A Flood of Memories
An Interview with Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.
Former St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. Photograph © 2009, Missouri History Museum.
Freeman R. Bosley Jr. carved a place in St. Louis history when he was elected the city’s first African American mayor in 1993. It wasn’t his only “first,” however. Bosley had also distinguished himself as the first African American to serve as St. Louis circuit clerk for the 22nd Judicial Circuit in 1982, then as chairperson of the Democratic Party in St. Louis in 1990.
Bosley had barely moved into the mayor’s office in City Hall when he had to declare a state of emergency in the flood of 1993. During the day he coordinated management procedures; at night he rolled up his sleeves and sandbagged at the levee. Although the city survived the flood, Bosley met much resistance, especially in south St. Louis, where he made the difficult decision to shut off gas and electricity to 2,500 skeptical residents in the floodplain who had refused to evacuate.
Other notable achievements during Bosley’s mayoral term include his role in coordinating the $70 million buyout of Trans World Airlines (TWA), in which TWA moved its world headquarters to St. Louis. Also, he oversaw efforts to move the Los Angeles Rams football team to St. Louis in 1995.
Before entering the political arena, Bosley was a staff attorney specializing in consumer affairs at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. He returned to law practice after his term in office ended in 1997, eventually starting his own firm—Bosley and Associates—in 2004.
On January 30, 2009, Mayor Bosley sat down with Dr. Robert R. Archibald, president of the Missouri History Museum, to reflect on growing up in north St. Louis, his early career in law, that infamous flood, and, naturally, politics.
This interview has been transcribed, edited, and condensed for publication.
ROBERT R. ARCHIBALD: Mayor, it’s really good to see you this morning.
FREEMAN BOSLEY JR.: It’s a pleasure to see you, a pleasure to be at the History Museum.
RRA: I’m interested in your political career, but I’m also very interested in your growing up in St. Louis and how your life evolved. We might just start at the beginning. Where were you born, what was your neighborhood like?
FB: I grew up here in the city of St. Louis, north St. Louis. I live right now presently in the third ward, what they call the Fairground Park neighborhood.
RRA: Is that where you were born?
FB: I’ve been living over there since I was ten years old.
RRA: Where were your parents living when you were born?
FB: When I was born, they were living with my grandparents in the basement at 3125 North Whittier, which is near Fairground Park but on the western end of it. By the time I was one year old, they moved out of that house into 4824 Leduc, which is right there by Cupples School. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to go there.
RRA: Yes, I have.
FB: I stayed there ’til I was about ten, and from there we moved over on Palm. And of course, we moved into an area that was in transition.
RRA: What year would that have been?
FB: That probably was about 1964.
RRA: So that was a time when there was a lot of white flight.
FB: Yes. An extreme amount.
RRA: What did your parents say about that? What was going on?
FB: I think what’s interesting, it only becomes white flight when we look back at it. At the time, you don’t think that that’s what’s going on. At the time, we were happy to move into the neighborhood. It was a beautiful home, very solid community, our block was probably 50/50 white-black. I went to Farragut Grade School, which was predominantly black. For my freshman year [at Central High School], which was ’68, to the time I graduated in ’72, it went from 60 percent white to 70 percent black. But yet and still, I guess while we are going through it, we’re not necessarily thinking that it’s flight, we just think that things are changing, you see.
RRA: It’s always hard to see where the end is of something when you’re just looking at the beginning of it.
FB: Right. And to kind of give you a perspective, when we first moved over there on Grand, on Palm, at Grand and Natural Bridge, we had two theaters—we had the Northside Theater, we had Tower Theater up on Grand and West Florissant. We had sporting good stores, we had bakeries, we had Woolworth’s, we had Rexall Drug Stores, we had everything that you would need to have a community, I mean totally solid. And I’m talking about, we had this in 1964. And by the time 1972 comes around, all that’s gone.
RRA: But what accounts, in your mind as you think back on that, what accounts for all the changes? Why did it change so much?
FB: Well, I do think that a lot of the area became more and more African American. I think in terms of downtown, I really didn’t notice downtown losing a lot of momentum ’til, like, I would say maybe 1976 through 1980. You still had a lot of hustle and bustle going on down there. But I mean, back in the day when I was a younger guy, downtown would be so crowded that I used to have to hold my mother’s hand, and if I didn’t hold my mother’s hand, I’d get lost. There were just so many people moving around.
RRA: At what stage of your growing up did you become conscious of racism?
FB: In the sixties, when Dr. King was coming up. I have the King speech that was in the Look magazine, it was in Look magazine or Life magazine. My grandmother brought me the speech, the whole text. Remember how the magazines used to be this big? And she’d say, oh, this is Dr. King’s speech, you need to learn this. Grandma, I don’t wanna learn it. She said, but you need to learn it, you need to learn. And I would read through it but I never could, never would, learn it. But my parents and my grandparents were conscientious, and so you’d hear them talking about Dr. Martin Luther King, you’d hear them talking about Malcolm X, you’d hear them talk about Muhammad Ali when he was Cassius Clay, and you’d hear them talk about those different issues. And so we were somewhat aware coming up.
RRA: Was there a point where you felt discrimination?
FB: I didn’t know that that is what it was at the time. I remember when we first moved up on Grand and Natural Bridge when I was ten years old, my momma told me to get a haircut. So I went to this barbershop up on Grand and Natural Bridge, it was right next to the Golden Point Restaurant. And I had one of my friends with me and we went in, opened the door to go in to get a haircut, and it was only white men in there. And the guy said, what do you guys want in here? I said, we want to get a haircut. Well, no, we can’t cut your hair here. He gave me a card. He said, go over on Hebert and Grand and see Mickey, whatever the man’s name was, gave me the man’s card, said use this and he’ll cut your hair. I didn’t know that it was a white man telling me I’m not cutting a black kid’s hair, go over there where black people are and they’ll cut your hair. I didn’t know that’s what he was doing.
Freeman Bosley entered Saint Louis University in 1972, graduating in 1976 with two B.A. degrees—one in urban affairs and the other in political science. In 1979, he obtained his law degree from Saint Louis University Law School.
RRA: What did you think about white people, all of sudden here you are at SLU, and for the first time in your life the majority around you is white. I just wonder because obviously then you become mayor and you got the whole city, half of which is white.
FB: The transition for me really didn’t happen then because it was still, even though I was at the university, it was still separate. The white kids stayed to themselves and the black kids stayed to themselves. A matter of fact, a lot of times white people would ask us, why you all sit together like that? Because we stand out, you know what I’m saying. If you’re in a class with 50 kids and you got three or four black ones and they’re all sitting together, the white students sometimes would say, well, why you all sitting together like that? Well, then our response is why you all sitting together like that? So there was the comfort level of kind of being close together.
RRA: When did you decide that you want to be a lawyer?
FB: Well, I’d always pretty much looked at it. My dad of course had always urged me to do it.
FB: Did your dad have a college education?
FB: My dad never graduated from college. My dad went to … matter of fact, that’s an interesting story, because my father, all my father’s sisters and brothers have graduated from college. My dad got accepted to a place called DeVry Institute of Technology.
RRA: Yes, I know of it.
FB: It was in Chicago. And he couldn’t get in as a black person so he applied as a Puerto Rican and got accepted as a Puerto Rican. And so when he got accepted, my father learned how to speak Spanish very fluently at Sumner High School. My dad got accepted and went to this place, DeVry Institute of Technology, for two years and never spoke a word of English.
FB: So that’s some of the things that black people would do just to try to get by. He would always encourage me, son, I want you to be a lawyer, you need to be a lawyer, you oughta look at this… and he’d always try to show me why being a lawyer would be helpful to me and to the family and also help move us along. As a kid, you say, Dad, I’m thinking about some other things. But after a while one of the things I did learn, it’s okay to have fun, but what is the goal here? The goal is to get out. I always knew the goal was to get out. And so when you get out of here, where you going? Well, I want to go to law school. So when I got to be a junior and a senior at Saint Louis University, that’s when I really began to focus, got my grade point average up, and was able to get accepted to Saint Louis University Law School.
RRA: When you got out, did you just hang up a shingle or what did you…
|Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. speaks at a dedication ceremony for a pedestrian gate at Tower Grove Park. Photograph, 1996. Missouri History Museum.|
FB: No, I had always wanted to work for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, all my life. That was my big deal. And of course my dad at this time was trying to get me into politics, wanted me to run for office and this and that, and I really wasn’t into that right at that point. I wanted to practice law and enjoy that and I figured I could help a lot of people with it ’cause one of the areas of practice for me was what they call consumer law. This was people who were being sued by Friendly Finance and HFC and all these other companies where people would lend them money or let them buy things at exorbitant interest rates.
RRA: Payday loans?
FB: Yeah, or let them buy some furniture and Friendly Finance would finance it and they’d be paying five dollars a week for 50 weeks, for something that cost a hundred dollars. And then they unfortunately couldn’t keep up with the payments and then they’d get sued. So I got into a lot of that kinda stuff.
RRA: That’s good work, but it probably didn’t pay much.
FB: Yeah, I enjoyed that. I got excited about that. And so then I started thinking about running for office and I started thinking about this office called clerk of the circuit court, which was where I was going to do all the grunt work.
RRA: What year [was this]?
FB: 1982, August.
RRA: And you won?
FB: Yes. We won.
RRA: Were you the first citywide elected African American?
FB: No, Bennie Goins, Benjamin Goins was the first, ’cause he was the license collector. He got appointed license collector. And so we start, man, we put on one heck of a campaign, and the next thing you know, the political establishment, I mean, they were really taken aback by this ’cause now it’s almost, how dare you all, I mean, who do you think you are that you would come out here and come up against us and decide you’re gonna run for some of these offices, run for this office and we’ve told you no. And we knew that we were at the point that we could grow St. Louis, we could grow it beyond the traditional attitudes and beliefs on both sides, white and black, that had been holding us back.
Bosley held the office of clerk of the circuit court for 10 years. In 1993, he ran for mayor of the City of St. Louis.
RRA: What were the issues and what were the politics like, especially the racial politics, surrounding that [mayoral] election?
FB: Well, of course, the city is a racially divided city and has been. It was in ’93, you gotta think about what the climate was. [Vincent] Schoemehl had been mayor for 12 years. He had run for governor and it was unsuccessful. I guess he decided at that point he should move on. At that point, the mayor’s office is up for grabs. And of course, I had been working on it with friends. I was the chairman of the Democratic party at that time, I was the clerk of the circuit court, had a wealth of support from people in the African American community, and decided that I should take a shot at it myself because I surveyed the political landscape, thought about the money, thought about the votes, and basically had prepared me a little model on paper as to how I might be able to win. I think Steve Roberts, who was the alderman at that time, decided not to seek re-election as an alderman in the 20th ward and decided that he too would run. So it was four of us [Bosley, Roberts, Tom Villa, and Tony Ribaudo]. Issues at that time, the city was broke, probably didn’t have a million dollars in the bank, crime, homicide was at an all-time high. Gangs were just, I wouldn’t say running amok, but they were really reaching a peak. One particular area, [corner of] West Florissant and Robin [avenues], probably [had] seven homicides within one year. Unemployment was high in the city. Education, we were still struggling with that, of course. The mayor really didn’t have any control over the school board but that was always an issue that we mayors would be confronted [with]. The football team, the Cardinals, was gone, we were building a stadium, of course, without a football team. We had housing issues, a lot of the money that the city had, Mayor Schoemehl for whatever reason directed it downtown so like in the stadium, in the dome, and Kiel…
RRA: These were federal dollars?
FB: Yeah, federal monies, the dome, the Kiel, Gateway Mall projects, things of that nature. So, very little money was going into housing in the neighborhoods. So I pretty much had identified those issues and felt that my concept was we need a new direction at City Hall. Direction away from what’s going on downtown, but back into the neighborhoods and let’s get into creating jobs, economic opportunities, let’s address education, health care, and housing and things of that nature. And so that was the basis of my campaign.
RRA: Did you feel a particular burden as you went into that office because you were the first African American mayor? Did you feel you had to prove anything?
|St. Louis comptroller Virvus Jones, East St. Louis mayor Gordon Bush, and Freeman Bosley Jr. at Bosley's swearing-in ceremony as the first African American mayor of St. Louis. Photograph, 1993. Missouri History Museum.|
FB: I don’t necessarily think I felt I had to prove anything. I felt I needed to do some things. I felt that I needed to demonstrate that African Americans were capable of being the mayor and they were capable of holding offices and positions. Things that should have been done a long time ago were firsts for me. Like I appointed Robert Henry the first president of the Board of Public Service that oversaw all the public services projects, public works projects of the city. Appointed Ronnie White the first African American city counselor, Lloyd Jordan the first African American chief of staff, things that should have been, could have been done but were really first in 1993.
RRA: It really represented a revolution.
FB: Yeah, it was kinda like a turning point. But one of the things that was so interesting, in my family, we came up looking at politics as service. And so really all I wanted to do was serve. And so I didn’t quite understand that that wasn’t enough for some people and I also didn’t quite understand that people didn’t care whether you wanted to serve. They were gonna be against you regardless. One of the things that was interesting that came out of that is when I did something and a black person benefited, the white people would say everything I did was for the blacks. If I did something and a white person benefited, black people would say everything I did was for the whites. You remember well that I talked about the black and white keys and I got that…
RRA: I still have my black…
Alderwoman Geraldine Osborn, Police Chief Clarence Harmon, Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., State Treasurer Bob Holden, and Community Development Agency director Janice Washington announcing a program to help city police officers buy homes in key St. Louis neighborhoods. Photograph, 1994. Missouri History Museum.
FB: I got that from my father. My grandfather used to tell me, just as the black and white keys play the “Star Spangled Banner,” it takes blacks and whites working together to have a city. Well, I believed that and I still believe that, but I found there were a lot of people that didn’t. There were a lot of important people that didn’t, that didn’t believe and didn’t necessarily care.
RRA: You mean for them it was about race, it wasn’t about service and doing good for the city. It was just about race.
FB: Right. And then for others it was about power and money. And they didn’t care who the mayor was, they wanted to still have the access to that power and they still wanted to make that money.
RRA: In general, I know you don’t want to talk about ... individuals, but in general, who were those people for whom it was just power and money? Business interests?
FB: I would say they were business interests as well as political operatives, people who I guess didn’t quite, didn’t know me before I got in office, were scared as to what I would do once I got in and felt threatened or intimidated about what it was that I might do. And as opposed to wanting to sit down and talk to me about it, it was just a knee-jerk reaction. I’ll give you an example. Did we talk about the fact that when I won the clerk’s race in 1982, I got less than 10 percent of the white vote?
RRA: No, I don’t think we did, but I’m very interested in, race is something that runs like a red thread through all of St. Louis politics and it’s an infection.
FB: Yeah, I got less than 10 percent of the white vote. So I went to some people and said, well, in particular I went to white people, and said, look, I didn’t do too good, I didn’t get many white votes, I wanna try to do something about that. Can you invite me to your ward meetings, take me around, can I go to some of the parades? I wanna go to some of the neighborhood events and activities and things that you all do in the park. And this is a big shot, he says, well, do yourself a favor, he said, these people find out you’re black, they’ll never vote for you. He said, just stay down, stay down there, stay on the north side and we’ll take care of this down here. So I was really disappointed ’cause these are people I knew and people I really had admired. It was like that song when I was in college called “Stuck in the Middle with You.” The whites didn’t really care for me to go down there and the blacks didn’t want me to go. Same thing, [I’ll] give you another example of 1993 with the flood. Okay, most of the flood was in south St. Louis, and so I come in office in April, May, of ’93, they started putting up the floodgates. June, they’re coming in saying, hey, Mayor, we’re probably gonna have a pretty big flood here. Mayors don’t know much about floods. So I’m relying on them for what to do.
RRA: Who are “them”?
|Freeman Bosley with other St. Louis area leaders at the "flood command center" during a press conference. Photograph, 1993. Missouri History Museum.|
FB: Emergency management, we got fire department of course, emergency management, and then director of operations because some people, we still got some institutional memory ’cause some people remembered flood, the last flood, and what the procedure was. Well, I said, let’s assemble a major committee that’s gonna start meeting on a regular basis to start figuring out what to do and making preparation, emergency readiness. So we got Laclede Gas, Union Electric, we had the fire department, the police department, and emergency management, and they met over at the Soldier’s Memorial. So I’m one day, here we are, my birthday, July 20th, so here we are middle July and they’re saying, hey, River Des Peres is about a foot from over running. And I said, well, what does that mean? Well, if the water comes over the levee at River Des Peres, eight feet of water will be in everybody’s house within less than an hour in that area, people are gonna drown, folks are gonna get electrocuted, people gonna get messed up. So I go over there, I said, well, let’s go over there, and it was almost like a scene in the movie. You had some folks who live right across the street from the levee, sitting out in lawn chairs, drinking beer as if nothing really was getting ready to happen. And I said, look, I think this flood’s gonna come over the levee. Oh, no, Mayor, I was here in ’72 and this is how far it came, they trying to show, they had turned into experts about the flood. So I said, okay, I go back to my office.
RRA: Could you order an evacuation?
FB: I’m getting ready to get to that point. Two days before my birthday, they come in and say, you gonna have to declare a disaster. I said, what do you mean? He said, they tell me, you gotta turn these people’s electricity off, you gotta cut off their gas. You gonna have to evacuate ’em. You gotta put them out their homes. I said, are you sure? And they said, yeah. I said, well how many of them is there? They said, probably about 2,500 of them. And I said, well, how do we declare a disaster? They said, well you probably just need to go over there to the site, I guess somebody told ’em I was coming ’cause when I got over there and was reading the document to declare the disaster, all the media was there. There are white people walking around with signs saying, the only disaster here is Bosley. And so I had to issue the orders, we cut off their electricity, we cut off their gas, we started pulling them outta their homes. You talking about some people that were upset, I mean they were fit to be tied. Here was a black mayor—and they hardly ever see black people over there, period—now gonna come over and tell them, hey, we’re turning off your gas, we turning off your electricity. Within 48 hours, that water came over that levee and the rest is history. They were on television crying, well, we didn’t know it was gonna be that bad, da-da-da-da. Well, I was on television and they asked me, do I feel vindicated? I said, I don’t feel vindicated, I’m just glad I did the right thing.
RRA: You ended up going down there and doing some of the sandbagging.
President Bill Clinton and Bosley during a presidential visit to St. Louis. Photograph, 1996. Missouri History Museum.
FB: Yes, I did. Yeah, we’d go down at night. I’d do all my meetings in the daytime, then at night we’d go down and, director of parks and recreation and forestry Gary Bess, he’d have a crew of people down there every night. I mean, they would be sandbagging from 8:00 at night to 2:00 in the morning. And going from various places trying to help people. So what happened also was the clergy, ministers, and black people started cooking food and taking blankets and clothing and stuff over there. People said, we don’t want that, take it, no we don’t want it, take it back. They didn’t want to accept food from the black churches, they didn’t want to accept clothing from black people. They just didn’t want anything from black people. And that’s ’93. So to me, that gives you a little microcosm of what we’re dealing with here in our community. And the frustrating thing about it is, it’s not just white people, it’s also black people. Some folks like it that way, some folks prefer that it be that way, for whatever reason, they’re scared or whatever. But it’s very deep and it’s very thick and it’s hard for leaders to penetrate it, and it makes it so difficult that some people choose not to, and that’s the most frustrating thing about it because instead of stepping up, they step back. And what’s that phrase, in order for evil to prevail, all it takes is for good people to do nothing. And the problem that we have here in this community is that there are far more good people around here than it is folks that don’t wanna do anything, but the good people for fear of alienating others choose to just not say anything.
RRA: You must think a lot about that, and do you have thoughts about how do we move beyond that?
FB: I always talk about my father, ’cause I learned a lot, my dad and my grandfather always telling things, and I guess I was like a sponge soaking up a lotta stuff. Sometimes first time I’d hear it, I’d laugh and dismiss it. But as I got to be an older man, I draw on stuff like that. My dad used to say, son, some people you gotta help in spite of themselves. And so that has been my philosophy about things. And I guess one of the things that I feel good about for the most part is I try not to let things bother me to that extent. You just do, you just try to do the best you can, try to help, try to push the ball further down the field. If folks wanna help, then let them help, those that don’t, then that’s fine too. But I have grown to accept that I can’t expect people to see things the way I see it or work at it the way I do. I’ve learned that I have to pretty much go to where they are in their mind and at their level and try to gradually bring them along.
RRA: Did you ever think to yourself, now how am I ever going to get these votes from these people? It must have been frustrating.
FB: Oh, it was very frustrating and one of the things is about politics, one of the things a guy told me, he said you’ve got to love your job so much that you’re willing to lose it. That’s how it goes.
RRA: As I look back on it—I was involved in the Forest Park master plan—you look around the park and it’s amazing what’s happened, and it wouldn’t have happened without you. I think people need to look back now and recognize the real contributions that you made and I’m not sure that they’re acknowledged the way they should be.
FB: Of course, we do it ’cause it was the best thing to do.
RRA: Well, yeah.
FB: But I really appreciate your giving a lotta the credit for it, but I also believe, you’re only as strong as the people that you have around you.
RRA: How did you balance your personal and professional life when you were mayor? Or does the mayor’s job just take all of you?
|Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. Photograph by Martin Schweig III, 1981. Missouri History Museum.|
FB: I learned from Schoemehl [St. Louis mayor, 1981–1993], one of the things he told me, he said, don’t think that you can manage your time here. He said, this office will take everything you got, everything. He said, so you gonna have to figure out how much time you gonna give it, and when you gonna cut it off. He said, and one of the things that you got to do, and I violated this rule a lot, he said, hold on to your Sundays. He said, if you don’t do anything else, hold on to your Sundays. And he admitted to me that he felt that the mayor’s office, the 12 years that he was there, cost him some of his relationship with his sons because of all of the time that it was demanding. And it does. And it’s like, you ever see Star [Trek] where Captain Kirk is on console and he says, Scotty, I need warp speed, and the thing said, Pshewww, and it just takes off. That’s kinda like what the mayor’s office is, every day. You wake up in the morning, boom, it’s a schedule, they’ll be picking you up at the house.
RRA: Would you ever do it again?
FB: Well, no, I think that my time has come and gone. It was a great opportunity, it was a great honor, but you only have a certain moment in time and I think my timing was good, I think I probably, one of the things if I think about it, I probably tried to take the city too far, too fast. Not understanding all the dynamics of it like I do now and probably there would be some things that I’d do a little differently, but in terms of, I just felt the momentum, you know what I’m saying? And one of the things about anything—game time, whether I wrestled, football teams—I’ve done a lotta things and timing is everything. And when you got the momentum, you just got to drive it. And that’s what I did.
RRA: Well, Mayor, I think we’ll stop there. It’s been a real honor to do this interview with you. You’ve been a friend for a long time, and I just really treasure your friendship and value the time together.
FB: Well, I appreciate that, Doc. And I think that you’re one of the key people in this community that has done so much to help try to keep us together. And one of the things that I mentioned too is that in this town, it doesn’t take a lotta folks, just a few people. The town is manageable. The issues that we got here are not insurmountable, they’re manageable. But instead of people stepping back, they gotta step up.