Mill Creek Valley’s surviving residents carry on memories of historic Black neighborhood

Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 5:23 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Gwen Moore looked back on Mill Creek Valley as an up-and-coming neighborhood from more than 60 years ago. She is working to preserve its history after others attempted to erase it for good.

Moore lived in the neighborhood until she was 9. She bought penny candy from Paul’s down the street from where she lived. She went to Johnson School and had to cross busy Market Street twice every day. She and her classmates had to be careful; the street was always bustling with traffic.

She smiled as she reminisced on Mill Creek Valley, the first place she called home.

“It’s through a child’s eye,” Moore said. “To me, it was a wonderful place.”

Now a historian at the Missouri Historical Society, she is researching how Mill Creek Valley became the largest concentration of African Americans in St. Louis. It was first a neighborhood for wealthy white people, Moore said. Black people and immigrants started moving to the area after the turn of the 20th century. Around 20,000 Blacks ended up there.

Black people couldn’t live in white neighborhoods, so they built a community of their own.

“St. Louis was a segregated city,” Moore said. “There weren’t very many places that Black people could live.”

Many St. Louisans are unaware of the history of Mill Creek Valley. The neighborhood was demolished in 1959 under the veil of “urban renewal,” also a focus of Moore’s research. The attempted to destroy the name as well. Downtown West and Midtown now sit in the area once known as Mill Creek Valley.

Prime real estate

Harland Bartholomew arrived in St. Louis in 1916. The first full-time urban planner for an American city, he had an idea: reimagine St. Louis to stop white people from moving to the suburbs. The Chamber of Commerce and Real Estate Exchange were concerned about losing population and the deterioration of Downtown. They didn’t want the city to die.

The city had around 600,000 residents. Leaders wanted to move forward and progress the city. They would later put Mill Creek Valley, a neighborhood in the heart of the city, on the chopping block.

“The Post-Dispatch would say things like, ‘We could be Paris on the Mississippi if we could just get rid of this neighborhood,’” Moore said.

Mill Creek Valley became the city’s largest Black neighborhood throughout the 1930s and 40s, Moore said. There were more than 800 businesses and 40 churches. It hailed a revered financial institution, the People’s Finance Corporation, at the corner of Jefferson and Market. Lawyers, doctors, the NAACP, and other businesses had offices there.

Thousands of residents relied on the neighborhood every day. Its future, they would eventually find out, was not in their own hands. The rest of the city looked down upon Mill Creek Valley.

Newspapers called it a slum. Multiple Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat articles from the 1950s were intentional in garnering public support for the destruction of the St. Louis Black neighborhood. It was even called a “tremendous bargain.”

A Globe-Democrat article detailing a bond issue that would allow for the clearing of the Mill...
A Globe-Democrat article detailing a bond issue that would allow for the clearing of the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood.(St. Louis Globe-Democrat(

“That’s robbing people of their humanity,” Moore said, “to call my family slum dwellers. My neighbors, my friends, slum dwellers.”

The last children of Mill Creek

A bond issue passed in 1955 set aside millions of local and federal dollars to destroy more than 4,000 buildings in Mill Creek Valley that spanned more than 450 acres. Four years later, the first building would come down.

Vivian Gibson was one of the last children of Mill Creek. She was 10 when the demolition started. Her family moved on, but not by choice.

“People just had to find another way to exist,” she said.

The city was obligated to find new homes for Mill Creek families, according to a Globe-Democrat article from the 1950s. Sixty percent of its residents were eligible for public housing. However, Gibson said, whatever compensation there was, most of it did not go to Black people.

Gibson’s family was able to put a down payment on a house in north St. Louis.

“We later found out that elsewhere was designed, we were kind of guided to a certain part of town that is now considered north of Delmar.”

Gibson put her childhood memories into a book, “The Last Children of Mill Creek.” She and Moore are among those who are not letting their roots be forgotten. Moore’s research will eventually turn into an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that will educate future generations.

Mill Creek wasn’t perfect by any means, they said, but no area was without its own issues.

Gibson wants people to ask questions about Mill Creek Valley. Being more informed about the past can lead to better decisions in the future.

“We can’t bring it back, but we can certainly learn from our past,” she said. “And I think that’s what’s most important. This is what happened. This is the past. How do we do it better?”

Not just buildings, a community

Moore’s family stayed in their home as long as they could. It was hard for her, 9 at the time, to comprehend what was going on around her.

“What was so traumatizing for a child who didn’t quite understand what was going on that all of a sudden – what happened to all our friends?” she said. “I don’t know where they are.”

She had to transfer schools after hers in Mill Creek was demoed. It wasn’t so much the buildings being gone that stuck with her after all those years. It’s always been the people.

“It’s a tragedy that they tore down all those historic buildings, but a bigger tragedy is they destroyed a community,” she said.

Mrs. Annie Mason and Mrs. Leatha Bell were among the last residents to leave Mill Creek Valley...
Mrs. Annie Mason and Mrs. Leatha Bell were among the last residents to leave Mill Creek Valley in 1963.(St. Louis Post-Dispatch(

Moore found a woman who used to live across the street from her in Mill Creek. They went to the same church, which they didn’t realize back then. They talked about fond memories they had there. There are so many others that Moore wants to talk to. Other relationships where ties were severed as Mill Creek Valley families moved north or west in search of a new place to live.

Many stood to benefit from the “urban renewal” of the city. Housing redevelopment and a new highway(Interstate 64/40) were front of mind for officials.

Saint Louis University was looking to expand at the time but didn’t have the funds to do so. A Mrs. Samuel W. Fordyce donated $650,000 in 1958 so the university could purchase about 22 acres from the Land Clearance Authority, according to a Post-Dispatch article. Harris Stowe State University also expanded after the demolition.

All of SLU’s campus east of Grand Avenue was once part of Mill Creek Valley.

A towering, shiny Wells Fargo building sits at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Market Street today. It was there that the People’s Finance Corporation was a business hub in Mill Creek Valley.

On February 16, 64 years after the start of the demolition, a monument was dedicated in remembrance of Mill Creek Valley and its residents at Market and 22nd Street. Damon Davis, the local artist behind “Pillars of the Valley,” used to be unaware that Mill Creek Valley existed.

“I wanted to make sure that no more Black kids would grow up without knowing that this thriving Black community was in the center of St. Louis,” Davis said at the dedication ceremony.

Davis joins Moore and Gibson as people working to learn from the past so future generations will know what was taken.