‘Living in Smelterville’ Written by a Reader of Sprigg Street Memories

Mississippi River Flood 1927, Hamburg, Louisiana

American Environmental Photographs Collection, [AEP Image Number, e.g., AEP-MIN73], Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

The above photo, although not taken in Cape, looks familiar to those who lived in or near Smelterville. The main difference between what I remember and what is depicted in this photo taken in Louisiana in 1927 is the fact that there were more houses situated closer together in Smelterville.

I received the following information via email from a person who wishes to remain anonymous. It was not submitted as an article for the blog but was just a private email between myself and the writer. With the writer’s permission, I am sharing it with my readers as coming from the viewpoint of someone else who lived just a short distance from my home on South Sprigg Street in Cape Girardeau, Missouri:

I remember when the river started raising and people from “uptown” would come down and point and gawk at the way we were living and how we would almost stay hidden until the river was back in its banks so no one I went to jr. high or high school would see us.  The few times I was seen brought on sly looks or comments at school.  I think I understand the feelings that black people felt in being rejected for something you had no control over such as the color of their skin and in my case where I lived.  I remember the jokes at school during the floods as the “rich kids” would make stupid remarks to each other about “moving out” of Smelterville during the floods.  That has never left me after all these years.
I found your blog via Ken Steinhoff’s newsletter and it brought back many thoughts, memories and feelings.  I too grew up off of South Sprigg Street in what was called Smelterville in the 50’s and 60’s.  As you stated I too had mixed feelings about the racial division.  Some of the kindest people I ever met were black neighbors I saw and talked with on a daily basis.  Also some of the laziest immoral people were black people also.  Saying that, I turn around and say the same thing about some of the white people I met on a daily basis.  There was a brothel run from a white lady’s house just a block from our house.  What I am saying is that people cannot be judged to be either good or bad by the color of their skin.  My mother and father lived all of their adult life in the same neighborhood with blacks and whites.  They admired some of the black people, but one of my mother’s sayings was “they should know their place.”    One time I remember her saying, “Now Mrs.——- knew her place, when a white person was walking down a sidewalk she would step aside to let you pass.”  I was so confused, I asked her why she should do that.  My mother was so surprised at my question and said, ‘Because she is black.”  That still didn’t answer my  question but I had enough sense to shut up after her answer.  But I kept my ears open after that.
I’ve seen a lot of bias against the black people but I also experienced a time around 1969 when there were a group of black people from Cairo (affiliated with the black panthers) who came to Cape with the intent to stir up trouble and that they did.  There were confrontations in stores, marches in front of a grocery store where the marchers would not let the “bag boy” by with the groceries he was carrying for a customer. That continued most of the day until the feeling became so volitile that a fight broke out.  The police were called and the marchers were taken to jail, only to be back in less than 2 hours, even more confrontational.  They marched (about 30 or more) into the grocery store where I worked and up and down every aisle,  with fists raised into the air shouting “Black Power”.  We had no idea where this was going and the police were called again and they were taken away just before the store was closed for the evening.  Needless to say there was heavy security for a while following this.  I was not against the black people as black people, but they scared many and when you use tactics like that you won’t win a popularity contest.
That whole year was one of conflict and turmoil.  As I said I lived in Smelterville and I had changed jobs from grocery to factory and worked the night shift.  I would come home at 12:30  and just get into bed when I would hear  a loud pop and a house would catch on fire sometimes 2-3 in one night.  My father along with a few other men sat up with their guns, afraid one of our houses would be next.  I guess we were luckier than Cairo because the “Black Panther” movement destroyed a once thriving city by scaring away all of the hard-working people and left the riff raff who ultimately let the city die.  Yes, I have some hard feelings against some blacks, the ones who think they can MAKE people change, but I have hard feelings about the KKK who teach the White supremacy hatred also.  I know many black people who I consider a friend, and I have a nephew who married a black girl.  I’m not afraid of them, but they don’t try to scare me into doing their will. Will there ever really be a time when we won’t look at a person’s skin first and then decide whether to smile and say Hello?
The 1960’s were a troublesome time for our entire country.
This entry was posted in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Neighbors, racism, School, Sprigg Street and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to ‘Living in Smelterville’ Written by a Reader of Sprigg Street Memories

  1. Read about how Cape PD sent a dozen officers to “direct traffic” when the national president of the NAACP spoke one night.

    Cape wasn’t exactly a hotbed of protest in those days. Even the student pickets wore ties.

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