During the 2017-18 school year, Springboard to Learning collaborated with students from Nipher Middle School and Webster Arts to tell the stories of the Meacham Park Neighborhood and its residents. The 18-month project was documented with a PBS documentary on the program’s process and its culminating event.
Below is the Webster-Kirkwood Times’ coverage of the culminating event, originally published in September 2017.
By David Baugher, Webster-Kirkwood Times
Nipher Middle School music teacher Johnetta Haley developed a reputation for success with her choir.
“Sometimes after competitions, if her class did very well, she would take them out for ice cream,” reads an account of her tenure. “Mrs. Haley could not join them though; she wasn’t allowed to enter the white-only ice cream parlor.”
The story of Haley, now 94, was among those shared in a new project that aims to unravel the history of the complex, tangled and sometimes tense relationship Kirkwood has shared with Meacham Park, an historically black community which the city annexed in the early 1990s.
Sponsored by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Webster Arts and Springboard to Learning, the initiative allowed current Nipher seventh graders to collect oral histories from residents and others with a connection to Meacham Park and put them together in a book which will go to local libraries.
Looking at the experience of everyone from social activists to students, it touches on both historical background and modern issues in the community, which has a history dating back more than a century.
The project culminated in an event Monday at The Rep in which some of the narratives were performed onstage in a blend of action, music, spoken word, poetry and storytelling set in front of pieces of artwork created for the program.
“What was really exciting for me was seeing the growth in the kids getting a better understanding of their community,” said Steve Sandbothe, senior program director for Springboard to Learning. “These were seventh graders. A lot of them didn’t even know about Meacham Park or hadn’t been to Meacham Park.”
Jeane Vogel, executive director of Webster Arts, said it was a great collaboration between the groups with each contributing something different and teaching about a local history of which people should be made aware.
“Really, what we’re showing also is that there is such a possibility to bridge communities,” she said. “It is happening now in St. Louis when St. Louis needs this more than ever. It’s extraordinary.”
Marsha Coplon, The Rep’s educational director, noted that everyone from teenagers to seniors had been part of the 18-month project.
“It has just really encompassed a lot of people and it has ended up being a wonderful way to celebrate a community and for people to learn more about that community,” she said.
Student Elizabeth Greene, now an eighth grader, was among those who helped chronicle the stories. She said she developed an understanding about the way the community changed over the years, including after it was absorbed by Kirkwood.
“I’ve learned a lot about the racism, especially interviewing the Kirkwood High School students that live in Meacham Park – the challenges they have to face,” she said.
The stories vary widely, often talking about the backgrounds and lives of their subjects, the difficulties they endure, their aspirations and sometimes the connections made between neighbors across the cultural and racial divide.
Haley, among those on hand for the event, said she loved working with the kids and was happy to see the production telling Meacham Park’s story come to fruition.
“It was wonderful and I thought it was long overdue,” she said.
Attendee Josephine Chambers grew up in Meacham Park and remembers the community as impoverished but close-knit with strong values.
“It was so beautiful because the families were so close,” she said of the neighborhood. “Never locked a door. Never locked a window.”
Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, was among those whose history was recorded. She was recalled in her narrative as “a one-of-a-kind tomboy” who could dunk a basketball as easily as she could hit a homerun.
“Everyone always wants Harriet Patton on their team,” noted the narrative. “That was true then, and it’s still true.”
Patton said she was pleased with the production, which she felt was an accurate representation of the culture of the community.
“These young people did an outstanding job at presenting the positive attributes of the Meacham Park students and residents – the people who lived there,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said that the neighborhood has come to develop a good working relationship with Kirkwood.
“Our message is come together, work together and stay together,” she said.