of trash and junk dumped on vacant lots and in front of vacant houses everywhere in the city? To haul away the hundreds and hundreds of abandoned junked cars? Are any number of millions enough?

Is money alone an answer?

The purpose of this book is to give its readers a current, realistic eye-view of East St. Louis in hundreds and hundreds of pictures and a few thousand words. We offer pictures of a city in distress, of residents who suffer for the lack of basic services every American deserves. Talk about human rights! But we offer too pictures of the well kept areas, the nice old and some new homes that will surprise you, in a city that could be on the verge of greatness. And perhaps the observations we make will add to understanding and purpose among those who would make the city a better place.

To those who have fled the city, we offer current pictures of the places you knew and loved and left.

We offer something of the efforts to bootstrap; the successes of "survivors" who did not flee, the achievements of some who have overcome, and perhaps, some hope.

No one who lives in East St. Louis likes what has happened to the city.

But does anyone really think the people of East St. Louis can solve its problems alone ?

We "honkies" didn't when we lived there.

 

 

I'd like to know your reaction to this book. Please feel free to write to me:

 

Rube Yelvington
314 E. Church St.
Mascoutah, IL 62258

 

(Please do not phone. I have a living to make and
I cannot spare the time to talk with you courteously)

 

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