For 40 years, Tillie’s Food Shop operated at the corner of Garrison and Sheridan avenues in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood in North St. Louis. More than a grocery store, the site became a hub of informal activism and community empowerment.
Now, students in the class “Building St. Louis History: The City and Its Renaissance” are trying to preserve this piece of the city’s past. They are working on an application to get the grocery store and its adjacent buildings — better known as “Tillie’s Corner” — on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lillie Velma Pearson opened Tillie’s Food Shop in 1948 at a time when black St. Louisans were kept out of white institutions and forced to create their own spheres of commerce, entertainment, and religious and cultural life.
Black entrepreneurs often were unable to attract capital outside of their communities, and white residents in neighboring areas were unlikely to patronize their businesses.
As crime in the area increased in the 1970s, Pearson refused to leave, believing that her community needed access to high-quality food. The shop’s longevity and reliability were especially important as residents and other businesses began to leave the city.
Pearson died in 2006 at the age of 91. Her granddaughter, Carla Pearson Alexander, and Carla’s husband, Miguel Alexander, still live in the house next to the store. The couple is striving to preserve Pearson’s legacy as a black female entrepreneur and inspiration to many.
To help establish the historical significance of Tillie’s Corner, the WUSTL students hope to speak with former customers and vendors. In addition, they are looking for black and/or female small-business owners who operated in St. Louis from 1948 to 1988. The interviews will be used to build a local archive of black- and female-owned St. Louis business history.
“The students are combining their intellectual interests with community service,” says course instructor Sonia Lee, PhD, assistant professor of history in Arts & Sciences. “They are not just helping the city, as they would through volunteerism, but they are building a body of knowledge that is vital to the city and their own intellectual growth.”