Community Impact | Narrative Journalism
Deaconess Fellow Sylvester Brown Jr.'s work prior to 2021.
July 30, 2020
“Irony is one of my favorite aspects of life.”
I can’t say that I agree with Cherokee American actor Wes Studi’s assessment of irony but I have been reflecting on the word lately. A couple of weeks ago, I received word that I would be joining The St. Louis American as a Deaconess Fellow. My major responsibility for the next year is to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on African Americans in our region.
August 18, 2020
When confronted with the number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 (about 170,000 to date), President Donald Trump cites the high survival rate. Yet local coronavirus victims say they may have survived, but they are grappling with serious health effects.
“We have tested over 40 million people,” Trump said on July 4. “By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.”
August 26, 2020
As with other businesses and organizations, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on fine and performing arts organizations, like St. Louis’ Black Rep.
“Struggle” for black theater companies is nothing new said Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the Black Rep. For instance, among the black theater organizations forged during the Civil Rights/Black Arts Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, he said a staggering 87% had closed their doors by the mid-’90s.
“Survival,” Himes added, is part of the history of black arts.
August 27, 2020
Black Americans have been hit hard by the coronavirus. Nearly 1 in 3 Blacks know someone firsthand who has died from the virus, compared to 9 percent of whites, according to a Washington Post poll. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Blacks are 11% of Missouri’s population yet account for 32% of the state’s coronavirus deaths.
Although more than 56,000 blacks have succumbed to the virus, most of the deceased are unknown outside their circles of family and friends. This is not the case for thousands in St. Louis who recently learned that beloved singer and performer Lamont Hadley Sr. had succumbed to the coronavirus.
September 3, 2020
To “transition,” in western society, means someone has died and moved on to the great beyond. The African tradition of “transitioning,” however, is a lengthier process. Since death is perceived as the beginning of a person's deeper relationship with creation, much attention is given to complementing life before a person dies.
This was a challenge for local musician, artist, and educator Mike Nelson, affectionally known as “Baba Mike.” Nelson’s mother, Pauline, 91, suffers from late stage Alzheimer’s and other life-threatening maladies.
September 12, 2020
Face-to face, Eddie Smith doesn’t match the crotchety, impatient voice message he’d left in an attempt to set up an interview with this newspaper: “If y’all aren’t interested in saving lives, just let me know!”
In person, the tall, 71-year-old, Morgan Freeman lookalike was affable but intense. Armed with a thick, overstuffed, black binder and his 8-page resume, Smith came determined to show how his 44 years as a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) engineer could be utilized in the fight against the COVID-19.
The battle has become personal for Smith. He contracted the virus in late March. After surviving more than two months in a coma, in isolation and rehab, he returned to his home in Berkeley with a new purpose. With a shy smile and a shrug of his shoulders, Smith explained his previous gruff message: “I just have all this knowledge and I’m trying to pass it on.”
September 14, 2020
For every person who has died from COVID-19 in the United States, there are more than 10 survivors. Although research is ongoing, we know that these survivors must wrestle with damage done to their physical bodies after recovery from the virus.
But what about the damage to the soul and spirit?
In April, as the virus was rapidly spreading in the world, Indian-American author and alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra shared his concerns about the outbreak’s effect on the spirit: “Millions of people experience a sick soul; however, you want to define it — weariness of heart, existential dread, a sinking feeling that nothing really matters.”
September 16, 2020
“I have never, in my 60 years of life, seen anything like this.”
Like thousands of other restaurant and bar owners, Kenneth C. Martin, co-owner of KJ’s Bar & Grill, at 5300 N. Broadway, was rocked by COVID-19. Back in May, the American Nightlife Association, a trade group representing more than 30,000 clubs nationwide, reported that the nightlife industry had already loss about $225 billion in revenue due to mandatory shutdowns. The loss to businesses continues to increase exponentially.
Martin is no exception. His club at 5300 N. Broadway opened in 2017. No one under 30 is allowed for evening gatherings. KJ’s food, pool & dart room, themed events such as Wednesday Game night, Monday and Thursday night karaoke and Bop practice on every other Saturday kept the place at capacity-crowd levels.
September 24, 2020
There’s no certainty when COVID-19 will be contained. One thing is for certain, though – the legacy of the pandemic will have scarred a whole generation of young people. Their fragile lives have been upended. Familiar social structures – daycare, school, summer camp and outdoor activities – have ceased to exist. Kids who’ve seen their parents shed tears over the unexpected deaths of loved ones now fear their own mortality.
For poor, Black kids, the dread is multiplied by pre-existing societal conditions. Not only do those in high-crime neighborhoods worry about the airborne virus, some also fear stray bullets piercing the air into their living rooms, back yards or the streets where they play. Older kids realize that some of those bullets come from police officers who seem to instinctively undervalue their Black lives. Because they’re isolated, many young people have nowhere to express their feelings, no place to vent or feel normal.
September 27, 2020
“It appeared that my life was going along rather well.”
In her letter to the American, Ella Owens expressed appreciation for her life. At 76, Ella and her husband, Phillip, 77, are retired empty nesters. With their three children all grown and living in different parts of the country, the couple lives comfortably in their home in Pasadena Park in Normandy.
Ella wrote of how God is using her in the ministry:
“God is working through me. All of us have been created with a purpose and I feel like this is my purpose. I enjoy my positions in the church and gathering with fellow parishioners. It’s all very important to me.”
September 27, 2020
“In this business, if you don’t adapt, you fail, huh.”
Ronald L. Jones has a unique way of using the word “huh.” For Jones, it’s more of an affirmation than a question. Like a preacher uses “Amen,” Jones employs “huh” to emphasize his points. In this case, he was discussing his trade in the wake of COVID-19.
“I’ve been through swine flu, Ebola, spinal meningitis, even active cases of tuberculosis, you name it. This is the first pandemic I’ve ever been through,” Jones said. “You just have to be very cautious about what you’re dealing with, huh.”
October 7, 2020
Faith & For the Sake of All wants to slow the virus and wake up the voters
“Religious institutions should stay out of politics.”
This was the finding of a Pew Research Center poll released late last year. The survey showed that 63% of Americans believe that houses of worship should avoid political matters.
Of course, the survey was released before the global coronavirus pandemic. It was before a survey, commissioned by the NAACP earlier this year, showed that 80% of African Americans rated President Trump’s response to the outbreak negatively.
October 15, 2020
When asked if he was going to allow the fear of contracting COVID-19 deter him from voting, Steward Stiles III, 29, of Ferguson emphatically answered, “No way!”
“Of course, I’ll do the social distancing, I’ll have my hand sanitizer, mask, and everything else needed to protect myself and others,” Stiles said. “But, yeah, I’m voting.”
Stiles, a music teacher at KIPP Victory Academy, fits the demographic of Americans (ages 18 to 29) who responded to a recent Harvard Youth poll indicating that 63% of them will “definitely be voting” next month. The findings indicate that youth turnout is on track to match or exceed the 2008 election, which was a watershed year in terms of young voters for Barack Obama. Results of the survey also mirror the “favorability” ratings of 12 years ago. In 2008, 59% of young voters favored Obama. In the Harvard poll, 60% said Joe Biden is their chosen candidate.
October 20, 2020
“I thought of St. Louis as just the place where Wash U happened to be, not a place I intended to get involved with,” said Nidhi Krishnan, 19, an Indian American from Bloomington, Indiana.
"I grew up as a Brown girl in a white town. I came here to do political science and economics. I never used to think about urban issues. Now, that’s my big passion.”
For Nidhi, the COVID-19 pandemic gave her an opportunity to explore this passion professionally in St. Louis years before she graduates. Like thousands of students across the country, frustrated with paying full tuition for online class and a loss of connectivity with other students and professors, she is opting for a gap year break in her studies.
October 24, 2020
Standing on Evergreen Avenue right off Marin Luther King Drive in Wellston, Melvin White, founder of Beloved Streets of America, couldn’t have been prouder.
After 12 years, the organization dedicated to revitalizing MLK Dr. from Wellston to downtown St. Louis and beyond held its first annual MLK Street Festival on October 10. The blocked-off street was bustling with smiling faces, food trucks, live music, speeches, and vendors selling clothing, art, jewelry, oils and candles, and free COVID-19 testing.
November 4, 2020
No matter who is finally declared the victor of Tuesday’s presidential race, African Americans will still be in a losing position. The election results will not erase the damage done to a people that have been historically denied education, health, housing, and economic opportunities for centuries. No matter who wins, Blacks will still be among those who disproportionately die from treatable illnesses, violence, and poverty. Our collective worth will still be far below that of white people.
If the coronavirus and the presidential election has taught us anything, it’s this: We’re on our own. The future of our children, our communities, our livelihoods, and our very lives are in our hands, not those of the Republican or Democratic parties. This is not a call to opt out of the democratic process; it’s a reminder that we must finally develop, promote and enact our own agenda, our own systems within the system.
November 12, 2020
It has exhausted all of us
Daily death reports, uncontrollable fear, no visits with friends or family, surges and resurges, shutdowns and more. For many, the coronavirus has exacerbated feelings of “COVID fatigue.”
It’s a real thing, studied, documented and categorized by health officials. The World Health Organization estimates that about half of the world’s population is experiencing what it defined as “pandemic fatigue.”
Dr. Hans Kluge, the W.H.O.’s regional director for Europe, said COVID has mentally impacted the entire world:
“Citizens have made huge sacrifices. It has come at an extraordinary cost, which has exhausted all of us, regardless of where we live, or what we do.”
November 12, 2020
A St. Louis Public School teacher's frustration with online education
“I have never felt so unproductive in my entire career as a teacher.”
Rashida Chapman, 36, a fifth grade math teacher at Pamoja Preparatory Academy at Cole is overwhelmed. The St. Public Schools teacher is experiencing the psychological scars of educating children during a deadly pandemic.
What’s most disconcerting, Chapman said, is trying to teach dozens of students at their homes through online courses.
“We’re literally learning an evolving platform with our students. And you want me to assist them, monitor them, and effectively distribute information to them? “It’s ridiculous,” Chapman said, describing her new normal.
November 25, 2020
“I want to feel something different.”
The voice in her head was new but strong. Kristian Blackmon, 39, wasn’t aware she was contemplating suicide. She just knew she didn’t feel right; hadn’t felt herself for days. What she defined as a “darkness” had enveloped her for weeks. But that night in early 2019, after work, while in the shower, an unexpected but convincing message boomed in her head:
Blackmon consumed all the alcohol and pills she could find in the house. Time passed, she blacked out only to be awakened by her cousin banging on her front door. She’d been trying to reach her all day. The cousin and her husband tended to Blackmon.
Because she had vomited most of the poison from her system, the cousin didn’t insist she go to a hospital. Instead, the cousin took Blackmon home with her.
November 29, 2020
Comedian/restaurant/bar owner Maurice Rankin pushes on
When it comes to comedy, there is almost no taboo subject. For Maurice Rankin, a comedy veteran and owner of Shade Restaurant & Bar in Florissant, that sentiment doesn’t apply:
“A lot of comedians find ways to comment on current events. Every stone will be turned over. But I just don’t find anything funny about COVID, especially since I just opened a business in the middle of the pandemic.”
Rankin has been in the comedy business for almost 20 years. He’s done BET’s ComicView, Laughapalooza and toured the world with comedy greats like Deray Davis, Nephew Tommy from the Steve Harvey Morning Show and the godfather of modern black comedy, Paul Mooney.
In December 2019, Rankin was part of a comedy show with his partner and fellow comedian Princeton Dew. The show was held at Hwy 367 BBQ at 1752 N. New Florissant Road. That night, Dew told Rankin that the owner, Chris Alexander, was considering accepting partners.
December 2, 2020
One day around the end of April, Amber Golden Smallwood, 41, couldn’t breathe.
“It was like an elephant was sitting on my chest,” she recalled.
The Kirkwood resident called her parents. They rushed their only child to an emergency room. Because of coronavirus restrictions, the family had to part ways at the door.
As Smallwood was wheeled away, she glanced at her parents with a frightening thought:
“This may be my last time seeing them.”
One worry Smallwood didn’t have was the thought of leaving her parents with the burden of making funeral arrangements for her. She has an insurance policy, with a generous payout she said. Her parents, a retired teacher and retired St. Louis County police officer made sure she did. Her mother, the former cop, was most insistent, Smallwood recalled:
December 9, 2020
The handwritten words on a white board inside the foyer are a disappointment for many:
“There are no funds for Utility Assistance ...”
“Rental Assistance applications will not be accepted until further notice.”
The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’ headquarters at 8960 Jennings Station Rd. in Jennings is one of three locations in St. Louis, St Louis County and St. Clair County. Its Ferguson location is a community empowerment center designed to help individuals improve their economic situations.
The Urban league’s city and county locations are part of a network of organizations that partner with federal, state, and local entities to provide food, mortgage, rental, weatherization, and utility assistance for people in need. That “need” has increased exponentially with the coronavirus outbreak.