Per the city website, the park was originally the site of the old Gamble Reservoir, Norman Seay Park was acquired by the Park system from the City Water Department in 1874. During the 1930's, a Gamble Recreation Center was built and the Park is now used as a playground (source).
The park is a beauty, it appears well cared for, clean and in-use by dignified park goers. I really like the feel of this one. A stark contrast to other near-by parks.
There is a beautiful pavilion, walking path, basketball court, softball field, playground and of course the previously mentioned Gamble Community Center that among other things, is host to a summer camp program by the City's Recreation Division.
The Gamble Community Center was erected in 1938 under Mayor Bernard Dickman.
So who is Norman Seay? He is considered one of St. Louis' most widely respected civil rights activists. He was also an administrator and director of equal opportunity at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the suburbs north of St. Louis. He marched in the 1963 Jefferson Bank protests against lack of black professional hirings at the bank and other institutions. This march is considered a key chapter in the civil rights history of St. Louis. The St. Louis Beacon did a nice interview with Mr. Seay in 2010. Here are some excerpts from that story:
"St. Louis was highly segregated," Seay said, describing what life was like in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He told of department stores and drug stores where African-Americans could not eat at the lunch counters. And how African-Americans couldn't get jobs in downtown establishments, other than as janitors or elevator operators.
As a teen, Seay had been meeting in a discussion group for young people, sponsored by the National Council of Christians and Jews. The group met in the University City home of Margaret and Irv Dagen, who were starting a St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE.
In St. Louis, the Dagens invited the young Seay to join them. It was CORE that led many of the demonstrations around town, including at the Jefferson Bank.
As Seay reflects on the time that has passed since his early protest days, he acknowledges the gains that have been made. While St. Louis has struggled to see racial parity among the ranks of its police and fire departments, both have had African Americans as chiefs. Where the public transportation system once hired only whites as drivers, African-American men and women operate many of the buses and MetroLink trains that run throughout the metropolitan area.
Still, Seay said, more work needs to be done. Racism today is no longer as obvious as it once was, he said. "It's sneaky. It's subtle," Seay said. Even in a nation with a president who is African American, racism and sexism continue to make it difficult for women and people of color to reach their full potential, Seay said.
"We still need to do more to make sure all kids are getting a good education," so they can compete in a struggling economy. And parents need to be more active in their children's lives to keep them out of trouble, he said.
But when asked who he sees as the future leaders of the civil rights movement in St. Louis, Seay shakes his head.
Who are the next generation of Frankie Freemans, Margaret Bush Wilsons and William Clays? Who is the next Norman Seay?
"I don't think we did a very good job of raising up new leaders," he said.
Seay remains active with the Urban League and the NAACP and said he is working to compile a report on the state of African Americans in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
With widespread problems such issues as unemployment, crime and teenage parents, he said he sees much work to be done.
There is another sign of tangible progress, however, that makes Seay smile. These days, when he has money transactions, he goes to the Bank of America branch at St. Louis and North Florissant avenues.
"They have a black manager and assistant manager," he said. "And all the tellers are fully integrated."
The times have indeed changed for the better of us all, and we owe people like Norman Seay gratitude for doing the right thing and taking a stand toward bringing attention to the idiocy of segregation and discrimination in the mid 20th Century.
In 2013, a group called 'Friends of Norman Seay' raised some money and through the office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, arranged for Mr. Seay to visit President Obama in December, 2013. UMSL chancellor Thomas F. George asked Seay to present Obama with a Chancellor’s Medallion, the university’s highest award. (source)Norman Seay still lives in his family home on James "Cool Papa" Bell Avenue in the Jeff Vander Lou neighborhood in which the park carrying his namesake exists. Star baseball player Cool Papa Bell was Seay's uncle.
I am grateful that there are parks named after our civil rights leaders of the past; otherwise, I would have never researched these important figures in our history. I like the local flavor these commemorations add to the park's and city's story.
It will be up to the next generation to preserve the neighborhood surrounding Norman Seay Park from falling further into ruin. It has been beaten and abused and abandoned by the last couple generations. It needs leaders and activists and investment from the current community. Churches, homes, businesses are decaying and being destroyed by the elements and the brick thieves.
I hope this and the next generations take a stand for what is right and work toward making Jeff Vander Lou and the other all-black neighborhoods of North City become a place of dignity and pride and success in honor of those who fought for dignity, pride and success in the recent past.