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Story Publication logo July 8, 2019

Better Angels: For One St. Louis Family the Long Road to Social Justice Began Generations Ago

Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson

Families of color have long been thwarted in finding a quality education. We present the saga of one...

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The Washingtons, Theo, Denise and their son, Teddy at a rally supporting racial equity in Clayton, Mo. Courtesy of the Washington family. United States, 2019.
The Washingtons, Theo, Denise and their son, Teddy at a rally supporting racial equity in Clayton, Mo. Courtesy of the Washington family. United States, 2019.

In the early hours of July 7, 2018, Teddy Washington was among a group of incoming Washington University freshmen who had just left an IHOP in Clayton, where they had eaten and paid their bills. Coincidentally, others had left the restaurant about the same time without paying their tab. The manager called the police, who stopped Teddy and his group as they were walking down Brentwood Boulevard to a MetroLink station.

The diners all had at least one characteristic in common: They were people of color. After they were confronted, the students voluntarily returned to the restaurant. The manager immediately cleared the students. But the incident did not end there. The students, most particularly Teddy, then 17, believed they had been identified as suspects based on their race.

A couple of days later, Teddy and his parents, Theo and Denise Washington, filed a formal complaint with Clayton police. Officials and faculty members at Washington University were outraged on the students' behalf as well and demanded that Clayton apologize and make amends. Nearly three weeks later at a rally, the Washingtons and others spoke about inequitable treatment at the hands of Clayton police. Protesters cited other instances of African Americans seemingly being broadly targeted in the well-to-do largely white community. The controversy drew local and national media coverage.

Despite this, the Washingtons' story is at odds with how St. Louis has often been portrayed — as a nearly irredeemable hotbed of racial strife. Though they found themselves on the front line of a protest a year ago, Theo and Denise Washington, both 46 years old, will tell you they are blessed. Teddy, now 18, and his sister, Caroline, 17, say they feel privileged, a word they understand is generally applied to well-off whites.

The outcome is also at odds with the conventional wisdom — that protests are polarizing and futile. That press attention fans the flames.

In this instance, the Washington family's decision to make a complaint, and a Washington University faculty member's phone call to a reporter that made the issue a public matter, may well lead to progress and reform. On Wednesday, Clayton officials released a plan designed to address matters of racial equity in their community.

Though 10 students were involved in the incident, Teddy Washington and his family are the only people to date who have been identified publicly as being involved and who put their names to a formal complaint with Clayton.

In doing so, the Washingtons moved carefully and deliberately. They did not go to the press with their story. That was done by a third party. But they participated in a raft of interviews when asked. They did not organize the public protest, but showed up at the rally to say their piece.

They say they respect law enforcement, and are related to two former chiefs of police for the city of St. Louis, Ron Henderson and Dan Isom. Many family members have also served in the U.S. armed forces.

While the Washingtons are proudly African American, they identify in other ways as well, perhaps first and foremost as devout Catholics. Theo is a math teacher, who recently earned his doctorate. Denise is a CPA with a master's in business administration, and worked for 17 years in finance and accounting. A few years ago she forged a new career in human resources.

The Washingtons also identify as proud St. Louisans, even prouder Americans. This family has enjoyed some of the best the St. Louis region has to offer. But going back just a few decades, Denise and Theo Washington and their extended family have seen and experienced some of the worst. That is what prompted them to protest.

Sitting in an easy chair in an alcove in Washington University's Umrath Hall, Teddy Washington reflected on his IHOP experience. A 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound man, Teddy said people often tell him he resembles golfer Tiger Woods. But baseball is his game, and he hopes to someday pitch in the major leagues. His Plan B is to make his mark on Wall Street. Or maybe he'll accomplish both.

"There may always be people who underestimate me," he wrote in his college admissions essay. "But I will always overperform. I don't blend in; good, bad or indifferent..."

"I get to stand in front of a group of people and give a presentation? Absolutely. I get to stand on a mound, pitch and regulate a game? Yes, sir. I get to talk about racial relations with a group of people uncomfortable talking about racial relations? Sign me up. As my mom would say, I'm going to put some 'umph' in that 'try.' I'm going to triumph! Watch me now!"

Not long after he wrote those words, a lot of people were watching Teddy.

He told CNN that the Clayton police on that summer night approached him and his friends "as if we were culprits in a crime." He noted that he later learned that the police were conducting their search with a vague description of four young black males leaving the IHOP. Teddy was with 10 young black friends, some of whom were women. Some had kept their receipts.

The police stop probably would not have happened, he told the interviewer, if the scenario involved whites.

One question that did not come up: Was such an experience commonplace for Teddy, a teenager who had grown up in St. Louis? The answer for both Teddy and Caroline would have been no. They had never felt the sting of bigotry in the way that their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles had.

Which leads to more questions, such as: How did Teddy and Caroline get to this place, when so many other people of color in our region clearly have not?

It came from very careful guidance and grooming from their parents and grandparents. Theo and Denise shared only so much information about their youth, just enough for Caroline and Teddy to know life had been more challenging for their parents and extended family.

"I put a whole lot of emphasis on trying to balance an understanding of the world we live in without scaring them," Denise said. "I don't want to in any way push my kids toward hopelessness."

But now that they are young adults, Theo and Denise have been telling their children detailed and intimate stories about their journey.

Just last month, Teddy and Caroline learned that their dad lived at 22 different addresses in the first 22 years of his life. That the father of his first girlfriend had been chased down and fatally shot in the yard across from Theo's home.

That when Theo was a teenager he saw some Kirkwood officers stop a group of black kids for no apparent reason. Theo, who was not involved, stepped up to question the treatment. For speaking up, he was cuffed, taken to the station house, detained for two hours, but never charged.

That, but for the grace of God, Theo's life could have gone totally sideways as it did for his brother, Mike, who was murdered in 2006 by a man with an assault rifle who fired 65 rounds at him in broad daylight in north St. Louis.

Theo and Denise kept things positive in their home while at the same time encouraging Teddy and Caroline to develop their voice, practice their faith, and study hard.

One of the strongest influences on Teddy and Caroline is their grandmother Carol Henderson-Powell, an educator with a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees and certification as a principal. Carol taught in both city and Catholic schools. As Denise remembers her childhood, her mom was seemingly everywhere, serving on her church's parish council and as a Girl Scout leader.

Carol lives in a stately three-story home on East Fair Avenue near O'Fallon Park with her husband, Robert Powell, an artist and civic leader.

The neighborhood has its crime problems and did so when Denise was growing up. She remembers one killing on her block when she was in high school, and multiple fatalities from an apparent drug war just a few years later.

"And the next day was just another day," Denise would later write in the testimony she shared first with members of her church and recently with Teddy and Caroline. "We didn't get counseling for the horrors I had witnessed or move given the clear and present danger that surrounded us all — we just went on … life as normal."

Much later, in 2014, an organization called For the Sake of All, based at Washington University's Brown School of Social Work released a study based on health outcomes by ZIP code in the region. It showed that an infant born in 63107 — where Denise and her mother lived — had an average life expectancy of 67.8 years compared to 85.1 years in Clayton (63105). That discrepancy isn't all due to violent crime. It has to do with access to health care, decent and affordable childcare, quality schools, clean air, and access to fresh and healthy foods.

Carol was going to make sure that none of those factors would enter into Denise's life, particularly when it came to education. She filled her home with books and high expectations. She sent Denise to a rigorous Catholic grade school, and when opportunities opened up under the area-wide desegregation program, she went along with Denise's desire to participate.

Denise attended Parkway West, a state-of-the-art high school in Chesterfield, 18 miles from her home. It's where she first met Theo.

Each day when Denise returned to East Fair Avenue, she said she felt a little bit afraid. But at the same time, she appreciated her mother's desire to remain close to her roots, to set an example in her neighborhood.

It was with that mindset that Denise and Theo looked for a neighborhood, and a school for their kids, that felt safer, but also like home. Though they could afford it, Theo and Denise did not want to move to west St. Louis County. She had benefited from her Parkway education, but Denise said she still felt treated as an outsider.

They settled on the north St. Louis County community of Pasadena Hills, population 1,000, just 10 minutes from Denise's girlhood home. The historic village sits on three forested acres, and features an ornamental front gate, a fountain, a pond, winding streets and solid nearly century-old brick homes.

Most of the Washingtons' neighbors were sending their kids to private or parochial schools. Denise found a gem in St. Roch, in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood near Washington University and Forest Park.

The parish's outspoken pastor, Monsignor Sal Polizzi, had been working with developers and city officials to keep the neighborhood both stable and racially diverse.

Students post outstanding scores on standardized tests, and when moving on to high school, typically get into the region's most competitive schools — like St. Louis University High, where Teddy would go, and Nerinx Hall, where Caroline spent her freshman and sophomore years.

Teddy remembered mixing easily with both white and black students. "There was no sense of color," he said.

In his professional life, Theo was finding a very strong sense of color. He is a math teacher — and the only black one — at Ladue Middle School.

His career has taken him from classrooms in East St. Louis, to University City, to Ladue. He has worked with students who come to school weary and hungry and those whose parents hire private tutors for them if they are falling behind.

Theo has noticed the disparities and made it a focus of his studies. While continuing to teach, he earned a master's degree in educational leadership and administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2001, and in May he received his doctorate in the same field at Maryville University. He hopes to become a superintendent of schools.

At Ladue Middle, Theo feels the weight of addressing the needs of the African American students. Unspoken, but on Theo's mind, is that the faculty and administration rely perhaps too much on him to be the "whisperer" for these students.

At a faculty meeting in January to discuss students' test scores, Theo picked up on an unhealthy vibe. Noting a gap between the scores of white and black students, some white teachers suggested the black male students were unmotivated.

"I am sorry to inform you," Theo wrote in an email to 14 of his math department colleagues and school administrators, "but black boys do not have the market cornered on a lack of motivation. Remember, 'they don't care until they know that you care.'"

The response Theo got to his email was in large measure gratifying to him. After a meeting with an assistant superintendent, he was invited to continue studying the issues he raised and develop a plan to address them. "It certainly created more work for me," he laughed.

On Aug. 4, 2014, Denise sat down at her computer and wrote a blistering email that she distributed widely. It went first to her state representative, Clem Smith, D-Normandy, but then to many others from then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, to Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Washington Post.

"We have a police harassment issue in our neighborhood that we need addressed," Denise wrote.

She outlined how police were pulling over motorists for so-called sobriety checks. "It seems the only means for some of these police departments remaining solvent is by giving out tickets to drivers exceeding the speed limit by two or three miles an hour," she wrote.

"I am asking that you work to protect us from the very people tasked with protecting us who currently are doing nothing more than harassing us themselves."

Denise hit the send button at 9:42 a.m. that Monday morning.

Five days later, just past noon on a Saturday, a Ferguson policeman fatally shot Michael Brown, setting off a chain of events involving protests and property destruction known around the world as #Ferguson. In the ensuing weeks and months, reporters dug into how police in Ferguson and other municipalities had used traffic stops and the enforcement of petty violations against black residents as a means of filling their coffers.

It's quite likely the incident at the IHOP might have been handled without the public ever knowing about it. The Washingtons went to the police department, not the press. Officials at Washington University informed the parents of the students involved and administrators through an email on a need-to-know basis.

But word gets around.

Shanti Parikh is a tenured anthropology professor at Washington University, and a Clayton resident. She is married to Jason Wilson, the owner of Northwest Coffee Roasting Co., which has a store in Clayton. Just months earlier, Wilson was stopped twice by Clayton Police as he went door-to-door campaigning for a seat on the Clayton school board. He did not remain silent about the treatment, and Tony Messenger wrote a column about it in the Post-Dispatch. "What gets me about this is the assumption," police seemed to have, he told Messenger. "You assume I don't belong here."

When Parikh learned about what happened at IHOP, she spoke with Denise Washington and after getting her permission, called the Post-Dispatch. Ten days after the incident, a news story was published by the newspaper.

After the story became public, the university demanded that Clayton apologize. Provost Holden Thorp tweeted that he was "embarrassed to be a resident of Clayton." Chancellor Mark Wrighton wrote an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch expressing outrage. The city promised a full investigation. Within a week, the city issued an apology and said it would hire an outside firm to review the matter.

Mayor Harold Sanger on Sept. 29 issued a report saying officers had followed department "policies and procedures," but acknowledged a need for better race relations in the community.

In October, the city hired a consulting firm at a cost of $158,000 to develop a process for Clayton to promote diversity, equity and inclusion among everyone who lives, works, and visits the community.

The consultants who weighed in Wednesday recommended strong racial equity medicine for the community.

"Clayton is facing an existential moment," the consultants said. "They must decide if they want to sweep those concerns away and ignore them or if they want to withhold judgment, listen to each other and agree on the kind of community they want for their children."

The Washingtons are proud of the role Teddy played in catalyzing the community.

They say it is their faith that took them to the Clayton Police Department to lodge their complaint. God had presented the family with an opportunity to step up and speak for others. Denise said she had long been taught by her elders, "If you have been granted the opportunity and have the gift to bring about healing, you must have the courage to do it."

As Theo recounted his difficult life's journey for his children, he shared a passage of Scripture — Psalm 91:9-12— suggesting that in the pursuit of their own happiness, they leave no one behind:

"Because I have made the Lord my dwelling place — the Most High, who is my refuge — no evil shall be allowed to befall me or mine, no plague shall come near our tent. For He will command His angels concerning us to guard us in all ways. On their hands they will bear us up, lest we strike our foot against a stone."