By Darrell James
The hallowed halls of the People’s Finance Building located in the Mills Creek
Valley neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri have been tiptoed by larger than life African American political activist who advocated social, and economic justice on behalf those downtrodden by a systemic institutional oppressive system prevalent since the beginning of the United States of America existence. Prominent Black leaders, headed up powerful organizations seeking equality, domiciled within the sanctum walls of the esteemed People’s Finance Building calling attention to the injustices waged against the African community in St. Louis. Civil Rights activism flourished in the Gateway City; more importantly St. Louis spawned an advocacy replicated across the entire United States.
One such occupier of the People’s Finance Building was the incomparable David
M. Grant, who staunchly defended African-Americans vehemently in St. Louis
advancing policies to ameliorate Black lives. Taking a look backwards, glimpsing into
Grant’s childhood will give a compelling and remarkable snapshot of how his
experiences help shape and define his persona. A montage of pictures, courtesy of author Gail Milissa Grant (Daughter of David M. Grant) will capture personage in still
photography. This essay will wade into the weeds and present a few photographs inside At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family’s Journey toward Civil Rights by Ms. Gail M. Grant.
A black and white picture-portrait of David Grant and his siblings taken in 1906 illustrates four children wearing Victorian style garments positioned from youngest to oldest. David is the first child from the left at the tender age of three; the symmetry and features of his extremely handsome face makes him more noticeable than the other children. Young Grant’s long lustrous curly locks parted slightly at 1 O’clock crowns his James 2 full face exquisitely. The bold expressive eyes mesmerize the on looking observer, and the eyebrows accentuate his glance. Pursed lips highlight his pronounced chin, and the apparel implies hints of a royal-like personification.
David M. Grant, the once child prodigy, now becomes a teenager still blessed
with his good looks and excelling in school beyond his years. At fifteen he graduates
from high school and after relentless pleading, his mother acquiesces and allows David to employ as a car porter on the Wabash Railroad Line running from St. Louis to Chicago and St. Louis to Kansas City. The intuitive David witnessed the racism directed
particularly at African-Americans, Pullman Porters had no union representation to
represent and protect their rights. A gentleman called Hart was the food service
supervisor, and David dubbed him “Simon Legree,” a fiendish-hideous bully who fired
porters for no apparent reason. When Hart admonished Grant for not addressing his white counterpart by “Sir” even though the boy was still in high school at seventeen or older and Grant had graduated at fourteen. A nonsensical discrepancy of an inventory of one can of beans made Hart’s baseless charge that David was culpable, and yet worst the supervisor yelled at David, “You are a common nigger.” David eyes welled up with tears at the onerous remarks by Hart. David composed himself, pulled his shoulders back and told Hart he quit, Mrs. Grant, matriarch of the family, felt the hurt and humiliation her son went through. Later as a lawyer for the city of St. Louis, Grant purposely found Hart refreshing that stinging memory and satirically thanking Hart for that dismissal resulting in Grant reaching the pinnacle as a lawyer.1
The second photograph is a touching heartwarming picture elucidating the
closeness between a loving mother and her son. Mrs. Elizabeth Grant is seated in an
antique high-back chair, hands folded and, right elbow resting topmost armchair. Mrs.
Grant’s fashionable draped long layered dress depicts rolling folds, she dons a
spectacular stylish wide-brim hat tilted sideways on her head. A modest necklace hangs from her neckline and an embroidered purse balances on her lap. David stands by his attractive mother, left arm bent placed behind the back of the armchair. David’s dashing and debonair good looks are punctuated by a supporting bowtie; a double-breasted suite coat has a square pattern bearing– elegance. Knickerbocker pants bloused and cuffed, moreover the pleated trousers are accented by the knee-high black socks. The ankle-high leather laced shoes are classical footwear and exemplify good taste during that era when the overwhelming majority of people dressed up.
Reaching adulthood Attorney David M Grant endless battles against the “Jim
Crow Laws” propelled him national salience, identifiable by his clutch performances
champion Civil Rights in St. Louis and surrounding region. United States Missouri
Senator Tom Eagleton praised Grant’s oratorical skills he delivered to rousing crowds.
Attorney Grant detested the prejudice he faced marking him and other Black attorney’s
subjected to biased White judges unfairly marginalizing them appearing before the bench. Many clients’ harbored feelings having a White attorney gave them the best chance in court proceedings. Grant also staged protest against the University of Missouri for prohibiting Blacks to attend their Law School so a challenge went to the highest court where Mizzou made the choice to offer aspiring Black Law students a “Jim Crow” education at Lincoln University which Grant protested resulting in his arrest.2
Inside the venerable hallways and scaled walls of the People’s Finance Building,
St. Louis African-American pioneers graced the interior spaces grappling with the
repressive institution, and proponents of “Jim Crow,” who promoted a nefarious system bent on maintaining this political bondage over Blacks in America. An assemblage of talented and capable professionals quartered on the inner side of the People’s Finance Building launched strategic plan of action designed to expose the social and economic disparities. Through an orderly manner these brave Americans fought by petitioning the court system to overturn the menacing “Jim Crow Laws.”
David M. Grant, oracle of the Civil Rights Movement, set up his law practice at
the People’s Finance Building where he litigated human right cases before the courts.
Attorney Grant’s nexus under the auspices of the People’s Finance Building (PFB) made
him reknown and famous as an exemplary counselor in St. Louis City and beyond.
Grant’s dismissal from the Circuit Attorney’s Office for participating in a march that
protested the lynching in Sikeston of a Black man prompted him to open his law practice within the confines of the PFB. More notable luminaries domiciled inside the PFD included NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Colored Motion Pictures Operators, and The St. Louis American Newspaper. Numerous African-Americans commented, “Anybody who was anybody had his office in the People’s Finance Building.” During the 40’s the PFD was recognized as “The Hub” of Black activism located in St. Louis.3
The People’s Finance Building and David Grant hosted many top billing Civil
Rights architects at the highly acclaimed St. Louis bastion of Human Rights edifice. Now turning to page 178, At the Elbows of My Elders, David Grant, pictured left, is seen here shaking hands with Ralph Bunche who brokered the Israeli-Arab peace accords and received the Nobel Peace Prize. Both Grant and Bunche are dressed immaculately in sartorial doubled-breasted suits.
In Grassroots At the Gateway: Class Politics & Black Freedom Struggle In St.
Louis, 1936-75, author Clarence Lang argues that the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) were contrarians in opposition to the benevolent organizations such as the NAACP. The CRC’s principle focus centered on Black unemployment and the brutal beating of James Perry, an African American war veteran attacked unmercifully by St. Louis police
officers where later he succumbed to his injuries of a brain hemorrhage. This flashpoint
incident put the CRC on a path of militancy and radical contentious public
demonstrations. The CRC gradually seem to eclipse the traditional protest groups whose influence was waning as time passes touching the 1950’s.4
Our fourth picture is a family portrait taken of David Grant and his family circa
1952 where David Grant Sr. is holding son David Grant Jr. and Mildred Grant is
bolstering daughter Gail M. Grant. Shadows cast silhouettes visible in the background
left and the image of the Grant family delineates a warm and loving family.
A precocious ruse implemented at the People’s Finance Building hatched by
David Grant and cohort Ted D. McNeal, later becoming Missouri’s first AfricanAmerican
State Senator used this sharp-witted strategy of “hawk and dove.” The pair
would go into a tense meeting with the sole purpose of the hawkish position taking an
intractable stance, usually belligerent, hostile, and unreasonable. The dovish one typically came afterwards cool, calm, and collective notifying their counterparts to deal with the more practical thoughtful individual. This tactic worked extremely well, the White officials were glad to bargain with the “sensible” individual of the dynamic dual. Each one many sometimes traded roles depending on the situation when sizing up their opponents.5
After a long and illustrious career David M. Grant departed on August 12, 1985
after an arduous bout with lung cancer. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, now defunct
newspaper, reported his death and countless achievements in the service of Civil Rights in St. Louis and the influence he scattered across the country. Attorney David M. Grant undoubtedly a patriarch of Civil Rights and properly takes his seat among the pantheons of social and economic justice in these United States of America!
Grant, Gail M. At the Elbows of my Elders: One Family’s Journey toward Civil Rights.
St. Louis: Missouri History Museum, 2008
Lang, Clarence. Grassroots at the Gateway : Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Pres, 2009
“David M. Grant Dies at 82: Lawyer Active in Civil Rights.” St. Louis Globe Democrat.
13 Aug. 1985