Yesterday was my birthday. I turned fifty-nine. On that date in 1963, hundreds of thousands of people were marching to Washington DC. As I was being born Martin Luther King Jr was preparing what is now known as his “I have a dream” speech. I didn’t notice.
About that same time the Ethical Society was preparing to move from its meeting place at the Sheldon Memorial in St. Louis City to our current beautiful building here in Ladue.
Soon, my family, who were city residents, stopped going three miles down Grand and started driving nine miles to Ladue on Sundays. I was a baby. I went where I was taken. I didn’t notice.
My formative memories of what we called Sunday School then, were made in this building, downstairs. The children assembled before splitting into classes, sang songs and dropped dimes into a miniature Sheldon shaped collection box. Upstairs in the Foyer after the platform, tea and coffee were served by ladies from giant shiny urns into china cups with saucers. It was a treat to get my cup of tea with milk from one of these ladies as a child.
As I stood amongst those adults socializing, leaning against my father, I didn’t notice that we were mostly white folks. I didn’t notice that most of the people in the group were well off, even wealthy. I didn’t notice because I lived in a middle class white neighborhood and went to a white school. I didn’t notice.
It was never explained to me why Ethical moved. We attended throughout most of my childhood and teen years. My schools desegregated, my neighborhood changed, but Ethical was pretty much the same to me. And as I grew older I started to have a vague sense of conflict, maybe even guilt. I was a city girl, and we were attending Ethical in the county. I can’t fully explain what I was feeling. I just knew it seemed somehow wrong. I had grown up knowing my parents chose the city, in part, so they would NOT be part of the “white flight”. This is something I did notice.
I don’t know what factors were considered when the Society decided to move to this particular location. Our website gives scant information about why the decision was made. I can’t help but assume that part of it was to restrict the access to people of a certain type. Or at the very least, make it convenient for certain types of people.
The building here on Clayton Road was dedicated two years after the march on Washington, in 1965. I was two years old. The move coincided with the general white flight from the city as was happening across the US. This may not have been the primary factor in the decision, but I can’t help but assume it played a part.
Sometimes I try to imagine how different it might have been if the Ethical Society of St. Louis had stayed in the city. What if a tract of land had been purchased north of Delmar in the city. What if we had remained in Midtown or some other central location? How diverse would our membership be today? What impact might we have had on healing the deep wounds of segregation, violence and racism in our city? What leaders would have arisen from this community? I can’t answer this. None of us can.
The Ethical Society of St. Louis, recently put a survey on the website about how to “Help meet our Equity and Diversity Goals”. I wonder if one of the answers isn’t staring us in the face?
I’m not speaking of moving from our location, but I am thinking of what we need to do to become a presence in the city again.
This looks to me like a meeting place, a community center, and providing community assistance where it’s most needed. This, to me, looks like a place where children, teens and college students, can assemble to socialize, do service together, and build bonds. I don’t have a grand plan for how to make this happen, but I do know I’d work on a project like this. I’d be excited again about my Ethical Society membership. Someone once told me if I want to make something happen, I first need to speak it into the universe. So here I am, speaking it out. What happens next?