CREVE COEUR — Growing up as a child in Detroit, Allen Venable II had heard the stories.
His uncle was Dr. Howard Phillip Venable, one of the earliest and most prominent African American physicians in St. Louis. In the 1950s, Venable and his wife, Katie, bought two lots in Spoede Meadows, a new suburban neighborhood in Creve Coeur. Venable was the lead ophthalmologist at Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the only major, public medical facility for Black people at the time in St. Louis. He was an instructor at St. Louis University. But a segregated St. Louis wasn’t ready for an accomplished Black doctor to live in a white suburb.
So the city stole his land through eminent domain; it built a park and named it after the mayor, John T. Beirne, who instigated the theft. The Venables fought and lost a long court battle. They moved to Ballwin.
“All our lives, we heard the story,” Allen Venable told me. On Friday night, the 65-year-old retired Ford Motor Co. supervisor was sitting at a table at the Creve Coeur Government Center, attending a reception to celebrate the Venable family. On Saturday, the former Beirne Park was officially rededicated as the Dr. H. Phillip Venable Memorial Park — a more than two-year process to help the city learn and heal from its past sins. “It’s an important part of my family history. My grandmother told the story, my dad, my older sister.”
Signs along Country View Drive on Saturday welcomed the Venables “home.” Family members are spread out from Michigan to South Carolina to Washington, and several of them came for the weekend events.
Rossalind Woodhouse, Allen Venable’s older sister — she’s 81 — used to visit her uncle in St. Louis at least once a year. It was in St. Louis, not her home city of Detroit, where she says she first experienced racism. The family was going to a concert at an amphitheater — she doesn’t remember where — and the proprietor asked the family to leave. She remembers her uncle driving her by the house the city stole from him. And she remembers Dr. Venable taking the family to the airport for an “upscale” dinner because it was one of the places where they could be served.
“Imagine that,” she remembers. “Going to the airport for dinner.”
She and her brother remember something similar about their uncle: “As a child of the ’60s, the story about my uncle made me kind of mad,” Allen Venable said. “We were just coming into the civil rights movement. But he took me aside and told me not to be bitter. ‘Meet everybody halfway,’ he said. He was a great man.”
On Saturday, a new generation came to the property that should never have been a park and celebrated the man whose land was stolen in the not-so-distant past. State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, remembers pushing her children in a stroller in the park as a young mother. She didn’t know the land’s history then. Now she does, and so will generations to come.
The effort to rename the park started with a local lawyer, James Singer, who is a history buff and was shocked at what he learned about the park as he dug into the story of how it came to be. Singer enlisted the help of Harvard University professor Walter Johnson, a Missouri native whose most recent book, “Broken Heart of America” tells the story of racism through the eyes of St. Louis. Johnson helped get some Harvard students involved in the park project, and soon, there were town halls and packed meetings at the Creve Coeur City Council chamber and a task force that hopes the project becomes much more.
“Simply changing the name of the park is not going to be enough,” Councilwoman Heather Silverman said.
She helped lead the task force of community members who worked with the Venable family on plans that include a memorial to Dr. Venable in the park, and some interpretive history that tells a story that, sadly, was not unique to Creve Coeur in the 1950s.
Dr. Venable didn’t let his dispute with the city over his family’s dream house get in his way. He went on to become one of the most prominent medical professionals in St. Louis, with a national reputation. He raised a family — and an extended family — that would go on to great things of their own.
“He let us know that the way out or the way up was education,” Allen Venable said.
Now, the Venable name will forever be involved in education about the city’s moral arc bending toward social justice.
“People must understand what happened here,” Silverman said Saturday as the park was officially rededicated in the Venable name in front of a crowd of about 120 people. “It takes an entire community to start to correct the mistakes of the past.”