By Robert R. Thomas
Charles Winfrey, Executive Director of the McCree Theatre, once wrote a play titled “The Saints of St. John Street” based on his fondest memories of growing up in Flint’s St. John Street neighborhood.
He told his audience of 40 at the Flint Public Library recently he felt somewhat outside his comfort zone presenting history rather than a play. He noted his discomfort was heightened by the lack of research material on the St. John Street neighborhood.
Winfrey opened the African American “History of Flint” sessions of the Tendaji Talks April 5.
Commemorating the late Tendaji Ganges, the talks are sponsored by Neighborhoods Without Borders and hosted by the Flint Public Library. The talks focus on systemic racism and the African American history of Flint.
Winfrey asserted the history of the St. John Street neighborhood is the history of all its forebears from Native American nations to French fur traders to Colonial fur traders.
“You can’t just take its history out of context. History is a series of connections and relationships that all sort of converge to make up the story.”
Winfrey noted that St. John Street first appears in the city directory of 1874.
From 1874 until 1925, a combination of the rise of the auto industry and the first wave of the Great Migration composed of African Americans and mostly eastern Europeans brought major growth to the St. John Street area which became a truly international community.
“The first International Institute in Flint was located in the old Pabst Drug Store at Leith and St. John streets,” Winfrey said. He added that in 1919 the Fairview School at 1300 Oakland, which became Leith Street, recorded 27 nationalities among the student body.
Great growth caused problems, a major one being lack of housing to handle the the influx of immigrants . The shanty towns and tent cities surrounding the factories embarrassed GM executives. Since the corporation had its own development company, they began building houses. They constructed Civic Park, Chevrolet Park and Mott Park to accommodate the demand.
Racial covenants restricted African Americans
“However,” stated Winfrey, “African Americans were prohibited from living in those areas. There were racial covenants that restricted who could live in those areas.
“So, at the time, African Americans could only live on the south end of town in an area called Floral Park. We were relegated to just the Floral Park and St. John Street areas.
“The original Negro people lived in Floral Park. And this is really the beginning of the divisiveness between the north side and the south side.”
The second Wave of the Great Migration took place from 1940 on when WWII created a huge demand for immigrant industrial laborers.
“By 1947, Fairview School, which had been such a multi-cultural institution, was 92 percent African American,” said Winfrey as he shifted gears from his historical narrative to snapshot memories of his life on St. John Street from the 2nd to the 7th grades.
A neighborhood of character and characters
From raiding the fruit cars on the train tracks to walking those tracks to the many theaters downtown when they grew tired of the Columbia Theater on St. John Street, Winfrey said, “Me and my boys, I guess we added to some of the character of St. John Street.”
Local characters were even more plentiful than theater entertainment. Winfrey told of living on the corner of Michigan and St. John Street in an apartment building owned by the Carpenter family, one of the original African American settlers going back to 1840.
“One of my neighbors was this lady that we called ‘Slap God Almighty.’ And Slap God Almighty got her name from an encounter with a police officer. She slapped the policeman. She was bad. But the policeman asked her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She said, ‘I don’t care who you are; I would slap God almighty.’”
“Frolicking up and down St. John Street left so many landmarks burned in my head,” said Winfrey. He then ticked off the Red Dog Coney, The Hut, which he described as “famous—or infamous,” Balkan Bakery, the RG Club, the 500 Club, Georgetown and Holbrook Records.
There followed a litany of athletes, politicians and even a few police officers who came from St. John Street.
African American churches also proliferated with the growing population. Quinn Chapel, the first African American church, was founded in 1875. There was a major spurt of churches from 1935-1945.
There was also the negative side of a vibrant St. John Street. “Wherever there is money, there is vice” is how Winfrey described the darker side of St. John Street.
Vibrant nightlife “boiled over”
“Both St. John Street and its cousin across the track, Industrial Avenue, boiled over with nightlife. People worked hard and partied hard,” said Winfrey.
He stressed that the housing was mostly substandard, and doubly so having been inherited from the previous European immigrants in a deteriorated state. The tidal wave of African Americans coming into Flint in the 1940s overwhelmed this limited, substandard housing stock.
“Sometimes you’d have four or five families living in the same residence. That’s just the way it was because of the restrictions in other areas,” said Winfrey.
“And, of course, the health of St. John Street residents was at risk every day. The smoke from the foundry would just rain soot upon the residents.”
He added that the neighborhood recorded the highest incidence of tuberculosis in the county.
Winfrey concluded his talk by describing the darkest days of St. John Street—the end game.
Eminent domain displaced thousands
“Then, of course, urban renewal came. The city utilized its power of eminent domain to displace over 1500 families. And they tried to sugarcoat it by saying that demolition means progress. Nevertheless they uprooted, displaced, and otherwise removed every family that resided in the St. John Street area, every business that was up and running in the St. John Street area.
“It was our own less bloody rendition of the Tulsa Riots where the black community was virtually bombed into non-existence.
“So, what remains of St. John Street today is just basically memories.”
Winfrey acknowledged important sources, which he again reminded were limited: “St. John Street Remembered” by Michael Evanoff; “Bronze Pillars” by Rhonda Sanders; “Memoirs of St. John Street” by Craig Hall and “Demolition Means Progress” by Andrew Highsmith.
The Tendaji Talks resume on April 21 at the library. Dr. Rubén O. Martinez will speak about “Examining Racism from Group to Individual Levels.” All conversations are from 6-7:30 p.m.
EVM staff writer and columnist Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.