Anne Marie Gordon said she did not know what her Lord had planned for Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, but she suspected God would accept him.
“I’m sorry for the loss [of the victims], but I feel [Thornton] was at his breaking point,” Gordon said. “He knew he was not going to make it out of [City Hall] alive. He knew it, and so I feel he made his peace with the Lord and still did what he had to do. He’s going to have to answer, but I feel the Lord is still going to say ‘Come on in.’”
Gordon spent the first 69 years of her life in Meacham Park and knew the majority of the community’s residents, including Thornton. Gordon said she knew several of the city council members well and thought individuals like Connie Karr and Ken Yost, two of the members killed, had worked to help improve Meacham Park. She said before the Kirkwood City Council shooting in 2008, Thornton caused no trouble in the community.
Gordon said the city loaded Thornton with parking tickets and fines. She did not want to believe the Kirkwood government tried to keep Thornton from success because of his race, but thought the council punished him excessively. She thought the government could have helped Thornton by not adding to his financial debt and chose not to.
“Somebody [in City Council] knew of his plight, knew of his situation, and it was just in a nice, nasty kind of way,” Gordon said. “They were determined that he really wasn’t gonna be able to make a go of it.”
Patricia Clark has known Gordon for 15 years. Clark moved to Meacham Park in 1988.
Clark said she did not believe people should ignore race when discussing the council’s choices leading to the shooting or how the tragedy affected the perception of Meacham Park.
“You can’t take race out of it,” Clark said. “‘Oh, I’m colorblind.’ No you aren’t. This world, this country is not colorblind.”
The deaths of the city council members were tragic for the community, Gordon said, but she also felt sad about losing Thornton. She said Meacham Park had suffered tragedies before, and she did not want this incident to follow the community’s members.
“It was just another black mark against Meacham Park because some folks, it may just be one person, but everybody gets blamed for it because of the color of their skin,” Gordon said.
A misunderstood beginning
Upon moving to Meacham Park, Clark found people outside the neighborhood reacted poorly when they heard she lived in the community.
“They would say ‘Oh, how can you live there?’ You almost had to apologetically say you lived in Meacham Park,” Clark said.
Pastor Darren K. Smotherson of First Baptist Church of Meacham Park did not know where the stereotypes about the community began. He did not grow up in Meacham Park, but he has ministered in the church for 12 years. He said kind and welcoming people filled the Meacham Park he knew.
Gordon remembered when Meacham Park was a self-sufficient community filled with businesses and neighborhood events. She said she saw Thornton open one such business, a demolition company called Cookco. She said he was a good contractor who worked to help his community before the annexation. Gordon said she, like many others in Meacham Park, remembered Thornton as someone who always greeted others with a smile.
Because Meacham Park did not belong to a city, Thornton did not have to abide by Kirkwood ordinances. He parked his construction trucks on property he did not own. Gordon said the community did not see the situation as a problem.
A dissatisfied end
Colin Gordon is a professor at the University of Iowa. He has no relation to Anne Gordon. He published his book “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City” in 2009. Recently, he has been conducting research into the relationship between Meacham Park and Kirkwood.
Kirkwood promised jobs to Meacham Park residents if the city were to continue its redevelopment plan, Colin Gordon said. He said work would greatly affect the historically poor community. Surveys from 1989, almost one third of Meacham Park residents were unemployed at the time and only 22 percent held part time positions.
Colin Gordon said Thornton was one resident hoping to get a job from the annexation. His desire to gain a construction contract, Colin Gordon said, motivated Thornton to advocate for annexation within Meacham Park.
“[Thornton] had been promised, though not in any formal sense, but he understood he had been promised that people like him would play a big part of business when Meacham Park was redeveloped,” Colin Gordon said.
Colin Gordon said Kirkwood took more homes from Meacham Park than they originally planned with the community. The city chose to turn the 100 and 200 blocks of the neighborhood into the Kirkwood Commons in 2000, demolishing over 200 homes in the process.
Clark said removing the homes displaced many Meacham Park families. The sense of community in the neighborhood began to dissipate, even though many of the people received a house for a house.
“The people who had lived there all their lives and known each other were displaced and broken,” Clark said. “At the time of that it was just a realization for a lot of people that their past was chopped up.”
Thornton was one of the dissatisfied residents, according to Anne Gordon and Colin Gordon. He did not get the construction job he thought the city promised him and his debts continued to grow.
“He became a little unhinged,” Colin Gordon said.
A united future
Gordon, Clark and Smotherson all agreed conversation between Kirkwood and Meacham Park had improved since the tragedy. The three of them said people from Kirkwood who had never visited Meacham Park started making friends in the community and taking steps to talk about racial issues between the two communities.
Smotherson said part of the persisting problem, however, was that Kirkwood and Meacham Park are still seen as separate entities when they are supposed to be one city. He said the Meacham Park longtime residents, like Alfred Minor, knew as children did not represent the community’s current situation.
Minor said the separation of Meacham Park and Kirkwood only hurt the community’s reputation.
“I don’t know why [Kirkwood] keeps wanting to say Meacham Park,” Minor said. “It’s Kirkwood, but everytime something happens, the first thing they say is ‘Community of Kirkwood’ instead of just ‘Kirkwood’ like you do ordinarily.”
Clark hoped if anything good came from the shooting, it would be unity. She said the neighborhood and city needed to join together to ensure no one ever felt actions like Thornton’s were necessary.
“Hopefully, it even opened Kirkwood’s eyes and their hearts,” Clark said. “You cannot do people like this, black or white. You cannot do a man or a woman like this and hide behind the policies of Kirkwood like it’s okay to discredit you, take your livelihood, strip you of anything, but ‘it’s okay because it’s Kirkwood.’ It’s not okay.”