INTERVIEW WITH SENATOR JOHN BASS
INTERVIEWED BY DORIS WESLEY
LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MISSOURI RESEARCH CENTER-ST. LOUIS
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-ST. LOUIS
JOHN F. BASS
Principal, Beaumont High School; Comptroller, City of St. Louis Missouri;
Missouri State Senator
I grew up in the Ville. My grandparents had property on Easton Avenue and Aldine Avenue, which was originally called Lucky Street. Easton Avenue had a lot of tenement houses, probably four-room flats. We lived up over a grocery store and a used furniture store. When we lived on Fairfax we had three rooms with an outdoor toilet. That was the last year before the city outlawed outdoor plumbing.
I attended Cole School and Sumner High School. Those years were years of development for me. Sumner High School had some of the finest black minds in the country. That was my first contact with black professionals, and I was inspired by their knowledge, by the disciplined people who were our role models. They gave me a sense of what I wanted to be.At that time, community life was different. There were people on your block who were respected, whether because of occupation, or because of their practical wisdom, or because they were successful parents, or they had some kind of success through what they were doing. Those were the people who were your counselors. They took time, and they took part in your growing up. In high school I was on the track team, and I was in the city neighborhood athletic program. I was boxing at the Slaughter Athletic Club. I got into it because I was small and because I lived in a tough neighborhood. We had gangs back then, too. We had the Unmerciful Hulks, the Termites, and the Swanks. I was part of a couple of those groups. Gangs served a sort of social purpose. They showed your neighborhood prowess. I also was a drum major for the Spirit of St. Louis Drum and Bugle Corps, sponsored by American Legion Post No. 77. We marched in the Annie Malone Parade every year.
I started teaching in the public schools in 1950. In 1968, after a crisis about a flag burning at Beaumont High School, I was appointed principal of Beaumont High School. I was able to settle the student unrest because I was young and had a lot of energy. I could keep up with the students. Then in 1970 some black politicians came to me and said they were ready to run a black for mayor, a black who could get white votes. They got me a job at City Hall as the director of human resources. After two years in that job I was ready to run. But Mayor Cervantes decided to run again, and Poelker, the comptroller, ran against him. I was not interested in running if it would be divisive, because I already had a good job at City Hall, so I ran for comptroller. I went to Mayor Cervantes and told him I was going to run for comptroller, and he tried to discourage me. He said that since he and Poelker were both Democrats I would still have my job no matter who won. I told him that the black community was ready to test its political might. It was time for an African American to be part of the decision-making process. Getting into politics took a lot of image building, especially in South St. Louis. We had help from Sorkis Webbe and from the Pipe Fitters Union. I was the comptroller from 1973 to 1977, and then I worked at CEMREL, the think tank, and I was a city alderman. In 1980 I was elected to the state senate. My district ran from the Ville on the north to Highway 44 on the south, and from Goodfellow on the west to the Mississippi on the east. I represented the business district, the hospital district, the Central West End, the Grand Center arts district, and part of North St. Louis. I represented blues, booze, and Bach; the Big River City where the Good Times Flow. Then Bill Clay asked me to come to Washington as the chief of staff of the Subcommittee on Libraries and Memorials. That included the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Kennedy Center. The Library of Congress employs a large number of researchers, many of whom have Ph.D.s, to do research for congressmen and senators. Sometimes those researchers have to find out all about some issue in twenty-four hours. We need to ask ourselves, who are we going to turn the gauntlet over to? Who will stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before? Young people who get involved in politics need to understand about coalition politics, about working together with other groups. They need to develop a council of elders to advise them. You must stay informed about politics. Know who is representing you, who is affecting your life. STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MISSOURI RESEARCH CENTER-ST. LOUIS
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