excerpted from the book
Life on the Mississippi:
East St. Louis, Illinois
by Jonathan Kozol
East of anywhere," writes a reporter for the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, "often evokes the other side of the tracks.
But, for a first-time visitor suddenly deposited on its eerily
empty streets, East St. Louis might suggest another world."
The city, which is 98 percent black, has no obstetric services,
no regular trash collection, and few jobs. Nearly a third of its
families live on less than $7,500 a year; 75 percent of its population
lives on welfare of some form. The U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development describes it as "the most distressed
small city in America."
Only three of the 13 buildings on Missouri Avenue, one of
the city's major thoroughfares, are occupied. A 13-story office
building, tallest in the city, has been boarded up. Out side,
on the sidewalk, a pile of garbage fills a ten-foot crater.
The city, which by night and day is clouded by the fumes that
pour from vents and smokestacks at the Pfizer and Monsanto chemical
plants, has one of the highest rates of child asthma in America.
It is, according to a teacher at the University of Southern
Illinois, "a repository for a nonwhite population that is
now regarded as expendable." The Post-Dispatch describes
it as "America's Soweto."
Fiscal shortages have forced the layoff of 1,170 of the city's
1,400 employees in the past 12 years. The city, which is often
unable to buy heating fuel or toilet paper for the city hall,
recently announced that it might have to cashier all but 10 percent
of the remaining work force of 230. In 1989 the mayor announced
that he might need to sell the city hall and all six fire stations
to raise needed cash. Last year the plan had to be scrapped after
the city lost its city hall in a court judgment to a creditor.
East St. Louis is mortgaged into the next century but has the
highest property-tax rate in the state. Since October 1987, when
the city's garbage pickups ceased, the backyards of residents
have been employed as dump sites. In the spring of 1988 a policeman
tells a visitor that 40 plastic bags of trash are waiting for
removal from the backyard of his mother's house. Public health
officials are concerned the garbage will attract a plague of flies
and rodents in the summer. The policeman speaks of "rats
as big as puppies" in his mother's yard. They are known to
the residents, he says, as "bull rats." Many people
have no cars or funds to cart the trash and simply burn it in
their yards. The odor of smoke from burning garbage, says the
Post Dispatch, "has become one of the scents of spring"
in East St. Louis.
Railroad tracks still used to transport hazardous chemicals
run through the city. "Always present," says the Post
Dispatch, "is the threat of chemical spills.... The wail
of sirens warning residents to evacuate after a spill is common."
The most recent spill, the paper says, "was at the Monsanto
Company plant.... Nearly 300 gallons of phosphorous trichloride
spilled when a railroad tank was overfilled. About 450 residents
were taken to St. Mary's Hospital.... The frequency of the emergencies
has caused Monsanto to have a 'standing account' at St. Mary's."
In March of 1989, a task force appointed by Governor James
Thompson noted that the city was in debt by more than $40 million,
and proposed emergency state loans to pay for garbage collection
and to keep police and fire depart ments in continued operation.
The governor, however, blamed the mayor and his administrators,
almost all of whom were black, and refused to grant the loans
unless the mayor resigned. Thompson's response, said a Republican
state leg islator, "made my heart feel good.... It's unfortunate,
but the essence of the problem in East St. Louis is the people"
who are running things.
Residents of Illinois do not need to breathe the garbage smoke
and chemicals of East St. Louis. With the interstate highways,
says a supervisor of the Illinois Power Company, "you can
ride around the place and just keep going...."
East St. Louis lies in the heart of the American Bottoms -the
flood plain on the east side of the Mississippi River opposite
St. Louis. To the east of the city lie the Illinois Bluffs, which
surround the flood plain in a semicircle. Towns on the Bluffs
are predominantly white and do not welcome visitors from East
"The two tiers-Bluffs and Bottoms-" writes James
Nowlan, a professor of public policy at Knox College, "have
long represented . . . different worlds." Their physical
separation, he believes, "helps rationalize the psychological
and cultural distance that those on the Bluffs have clearly tried
to maintain." People on the Bluffs, says Nowlan, "overwhelmingly
want this separation to continue." Towns on the Bluffs, according
to Nowlan, do not pay taxes to address flood problems in the Bottoms,
"even though these problems are generated in large part by
the water that drains from the Bluffs." East St. Louis lacks
the funds to cope with flooding problems on its own, or to reconstruct
its sewer system, which, according to local experts, is "irreparable."
The problem is all the worse because the chemical plants in East
St. Louis and adjacent towns have for decades been releasing toxins
into the sewer system.
The pattern of concentrating black communities in easily flooded
lowland areas is not unusual in the United States. Farther down
the river, for example, in the Delta town of Tunica, Mississippi,
people in the black community of Sugar Ditch live in shacks by
open sewers that are commonly believed to be responsible for the
high incidence of liver tumors and abscesses found in children
there. Metaphors of caste like these are everywhere in the United
States. Sadly, although dirt and water flow downhill, money and
services do not.
The dangers of exposure to raw sewage, which backs up repeatedly
into the homes of residents in East St. Louis, were first noticed,
in the spring of 1989, at a public housing project, Villa Griffin.
Raw sewage, says the Post-Dispatch, over flowed into a playground
just behind the housing project, which is home to 187 children,
"forming an oozing lake of . . . tainted water." Two
schoolgirls, we are told, "experienced hair loss since raw
sewage flowed into their homes."
While local physicians are not certain whether loss of hair
is caused by the raw sewage, they have issued warnings that exposure
to raw sewage can provoke a cholera or hepatitis outbreak. A St.
Louis health official voices her dismay that children live with
waste in their backyards. "The development of working sewage
systems made cities livable a hundred years ago," she notes.
"Sewage systems separate us from the Third World."
"It's a terrible way to live," says a mother at
the Villa Griffin homes, as she bails raw sewage from her sink.
Health officials warn again of cholera-and, this time, of typhoid
The sewage, which is flowing from collapsed pipes and dysfunctional
pumping stations, has also flooded basements all over the city.
The city's vacuum truck, which uses water and suction to unclog
the city's sewers, cannot be used be cause it needs $5,000 in
repairs. Even when it works, it some times can't be used because
there isn't money to hire drivers. A single engineer now does
the work that 14 others did before they were laid off. By April
the pool of overflow be hind the Villa Griffin project has expanded
into a lagoon of sewage. Two million gallons of raw sewage lie
outside the children's homes.
In May, another health emergency develops. Soil samples tested
at residential sites in East St. Louis turn up disturbing quantities
of arsenic, mercury and lead-as well as steroids dumped in previous
years by stockyards in the area. Lead levels found in the soil
around one family's home, ac cording to lead-poison experts, measure
"an astronomical 10,000 parts per million." Five of
the children in the building have been poisoned. Although children
rarely die of poisoning by lead, health experts note, its effects
tend to be subtle and insidious. By the time the poisoning becomes
apparent in a child's sleep disorders, stomach pains and hyperactive
behavior, says a health official, "it is too late to undo
the permanent brain damage." The poison, she says, "is
chipping away at the learning potential of kids whose potential
has already been chipped away by their environment."
The budget of the city's department of lead-poison control,
however, has been slashed, and one person now does the work once
done by six.
Lead poisoning in most cities comes from lead-based paint
in housing, which has been illegal in most states for decades
but which poisons children still because most cities, Boston and
New York among them, rarely penalize offending landlords. In East
St. Louis, however, there is a second source of lead. Health inspectors
think it is another residue of manufacturing-including smelting-in
the factories and mills whose plants surround the city. "Some
of the factories are gone," a parent organizer says, "but
they have left their poison in the soil where our children play."
In one apartment complex where particularly high quantities of
lead have been detected in the soil, 32 children with high levels
in their blood have been identified.
"I anticipate finding the whole city contaminated,"
says a health examiner.
In the night, the sky above the East St. Louis area is brownish
yellow. Illuminated by the glare from the Monsanto installation,
the smoke is vented from four massive columns rising about 400
feet above the plant. The garish light and tubular structures
lend the sky a strange, nightmarish look. Safir Ahmed, a young
reporter who has covered East St. Louis for the Post-Dispatch
for several years, drives with me through the rutted streets close
to the plant and points out blocks of wooden houses without plumbing.
Straggling black children walk along a road that has no sidewalks.
"The soil is all contaminated here," he says.
Almost directly over our heads the plant is puffing out a
cloud of brownish smoke that rises above the girders of the plant
within a glow of reddish-gold illumination.
Two auto bridges cross the Mississippi River to St. Louis.
To the south is the Poplar Street Bridge. The bridge to the north
is named for Martin Luther King. "It takes three minutes
to cross the bridge," says Ahmed. "For white people
in St. Louis, it could be a thousand miles long."
On the southern edge of East St. Louis, tiny shack like houses
stand along a lightless street. Immediately be hind these houses
are the giant buildings of Monsanto, Big River Zinc, Cerro Copper,
the American Bottoms Sew age Plant and Trade Waste Incineration-one
of the largest hazardous-waste-incineration companies in the United
"The entire city lies downwind of this. When the plant
gives off emissions that are viewed as toxic, an alarm goes off.
People who have breathed the smoke are given a cash payment of
$400 in exchange for a release from liability....
"The decimation of the men within the population is quite
nearly total. Four of five births in East St. Louis are to single
mothers. Where do the men go? Some to prison. Some to the military.
Many to an early death. Dozens of men are living in the streets
or sleeping in small, isolated camps be hind the burnt-out buildings.
There are several of these camps out in the muddy stretch there
to the left.
"The nicest buildings in the city are the Federal Court
House and the City Hall-which also holds the jail-the National
Guard headquarters, and some funeral establishments. There are
a few nice houses and a couple of high-rise homes for senior citizens.
One of the nicest buildings is the whorehouse. There's also a
branch of the University of Southern Illinois, but it no longer
offers classes; it's a social welfare complex now.
"The chemical plants do not pay taxes here. They have
created small incorporated towns which are self-governed and exempt
therefore from supervision by health agencies in East St. Louis.
Aluminum Ore created a separate town called Alorton. Monsanto,
Cerro Copper and Big River Zinc are all in Sauget. National Stock
Yards has its own incorporated town as well. Basically there's
no one living in some of these so-called towns. Alorton is a sizable
town. Sauget, on the other hand, isn't much more than a legal
fiction. It provides tax shelter and immunity from jurisdiction
of authorities in East St. Louis."
The town of Sauget claims a population of about 200 people.
Its major industries, other than Monsanto and the other plants,
are topless joints and an outlet for the lottery. Two of the largest
strip clubs face each other on a side street that is perpendicular
to the main highway. One is named Oz and that is for white people.
The other strip club, which is known as Wiz, is for black people.
The lottery office, which is frequented primarily by black people,
is the largest in the state of Illinois. "The lottery advertises
mostly in black publications," Ahmed says. "So people
who have nothing to start with waste their money on a place that
sells them dreams. Lottery proceeds in Illinois allegedly go into
education; in reality they go into state revenues and they add
nothing to the education fund. So it is a total loss. Affluent
people do not play the lottery. The state is in the business here
of selling hopes to people who have none. The city itself is full
of bars and liquor stores and lots of ads for cigarettes that
feature pictures of black people. Assemble all the worst things
in America-gambling, liquor, cigarettes and toxic fumes, sewage,
waste disposal, prostitution-put it all together. Then you dump
it on black people."
East St. Louis begins at the Monsanto fence. Rain starts falling
as we cross the railroad tracks, and then another set of tracks,
and pass a series of dirt streets with houses that are mostly
burnt-out shells, the lots between them piled with garbage bags
and thousands of abandoned auto tires. The city is almost totally
flat and lies below the Mississippi's flood line, protected by
a levee. In 1986 a floodgate broke and filled part of the city.
Houses on Bond Avenue filled up with sewage to their second floors.
The waste water emitted from the sewage plant, according to
a recent Greenpeace study, "varies in color from yellow-orange
to green." The toxic substances that it contains become embedded
in the soil and the marshland in which children play. Dead Creek,
for example, a creekbed that received discharges from the chemical
and metal plants in previous years, is now a place where kids
from East St. Louis ride their bikes. The creek, which smokes
by day and glows on moonless nights, has gained some notoriety
in recent years for instances of spontaneous combustion. The Illinois
EPA believes that the combustion starts when children ride their
bikes across the creek bed, "creating friction which be gins
the smoldering process."
"Nobody in East St. Louis," Ahmed says, "has
ever had the clout to raise a protest. Why Americans permit this
is so hard for somebody like me, who grew up in the real Third
World, to understand....
"I'm from India. In Calcutta this would be explicable,
perhaps. I keep thinking to myself, 'My God! This is the United
East St. Louis-which the local press refers to as "an
inner city without an outer city"-has some of the sickest
children in America. Of 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis
ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third
in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city's
health director are the sewage running in the streets, air that
has been fouled by the local plants, the high lead levels noted
in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing,
insufficient health care, unemployment. Hospital care is deficient
too. There is no place to have a baby in East St. Louis. The maternity
ward at the city's Catholic hospital, a l00-year-old structure,
was shut down some years ago. The only other hospital in town
was forced by lack of funds to close in 1990. The closest obstetrics
service open to the women here is seven miles away. The infant
death rate is still rising.
As in New York City's poorest neighborhoods, dental problems
also plague the children here. Although dental problems don't
command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal
death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down
the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions. Bleeding
gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for
the children I have interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get
used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it. They
go to school with it. Sometimes their teachers are alarmed and
try to get them to a clinic. But it's all so slow and heavily
encumbered with red tape and waiting lists and missing, lost or
canceled welfare cards, that dental care is often long delayed.
Children live for months with pain that grown-ups would find unendurable.
The gradual attrition of accepted pain erodes their energy and
aspiration. I have seen children in New York with teeth that look
like brownish, broken sticks. I have also seen teen-agers who
were missing half their teeth. But, to me, most shocking is to
see a child with an abscess that has been inflamed for weeks and
that he has simply lived with and accepts as part of the routine
of life. Many teachers in the urban schools have seen this. It
is almost commonplace.
Compounding these problems is the Door nutrition of the children
here-average daily food expenditure in East St. Louis is $2.40
for one child-and the under immunization of young children. Of
every l00 children recently surveyed in East St. Louis, 55 were
incompletely immunized for polio, diphtheria, measles and whooping
cough. In this context, health officials look with all the more
uneasiness at those lagoons of sewage outside public housing.
On top of all else is the very high risk of death by homicide
in East St. Louis. In a recent year in which three cities in the
state of roughly the same size as East St. Louis had an average
of four homicides apiece, there were 54 homicides in East St.
Louis. But it is the heat of summer that officials here particularly
dread. The heat that breeds the insects bearing polio or hepatitis
in raw sewage also heightens asthma and frustration and reduces
patience. "The heat," says a man in public housing,
"can bring out the beast...."
The fear of violence is very real in East St. Louis. The CEO
of one of the large companies out on the edge of town has developed
an "evacuation plan" for his employees. State troopers
are routinely sent to East St. Louis to put down disturbances
that the police cannot control. If the misery of this community
explodes someday in a real riot (it has happened in the past,
residents believe that state and federal law-enforcement agencies
will have no hesitation in applying massive force to keep the
As we have seen, it is believed by people here that white
developers regard the land beside the river and adjacent sections
of the city as particularly attractive sites for condominiums
and luxury hotels. It is the fear of violence, people believe,
and the proximity of the black population that have, up to now,
prevented plans like these from taking shape. Some residents are
convinced, therefore, that they will some day be displaced. "It's
happened in other cities," says a social worker who has lived
here for ten years. "East St. Louis is a good location, after
This eventuality, however, is not viewed as very likely or
not for a long, long time. The soil would have to be de leaded
first. The mercury and arsenic would have to be dealt with. The
chemical plants would have to be shut down or modified before
the area could be regarded as attractive to developers. For now,
the people of East St. Louis probably can rest assured that nobody
much covets what is theirs.
The problems of the streets in urban areas, as teachers often
note, frequently spill over into public schools. In the public
schools of East St. Louis this is literally the case.
"Martin Luther King Junior High School," notes the
Post-Dispatch in a story published in the early spring of 1989,
"was evacuated Friday afternoon after sewage flowed into
the kitchen.... The kitchen was closed and students were sent
home." On Monday, the paper continues, "East St. Louis
Senior High School was awash in sewage for the second time this
year." The school had to be shut because of "fumes and
backed-up toilets." Sewage flowed into the basement, through
the floor, then up into the kitchen and the students' bathrooms.
The backup, we read, "occurred in the food preparation areas."
School is resumed the following morning at the high school,
but a few days later the overflow recurs. This time the entire
system is affected, since the meals distributed to every student
in the city are prepared in the two schools that have been flooded.
School is called off for all 16,500 students in the district.
The sewage backup, caused by the failure of two pumping stations,
forces officials at the high school to shut down the furnaces.
At Martin Luther King, the parking lot and gym are also flooded.
"It's a disaster," says a legislator. "The streets
are underwater; gaseous fumes are being emitted from the pipes
under the schools," she says, "making people ill."
In the same week, the schools announce the layoff of 280 teachers,
166 cooks and cafeteria workers, 25 teacher aides, 16 custodians
and 18 painters, electricians, engineers and plumbers. The president
of the teachers' union says the cuts, which will bring the size
of kindergarten and primary classes up to 30 students, and the
size of fourth to twelfth grade classes up to 35, will have "an
unimaginable impact" on the students. "If you have a
high school teacher with five classes each day and between 150
and 175 students . . ., it's going to have a devastating effect."
The school system, it is also noted, has been using more than
70 "permanent substitute teachers," who are paid only
$10,000 yearly, as a way of saving money.
Governor Thompson, however, tells the press that he will not
pour money into East St. Louis to solve long-term problems. East
St. Louis residents, he says, must help them selves. "There
is money in the community," the governor insists. "It's
just not being spent for what it should be spent for."
The governor, while acknowledging that East St. Louis faces
economic problems, nonetheless refers dismissively to those who
live in East St. Louis. "What in the community," he
asks, "is being done right?" He takes the opportunity
of a visit to the area to announce a fiscal grant for sewer improvement
to a relatively wealthy town nearby.
In East St. Louis, meanwhile, teachers are running out of
chalk and paper, and their paychecks are arriving two weeks late.
The city warns its teachers to expect a cut of half their pay
until the fiscal crisis has been eased.
The threatened teacher layoffs are mandated by the Illinois
Board of Education, which, because of the city's fiscal crisis,
has been given supervisory control of the school bud get. Two
weeks later the state superintendent partially relents. In a tone
very different from that of the governor, he notes that East St.
Louis does not have the means to solve its education problems
on its own. "There is no natural way," he says, that
"East St. Louis can bring itself out of this situation."
Several cuts will be required in any case-one quarter of the system's
teachers, 75 teacher aides, and several dozen others will be given
notice-but, the state board notes, sports and music programs will
not be affected.
East St. Louis, says the chairman of the state board, "is
simply the worst possible place I can imagine to have a child
brought up.... The community is in desperate circumstances."
Sports and music, he observes, are, for many children here, "the
only avenues of success." Sadly enough, no matter how it
ratifies the stereotype, this is the truth; and there is a poignant
aspect to the fact that, even with class size soaring and one
quarter of the system's teachers being given their dismissal,
the state board of education demonstrates its genuine but skewed
compassion by attempting to leave sports and music untouched by
the overall austerity.
Teachers like Mr. Solomon, working in low-income districts
such as East St. Louis, often tell me that they feel cut off from
educational developments in modern public schools. "Well,
it's amazing," Solomon says. "I have done without so
much so long that, if I were assigned to a suburban school, I'm
not sure I'd recognize what they are doing. We are utterly cut
Of 3 children who begin the history classes in the standard
track, he says, more than a quarter have dropped out by spring
semester. "Maybe 24 are left by June. Mind you, this is in
the junior year. We're speaking of the children who survived.
Ninth and tenth grades are the more horrendous years for leaving
"I have four girls right now in my senior home room who
are pregnant or have just had babies. When I ask them why this
happens, I am told, 'Well, there's no reason not to have a baby.
There's not much for me in public school.' The truth is, that's
a pretty honest answer. A diploma from a ghetto high school doesn't
count for much in the United States today. So, if this is really
the last education that a person's going to get, she's probably
perceptive in that statement. Ah, there's so much bitterness-unfairness-there,
you know. Most of these pregnant girls are not the ones who have
much self-esteem.... "
"Very little education in the school would be considered
academic in the suburbs. Maybe 10 to 15 percent of students are
in truly academic programs. Of the 55 percent who graduate, 20
percent may go to four-year colleges: something like 10 percent
of any entering class. Another 10 to 20 percent may get some other
kind of higher education. An equal number join the military....
A girl in a white jersey with the message DO THE RIGHT THING
on the front raises her hand. "You visit other schools,"
she says. "Do you think the children in this school are getting
what we'd get in a nice section of St. Louis?" I note that
we are in a different state and city. "Aren't we citizens
of East St. Louis or America?" she asks. A tall girl named
Samantha interrupts. "I have a comment that I want to make."
She then relates the following incident: "Fairview Heights
is a mainly white community. A friend of mine and I went up there
once to buy some books. We walked into the store. Everybody lookin'
at us, you know, and somebody says, 'What do you want?' And lookin'
at each other like, 'What are these black girls doin' here in
Fairview Heights?' I just said, 'I want to buy a book!' It's like
they're scared we're goin' to rob them. Take away a privilege
that's theirs by rights. Well, that goes for school as well.
"My mother wanted me to go to school there and she tried
to have me transferred. It didn't work. The reason, she was told,
is that we're in a different 'jurisdiction.' If you don't live
up there in the hills, or further back, you can't attend their
schools. That, at least, is what they told my mother."
"Is that a matter of race?" I ask. "Or money?"
"Well," she says, choosing her words with care,
"the two things, race and money, go so close together-what's
the difference? I live here, they live there, and they don't want
me in their school."
A boy named Luther speaks about the chemical pollution. "It's
like this," he says. "On one side of us you have two
chemical corporations. One is Pfizer-that's out there. They make
paint and pigments. The other is Monsanto. On the other side are
companies incinerating toxic waste. So the trash is comin' at
us this direction. The chemicals is comin' from the other. We
right in the middle."
Despite these feelings, many of the children voice a curiously
resilient faith in racial integration. "If the government
would put a huge amount of money into East St. Louis, so that
this could be a modern, well-equipped and top-rate school,"
I ask, "with everything that you could ever want for education,
would you say that racial segregation was no longer of importance?"
Without exception, the children answer, "No."
"Going to a school with all the races," Luther says,
"is more important than a modern school."
"They still believe in that dream," their teacher
says. "They have no reason to do so. That is what I find
so wonderful and ... ah, so moving.... These kids are the only
reason I get up each day."
I ask the students, "What would happen if the government
decided that the students in a nearby town like Fair view Heights
and the students here in East St. Louis had to go to school together
Samantha: "The buses going to Fairview Heights would
all be full. The buses coming to East St. Louis would be empty."
"What if East St. Louis had the very best computer classes
in the state-and if there were no computer classes in the school
of Fairview Heights?"
"The buses coming here," she says, "would still
When I ask her why, she answers in these quiet words: "I
don't know why."
Clark Junior High School is regarded as the top school in
the city. I visit, in part, at the request of school officials,
who would like me to see education in the city at its very best.
Even here, however, there is a disturbing sense that one has entered
a backwater of America.
"We spend the entire eighth grade year preparing for
the state exams," a teacher tells me in a top-ranked English
class. The teacher seems devoted to the children, but three students
sitting near me sleep through the entire period. The teacher rouses
one of them, a girl in the seat next to me, but the student promptly
lays her head back on her crossed arms and is soon asleep again.
Four of the 14 ceiling lights are broken. The corridor outside
the room is filled with voices. Outside the window, where I see
no schoolyard, is an empty lot.
In a mathematics class of 30 children packed into a space
that might be adequate for 15 kids, there is one white student.
The first white student I have seen in East St. Louis, she is
polishing her nails with bright red polish. A tiny black girl
next to her is writing with a one-inch pencil stub.
In a seventh grade social studies class, the only book that
bears some relevance to black concerns-its title is The American
Negro-bears a publication date of 1967. The teacher invites me
to ask the class some questions. Uncertain where to start, I ask
the students what they've learned about the civil rights campaigns
of recent decades.
A 14-year-old girl with short black curly hair says this:
"Every year in February we are told to read the same old
speech of Martin Luther King. We read it every year. 'I have a
dream....' It does begin to seem-what is the word?" She hesitates
and then she finds the word: "perfunctory." I ask her
what she means.
"We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King,"
she says. "The school is full of sewer water and the doors
are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black.
It's like a terrible joke on history."
It startles me to hear her words, but I am startled even more
to think how seldom any press reporter has observed the irony
of naming segregated schools for Martin Luther King. Children
reach the heart of these hypocrisies much quicker than the grown-ups
and the experts do.
"I would like to comment on that," says another
14-year old student, named Shalika. "I have had to deal with
this all of my life. I started school in Fairview Heights. My
mother pushes me and she had wanted me to get a chance at better
education. Only one other student in my class was black. I was
in the fifth grade, and at that age you don't understand the ugliness
in people's hearts. They wouldn't play with me. I couldn't understand
it. During recess I would stand there by myself beside the fence.
Then one day I got a note: 'Go back to Africa.'
"To tell the truth, it left a sadness in my heart. Now
you hear them sayin' on TV, 'What's the matter with these colored
people? Don't they care about their children's educa tion?' But
my mother did the best for me she knew. It was not my mother's
fault that I was not accepted by those people."
"It does not take long," says Christopher, a light-skinned
boy with a faint mustache and a somewhat heated and perspiring
look, "for little kids to learn they are not wanted."
Shalika is small and looks quite young for junior high. In
each ear she wears a small enameled pin of Mickey Mouse. "To
some degree I do believe," she says, "that this is caused
by press reports. You see a lot about the crimes committed here
in East St. Louis when you turn on the TV. Do they show the crimes
committed by the government that puts black people here? Why are
all the dirty businesses like chemicals and waste disposal here?
This is a big country. "Couldn't they find another place
to put their poison?"
"Shalika," the teacher tells me afterward, "will
go to college."
"Why is it this way?" asks Shalika in a softer voice
again. But she doesn't ask the question as if she is waiting for
"Is it 'separate but equal,' then?" I ask. "Have
we gone back a hundred years?"
"It is separate. That's for sure," the teacher says.
She is a short and stocky middle-aged black woman. "Would
you want to tell the children it is equal?"
Christopher approaches me at the end of class. The room is
too hot. His skin looks warm and his black hair is damp. "Write
this down. You asked a question about Martin Luther King. I'm
going to say something. All that stuff about 'the dream' means
nothing to the kids I know in East St. Louis. So far as they're
concerned, he died in vain. He was famous and he lived and gave
his speeches and he died and now he's gone. But we're still here.
Don't tell students in this school about 'the dream.' Go and look
into a toilet here if you would like to know what life is like
for students in this city." Before I leave, I do as Christopher
asked and enter a boy's bathroom. Four of the six toilets do not
work. The toilets stalls, which are eaten away by red and brown
corrosion, have no doors. The toilets have no seats. One has a
rotted wooden stump. There are no paper towels and no soap. Near
the door there is a loop of wire with an empty toilet-paper roll.
"This," says Sister Julia, "is the best school
that we have in East St. Louis."
In East St. Louis, as in every city that I visit, I am forced
to ask myself if what I've seen may be atypical. One would like
to think that this might be the case in East St. Louis, but it
would not be the truth.
At Landsdowne Junior High School, the St. Louis Sun reports,
"there are scores of window frames without glass, like sockets
without eyes." Hallways in many schools are dark, with light
bulbs missing or burnt out. One walks into a school, a member
of the city's board of education notes, "and you can smell
the urinals a hundred feet away...."
A teacher at an elementary school in East St. Louis has only
one full-color workbook for her class. She photocopies workbook
pages for her children, but the copies can't be made in color
and the lessons call for color recognition by the children.
A history teacher at the Martin Luther King School has 110
students in four classes-but only 26 books. Some of the books
are missing the first hundred pages.
Each year, Solomon observes of East St. Louis High, "there's
one more toilet that doesn't flush, one more drinking fountain
that doesn't work, one more classroom without texts.... Certain
classrooms are so cold in winter that the students have to wear
their coats to class, while children in other classrooms swelter
in a suffocating heat that cannot be turned down."
Critics in the press routinely note that education spending
in the district is a trifle more than in surrounding districts.
They also note that public schools in East St. Louis represent
the largest source of paid employment in the city, and this point
is often used to argue that the schools are overstaffed. The implication
of both statements is that East St. Louis spends excessively on
education. One could as easily conclude, however, that the conditions
of existence here call for even larger school expenditures to
draw and to retain more gifted staff and to offer all those extra
services so desperately needed in a poor community. What such
critics also fail to note, as Solomon and principal Sam Morgan
have observed, is that the crumbling infrastructure uses up a
great deal more of the per-pupil budget than would be the case
in districts with updated buildings that cost less to operate.
Critics also willfully ignore the health conditions and the psychological
disarray of children growing up in burnt-out housing, playing
on contaminated land, and walking past acres of smoldering garbage
on their way to school. They also ignore the vast expense entailed
in trying to make up for the debilitated skills of many parents
who were prior victims of these segregated schools or those of
Mississippi, in which many of the older residents of East St.
Louis led their early lives. In view of the extraordinary miseries
of life for children in the district, East St. Louis should be
spending far more than is spent in wealthy suburbs. As things
stand, the city spends approximately half as much each year on
every pupil as the state's top-spending districts.
It is also forgotten that dramatic cuts in personnel within
the East St. Louis schools-for example, of 250 teachers and 250
nonprofessional employees, as demanded recently by state officials-would
propel 500 families with perhaps 2,000 children and dependents
to the welfare lists and deny the city the stability afforded
by a good chunk of its rapidly diminished lower middle class.
Nothing, in short, that the East St. Louis school board does within
the context of its penury can benefit one interest in the city
without damaging another.
It is accurate to note that certain of the choices and priorities
established by the East St. Louis school board do at times strike
an observer as misguided, and state politicians are not hesitant
to emphasize this point. The mayor of the city for many years,
a controversial young man named Carl Officer, was frequently attacked
by the same critics for what sometimes was alleged to be his lack
of probity and of far sighted planning. There may have been some
real truth to these charges. But the diligence of critics in observing
the supposed irregularities of his behavior stands in stunning
contrast to their virtual refusal to address the governing realities
of destitution and near-total segregation and the willingness
of private industry to flee a population it once courted and enticed
to East St. Louis but now finds expendable.
In very few cases, in discussing the immiseration of this
city, do Illinois officials openly address the central fact, the
basic evil, of its racial isolation. With more efficient local
governance, East St. Louis might become a better-managed ghetto,
a less ravaged racial settlement, but the soil would remain contaminated
and the schools would still resemble relics of the South post-Reconstruction.
They might be a trifle cleaner and they might perhaps provide
their children with a dozen more computers or typewriters, better
stoves for cooking classes, or a better shop for training future
gas station mechanics; but the children would still be poisoned
in their bodies and disfigured in their spirits.
Now and then the possibility is raised by somebody in East
St. Louis that the state may someday try to end the isolation
of the city as an all-black entity. This is something, however,
that no one with power in the state has ever contemplated. Certainly,
no one in government proposes busing 16,000 children from this
city to the nearby schools of Bellevue, Fairview Heights or Collinsville;
and no one in tends to force these towns to open up their neighborhoods
to racially desegregated and low-income housing. So there is,
in fact, no exit for these children. East St. Louis will likely
be left just as it is for a good many years to come: a scar of
sorts, an ugly metaphor of filth and overspill and chemical effusions,
a place for blacks to live and die within, a place for other people
to avoid when they are heading for St. Louis.