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Decades after a Missouri town seized a Black doctor’s home, his relatives sought to reclaim his land — and his story

CREVE COEUR- At the end of a winding road in Creve Coeur, just west of St. Louis County, a park now bears the name of Dr. Howard P Venable, the Black ophthalmologist who purchased the land as his own more than 60 years ago. Until this year, the park did not bear his name, but the name of the white mayor who took the property away.

In 1956, nine years before the Voting Rights Act and two years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Venable and his wife, Kate, bought two plots in the Spoede Meadows area. Several other Black families at the time were doing the same. They faced pressure from their new white neighbors, and the city of Creve Coeur itself, to sell their properties and move.

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Dr. Venable joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis as its first African American staff member in 1958. Image via Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine

Venable, who was 45 years old when he purchased the land, not only went through years of medical training, but was also a musician who played with legends like Duke Ellington. His surviving relatives say he was a man of principle who was not going to back down to a system built to discriminate against him. So while his other Black neighbors left, he refused to sell.

But eventually, as shown through court documents, news coverage from the time and stories from the family, Creve Coeur’s government, led by then-mayor John T. Beirne, seized the Venable family’s land using eminent domain. The city took the portion of the house he started to build and turned it into a clubhouse, while turning the rest of the land into a park. Adding insult to injury, the park was named after Beirne.

“It’s terrible how you could love a place and the place don’t love you,” Venable’s nephew, Allen Venable, told the PBS NewsHour.

What happened to the Venable family is not an isolated incident. Cities across the country are slowly beginning to reckon with decades-old seizures of land from Black families. On Sept. 30, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill returning a stretch of Manhattan Beach to descendants of its original owners, Willa and Charles Bruce, who lost the land nearly 100 years ago after the city of Manhattan Beach confiscated the land also through eminent domain.

“I want to apologize to the Bruce family for the injustice that was done to them,” Newsom said at the bill signing, according to local reports.

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The fight to keep Dr. Venable’s land was well documented both in court documents but also by the local press. Image via St. Louis Globe-Democrat

Venable sued the city of Creve Coeur for years trying to hold onto the land he owned. Finally, in 1959, the court ruled against him, citing that the city took his land for “public use” — a park and clubhouse — and therefore it could take his land. Eventually, Venable and his family moved to Ballwin, another area in St. Louis County, where he raised his family and died in 1998. In September of this year, Creve Coeur renamed the park in Venable’s honor, more than half a century after it was taken from him.

“American history includes the history of African Americans. This is an American story,” Venable’s niece, Victoria Venable-Fletcher said.

At the park’s rededication, Creve Coeur Council Member Heather Silverman acknowledged that renaming the park was important, but at the same time, not enough.

“It’s important to me that the community understands that we can’t just change the name and we forget about it,” she said. “If we want real change, it comes in several ways and renaming a park doesn’t bring that change,” she said.

How eminent domain works

By definition, eminent domain gives governments at any level power to take private property and convert it into public use. More specifically it is the Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution that allows governments to do this, but only if they provide compensation. This issue first came before the Supreme Court in 1875 in a case called Kohl v. United States in which the city of Cincinnati wanted to acquire a piece of land for a post office and other public uses, according to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute. In the end the court ruled that if a community could benefit from economic development then it qualified as “public use.”

But the Constitution does not define what compensation means, said Monica Eppinger, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law. So “a lot of the fights that get attention are about how you value what is just compensation,” she said.

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The land taken from the Venable family is situated in the middle of a suburban, residential area, surrounded by homes. Image via Google Earth

Many times compensation is not the point. Venable did not necessarily want money — he wanted his land, his house and a chance to raise a family in Creve Coeur. In the 1959 settlement with the city, Venable was given $31,000, said Jim Singer, a St. Louis-based attorney, a member of the task force created to rename the park and take other action to keep Venable’s legacy alive.

Scott Bullock, president and general counsel for the Institute of Justice, said that has not always happened throughout history.

“When (landowners) were removed, oftentimes people did not recover, people were not compensated [and] they were not given a home of comparable quality in another neighborhood,” he said.

Bullock and the Institute of Justice, which seeks to monitor governmental overreach, have worked on upward of 30 cases across the country where a state or local government has used eminent domain to take land, from Canton, Mississippi to New London, Connecticut.

“I want people to recognize this was not just a story in St. Louis, it happened where we are in Washington, D.C., my hometown of Pittsburgh. Those neighborhoods never really recovered,” Bullock said, The “government put people in a really difficult position” because either they fight for their land and pay out of pocket for an attorney or they take what is offered and walk away.

“It was truly unjust,” he said.

Beyond the fight over the land itself, the loss of property or home ownership has robbed families of color of generational wealth. The payment Venable received would equal nearly $300,000 today, but home values in the neighborhood are going for multiples of that amount, Singer said. Just down the street from the park, on Country View Drive, a home was recently sold for more than $1.8 million according to real estate records.

Actions such as eminent domain have also contributed to perpetuating disparities in home ownership and access to capital. In 2019, home ownership rates for Black Americans remained 30 percent lower than for white Americans, according to a report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Black people are denied a mortgage at a rate 80 percent higher than white people, according to 2020 data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

At the same time the city of Creve Coeur was trying to block Black families from moving in, it was also working to stop a synagogue from settling in the area. Congregation Temple Israel wanted to move from its location in the city of St. Louis, not too far from Venable Park. In response, Creve Coeur altered its zoning ordinances to prohibit churches. The case was later taken to the Missouri Supreme Court, where the temple won. It still stands there today.

“So often you have no idea the kind of struggles that places go through to be where they are today,” Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel said. “We have to do a little to make that history known so it doesn’t repeat itself.”

Feder grew up in the St. Louis area, but she said she did not know the story of Venable Park and Temple Israel until a few years ago. “We should have known,” she said.

She now relays the story to her own children, who have played at Venable Park over the years. “We have to be honest about where we came from,” Feder said.

The relationship between eminent domain and “urban renewal”

Understanding how political systems discriminated against citizens means peeling back the many layers of tools used to do so.

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The fight to change the name of Beirne Park to honor Dr. Howard P. Venable took just two years, a task force and the will of his family to make it so.

Eminent domain was used as means to carry out “urban renewal,” the rehabilitation of city areas by renovating or replacing dilapidated buildings with new housing, public buildings, parks, roadways, and industrial areas, often in accordance with government planning.

The act of gaining “slum clearance” – deeming neighborhoods and homes blighted and declaring an area “sub-standard” – was a significant part of the seizure process, according to a University of Richmond study. As Bullock explained, these were loaded terms, oftentimes used to target neighborhoods of color.

“These terms were meant to build public support and make people believe these neighborhoods were not worth saving,” Bullock said.

But white neighborhoods were not immune to eminent domain, either. In a 2003 interview with “60 Minutes,” former Lakewood, Ohio, Mayor Madeline Cain told journalist Mike Wallace that she “would never personally walk” a white neighborhood the city was taking through eminent domain to build condominiums and indicate “the neighborhood was not attractive”.

Still, the city said the neighborhood was “blighted” because the homes did not have things like three bedrooms or central air. In the “60 Minutes” interview, Wallace noted that neither Cain nor the members of the Lakewood City Council had those features, either.

Bullock said it is hard to find a concrete number around how many people have been displaced through eminent domain. However, urban renewal data provides a snapshot. According to a University of Richmond analysis, urban renewal displaced more than 300,000 people in the years between 1955 and 1966. A report from the Institute of Justice notes that by 1967 – a year in which there were also 159 race riots in cities across the country – the number of homes destroyed reached 400,000.

Bullock and the Institute of Justice started litigating eminent domain cases in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s. Over time, he said, dozens of states started to roll out more protections for small businesses and homeowners, but eminent domain statutes aren’t technically gone. “Loopholes do exist,” he says.

The doctrine of eminent domain is one Eppinger teaches at the St. Louis University School of Law. Eppinger adds that she not only challenges her students to identify patterns in unjust uses of property law – “it is important to see if it’s being used more commonly in areas preoccupied by people of color,” – but to also understand what the effects of them can be.
“People are being disproportionately affected by having their property rights disrupted, which disrupts generational wealth,” she said. “Property is such an important part of building generational wealth.”

A legacy lives on

Before attempting to settle in Creve Coeur, Venable lived with his two brothers and parents in Detroit and attended Wayne State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in zoology. He wanted to be an ophthalmologist, relatives say, but most schools at the time would not admit a Black student for residency – almost all except for Homer G Phillips Hospital in St. Louis.

“Homer Philips attracted not just Black physicians, but white ones, too. It was on the leading edge of its time,” Victoria Venable-Fletcher said.

Venable completed an internship and residency in St. Louis then left for New York University. In 1944, he became the first Black ophthalmologist to be awarded a master’s of science in ophthalmology. The next year, he passed the American Board of Ophthalmology Examination with the highest score in decades, then returned to St. Louis to practice and work at Washington University.

“My uncle was way ahead of his time,” Allen Venable said.

To his family, Howard Venable was someone who “taught us about civil rights and the injustices happening in the world,” Allen Venable said.

When he was married, and had a daughter, he wanted to be a home and property owner, too. The latter, his family said, would trigger the city of Creve Coeur to dedicate years to ensure it never happened.

“I want people to know that it happened, and it happened with the government involved,” Venable-Fletcher said.

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In September, several surviving members of Dr. Venable’s family, including one of his nieces and a nephew, got the chance to visit the newly rededicated Howard P. Venable Memorial Park. Image via city of Creve Coeur

In 2019, the city passed a resolution to formally rename the park and establish a task force. Venable’s surviving family, who is involved with the task force, said it was a monumental move but it could not be how their uncle’s story ended.

“It gave us a little bit of closure because we know the story, we’ve been living it our whole lives,” Rosalyn Venable Woodhouse, Venable’s niece and Venable-Fletcher’s sister, said. “But we don’t want it to be a one-off.”

Venable-Fletcher said there are a number of things the family wanted Creve Coeur to do aside from renaming the park, including the creation of a memorial in his honor, an annual day of recognition, a financial contribution to Washington University of St. Louis in the name of Venable and his wife Katie, assistance for people of color seeking to buy land in Creve Coeur, — all forms of reparations to the family in relation to the generational wealth that was lost,” she said.

City Council member Heather Silverman told the NewsHour the renaming of the park was “ the very first step and then we look at the park and what else the city needs to do.”

Bullock of the Institute of Justice said returning land to the owners is something they have pushed for on behalf of their own clients.

“Apologies only go so far,” he said. “If the land is still vacant — because oftentimes the land was taken and then nothing was ever done with it — it ought to be given back to the people it was taken from.”

While the stories of people like Venable or the Bruces in Manhattan Beach are slowly being brought to light, Bullock said the momentum of this history cannot stop — it has to continue. “Now there’s widespread recognition that this destroyed well-functioning communities,” he said.

Venable died in 1998 at age 85, and his wife and daughter have died, too. From their current homes in Seattle, Washington and other parts of the country, the family members who remain said they want people in St. Louis and across the country to see themselves in their story — to know they are not alone and that it is possible to get recognition for injustices they have endured, even if it is decades too late.

“It is sad and you’re happy, happy that it is finally getting the recognition that someone is pulling the cover off and letting the light shine,” Allen said.