Missouri city honors Black doctor whose land was taken decades ago through eminent domain

Historically, urban renewal and eminent domain have separated hundreds of thousands of African Americans from their property and locked them out of generational wealth. But a newly dedicated park outside St. Louis, Missouri is one of the latest attempts to reconcile a decades-old wrong. St. Louis community reporter Gabrielle Hays joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A newly dedicated park outside St. Louis, Missouri is one of the latest attempts to reconcile a decades-old wrong brought about by eminent domain, the power that governments have to seize private property for public use.

    Historically, urban renewal and eminent domain have separated hundreds of thousands of African Americans from their property and lock them out of generational wealth.

    I'm joined now by our St. Louis community reporter, Gabrielle Hays.

    Welcome, Gabrielle, this evening.

    So, this all happened, started back in the 1950s. Tell us what happened in St. Louis?

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    Yes.

    So, Dr. Howard P. Venable was a musician, an ophthalmologist. He was a man of many talents. And after going to medical school and getting married and having a daughter, he wanted to buy a home.

    And so, in 1956, he bought two plots of land in Creve Coeur and wanted to build a house on one. The issue was, the people in his neighborhood and local government didn't want him to live there. And so they pulled out all the stops, including the eminent domain doctrine, to make sure that he couldn't live there.

    And so they went back and forth through the courts. He sued several times. And, in the end, he lost and had to move to Ballwin Hills. And that's where he settled until he died in 1998.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What argument did the city use in taking his property? And did they end up compensating him?

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    Yes, so they used the eminent domain doctrine, which allows the government or governments to seize land for public use if they provide compensation.

    The thing was, Dr. Venable wanted to keep his land and he wanted to live there. And so he fought and fought as long as he could. In the end, we're told by people who track the case and by documents that, in the very end, I believe in 1959, he was paid $31,000 to settle that action.

    And so that's important to consider, especially when we talk about now, because if you look at homes who live — who sit — or homes that sit on that street, they have gone for over a million dollars, right? So we think about him getting $31,000 in the '50s…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    … and what that would look like today. That matters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you said, he fought it for years. His family hasn't forgotten.

    And just recently, there's been something dedicated in his honor, in his memory that his family has insisted on. How — what are they saying about all right now?

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    Yes, so the family has been involved from the very start.

    The city of Creve Coeur has acknowledged what happened. Their sort of journey started in 2019. They established a task force. And they have been to work with the family to kind of figure out how to move forward, right, and how to make sure that this story isn't forgotten.

    And so they created a task force. They read dedicated that land to Dr. Venable. So now it bears his name. But the family also wants to make sure that it doesn't end there. In fact, his nieces and nephews have said this cannot be a one-off, right? That can't be the end of the road is changing the name on the sign. And even the city has recognized this as well.

    So their hope and what they're asking for is not only that the name of the park be changed, but also for there to be an annual day of recognition and for there to be some type of programming in Creve Coeur to make sure that people of color have an equal opportunity to live in that neighborhood.

    They want a financial contribution to Washington University in Dr. Venable's name to ensure that students have an opportunity to learn there. So, they are very much so part of this process, but, for them, it's bigger than just acknowledging the story. It's about making sure that it moves forward and that no one forgets.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's so important to tell this story.

    Gabrielle Hays, who is our communities reporter in Saint Louis, thank you so much.

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can read Gabrielle's full report on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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