The St. Louis Baptist Church and St. Louis School serve as reminders of a community that once thrived on its own and started in the late 1800s.
Some of the first residents were freed slaves coming from Georgia, Alabama and other Southern states, according to a history compiled by Winifred Johnson, 72, who was born and raised in the community and counts her great-grandfather, George Williams, among the early residents.
It was a school teacher who decided on its name, according to a history of Tyler Public Schools compiled by Zella Lewis.
“A group of students asked their teacher’s opinion about a suitable name for the community,” the book reads. “The teacher, professor Charlie Branham, remarked, ‘Oh, just call it St. Louis after St. Louis, Mo.”
The name stuck. In its early years, the community was primarily agricultural. Some of its earliest residents acquired large tracts of land and farmed for a living. It was George Williams who gave the church, school and cemetery each an acre of land, according to Ms. Johnson’s account.
The first church in the community, St. Louis Missionary Baptist Church, still exists today. Founded in 1885, its original location was different from the present-day site along Frankston Highway.
The first school was a two-story, three-room building on donated land. The school served not only students in the St. Louis community, but also children from nearby areas of Jackson Springhill, Clayton and Dale Chapel, according to Ms. Johnson’s account.
The philanthropic efforts of Julius Rosenwald, who was president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. during the early 1900s, benefited the community when a new school was built about 1924.
However, after only a few years in operation, the building burned one summer night.
A new school soon was built and the education of children continued. By 1936, 89 African-American children attended elementary-level classes there, according to The Handbook of Texas Online.
Ms. Johnson, who started attending the St. Louis School which was then a county school, in 1946, remembers it as a large, white-framed L-shaped building.
A log cabin served as the kitchen, and students picked up their food at a window and ate it in the classroom. There was no cafeteria or indoor plumbing.
“We had good teachers …” Ms. Johnson said, who lived in the community until she turned 26. “What I know about the teachers at St. Louis. I would say they were good, well-prepared teachers.”
Donald Sanders, 60, who also grew up in the community, said the teachers were concerned about the children.
“That was a big plus having the teachers to live in the community because the parents knew them, (and) they knew the parents,” Sanders said. “The children (were) afraid to act up.”
Businesses in the community also popped up. A syrup mill, cotton gin and candy kitchen were among the early businesses in the area. There also was a laundromat and service station/store, according to Ms. Johnson’s account.
Kids found there thrills in the simple things.
When he was a teenager and the streets and Highway 155 was paved, the kids would play sports. Their team names were “The Lane” and “The Highway,” for the west and east sides of the highway, respectively. Later they changed the names to “West St. Louis” and “East St. Louis” after the “Sanford and Son” television show came on and one of the characters bragged about East St. Louis.
Sanders said the churches have played a big part in keeping the community together. Although it started with St. Louis Baptist, five other churches are considered a part of the St. Louis community.
In addition, the St. Louis Community Improvement Association still exists and continues to advocate for the good of the community.
Although Sanders and Ms. Johnson no longer live in the community, they still are a part of it through their church attendance and property ownership in the area.
Sanders said it makes him proud when he thinks about the limited supplies and old books students had to use at the school, and yet many of those students went on to become successful working professionals and community leaders.
He considers himself among those as he represented the area during his time on Tyler City Council.
Ms. Johnson said she values the fact that her ancestors are a part of the community’s history and she wants to see that history preserved and kept alive for future generations.
“The St. Louis community has invested in the lives of families for approximately 143 years,” Ms. Johnson wrote. “It must and will continue to change lives forever. We understand the present by learning about the past. May this history be preserved for future generations, that they may know something of the origin and growth of their community.”