Alum investigates Clayton’s lost black neighborhood

Documentary selected to screen at St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase

How did Clayton become Clayton?

Emma Riley, proud graduate of Clayton High School and a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, never thought to ask that question until the unrest in Ferguson exposed the disparities in education, housing and resources in north St. Louis County.

“I asked myself, ‘What about Clayton?’” said Riley, who studied communications design, in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and American culture studies, in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University. She now works at the university’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. “How was it created? Who made those decisions? And how do decisions of the past affect the future?”

Riley probes those questions in “Displaced & Erased,” a short documentary that explores how a thriving African-American community was zoned out of existence to expand Clayton’s central business district. Here, Riley discusses the film’s inspiration and how it has changed her perception of Clayton. 

How did you put the movie together?

It started when I bought a history book called “Clayton: A History” which mentions, almost as an aside, this community between Bonhomme and Carondelet avenues. That was the first time I had ever heard there was once a black community in Clayton. So few people know about this — not the white people who lived in Clayton at the time nor black people who lived elsewhere. I found people who lived there and they told me how happy they were. This community had formed as Clayton formed. Black people owned property and paid taxes. But the city’s 1958 master plan envisioned a wealthier, more commercial Clayton. The neighborhood was rezoned, the homeowners were bought out and the people dispersed.

What motivated you to do this project?

I was drawn to study Clayton because I was interested in looking critically at my own roots in order to make better sense of them. I grew up in Clayton, and when I first came to Washington University, I was pretty shocked to learn about St. Louis’ history of racial inequity. I was also upset that I was learning it all for the first time, having spent my entire life here. Through my classes and experiences off campus, I learned of instances in which exclusive communities were designed; they didn’t just happen that way. I had the intuition that Clayton, being such a wealthy place, may also have been designed to be exclusive, and I wanted to find out if that was true. When I did find out about this community, I wanted to make sure Clayton High School students knew about it, so their education about St. Louis’ racial history would be more comprehensive than mine was.

Riley plans to move to Seattle, where she will continue her work as a filmmaker.

How has the experience of producing and directing this documentary changed your perspective about Clayton?

We are very progressive in many ways. We were one of the first school districts to stand up against discrimination of LGBTQ teachers. We have a very active Gay-Straight Alliance. People are thoughtful and inclusive — good people. And I believe the people who made these decisions about the future of Clayton in the 1950s and 1960s thought of themselves in the same way. And yet, I discovered restrictive covenants in Clayton as well as a history of efforts to stop affordable housing projects. And to this day, there is still no affordable housing in Clayton. So the question is: Does Clayton really value diversity? Are we acting on our values?

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