Barbara Love remembers that not all that long ago, even in Wentzville, there was more than a hint of prejudice directed at blacks.
“There were certain places you walked into when I was young where you felt a coldness,” said Love, who has spent most of her 52 years in Wentzville, where African-Americans have been part of the community since before the Civil War.
That coldness has largely disappeared, she said.
Love said Wentzville has always been a place of good people no matter what their race and color. One reason is that the dream of acceptance and tolerance promoted by the Rev. Martin Luther King has permeated society as a whole, she said.
“We want to keep that dream alive," Love said.
Love and other residents have helped to keep that dream alive through a celebration conducted annually for the past seven years on Jan. 21, the birthday of the slain civil rights leader. In recent years, the celebration has included guest speakers, music, readings and dancing at Wentzville Holt High School.
“People in this community have really welcomed keeping that legacy alive through the years,” said Love, who is the chairwoman for the local celebration. “We've gone from 50 people to 300 to 400 people.”
The 2013 celebration will take the event one step further. The celebration will feature a March of Unity starting at 10 a.m. from the Missouri Department of Revenue license office, 807 E. Pearce Blvd. and ending at Wentzville City Hall, 310 W. Pearce Blvd. The march is a kickoff to the program scheduled for 7 p.m. in the auditorium of Holt High School Auditorium, 600 Campus Drive.
The keynote speaker that evening will be the Rev. B.T. Rice Jr., a senior pastor of New Horizon 7th Day Christian Church in St. Louis and a prominent civic activist. The program also will feature other speakers, dancing and church and school choirs.
The organizing committee also is awarding several $500 scholarships and a $1,000 scholarship to students this year.
Rice has spoken at previous celebrations. “He said he wanted to come back because he felt the community was so welcoming,” Love said.
Love described the march as more of a walk. “The emphasis is not a protest,” Love said. The only signs allowed will be those identifying participating groups.
The idea is for an event open to people of all faiths, ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds. “We wanted to do as he (King) did and go out into the streets,” Love said. “It's a chance for us to come together.”
Anyone interested in walking in the parade can call Love at 314-591-8468. Love said organizers are looking into using vans to transport people who would like to participate but can't walk the distance.
The Rev. Beverly Stith, of Grant Chapel in Wentzville, said the celebration gives a sense of solidarity and unity.
Stith and others say sense has grown even though Wentzville has changed. “It's hard to realize the growth that has moved out there, “ Stith said.
Wentzville was listed in the 2010 U.S. census as Missouri's fastest growing city, its population having jumped from 6,896 to 29,070, a 321 percent increase since 2000.
That growth hasn't increased the percentage of the city's population that identified themselves as African-American. The city's black population more than doubled from 829 in the 2000 census to 1,738 in 2010, but that amounted to about 6 percent of the city's overall population, down from 12 percent in 2000.
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who wrote “Crossroads, A History of St. Charles County,” said some families in the city can trace their roots to 1858 when a white tobacco plantation owner freed 25 slaves. The families helped form Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church.
Tobacco went out of favor as an agricultural crop after the war and small farms appeared.
“After the war, many people ended up moving to Wentzville or St. Charles, which were the two main cities,” Ehlmann said. The area didn't experience major migrations of blacks from the South, he said.
Former Wentzville Mayor Paul Lambi knew about that history and was among a group of community leaders who began exploring the idea of having a local Martin Luther King celebration. He worked closely with the Rev. James Lee, then the pastor of African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I liked to see us do something to promote unity in the city,” Lambi said. The celebration is a sign of the good relations the community has and continues to maintain, he added.