Self-taught genealogist and playwright Vivian Gibson’s short and powerful debut memoir, The Last Children of Mill Creek (Belt Publishing, 2020), recalls her childhood living in a segregated neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri that was demolished to make way for a highway in 1959.
As the second-youngest of seven children, Gibson chronicles the realities of African American life in her close-knit community from the perspective of her younger self, starting at age four. From this down-to-earth vantage point, the realities of working-class poverty, racism, and nationwide redlining and urban renewal policies loom in the background of her innocent memories. However, among scenes where readers watch cornbread rise in Gibson’s childhood kitchen, or clean church pews alongside her father and siblings, the author’s adult self breaks through, annotating her own memories with the benefit of hindsight and genealogical and civic research.
It was a project decades in the making, marking Gibson’s first published book. She was a contributing playwright of 50in50: Writing Women into Existence (2017) performed at the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn, NY. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published by Belt Publishing and Plough Quarterly Magazine, and Washington University St. Louis honored her as one of its Most Outstanding Students in 2012 when she received her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management at age sixty-three.
We spoke recently about the challenge of turning a critical eye to one’s own memories, Gibson’s experience writing her memoir over the course of many decades, and the role of research in writing personal nonfiction.
The Rumpus: Toward the end of the book, you mentioned how you got started on this process of revisiting your family history, and your childhood experiences. What was it like picking up this project as your first big writing venture?
Vivian Gibson: It’s really interesting that you ask that, because I get almost as much interest in the age at which I first produced a book as I do about the content of the book. People are very curious about me writing in my sixties and seventies, but actually I’d written those stories all along.
My mother passed away when I was twenty-seven and I started writing the stories for myself after that. But I never showed anything to anybody and it was mainly for remembering. My mother died and suddenly it dawned on me how little I knew about her. I just thought it was urgent that I write down what I could remember right then.
Sometimes it would be a story. Sometimes it’d be a paragraph. Sometimes it would be a phrase or would get this image of something and I just would write it down. It never occurred to me that I was accumulating all of these things over a forty or fifty year period.
When I retired and I had the time to just do whatever I wanted, I found them again cleaning up. I wasn’t moving but I was purging and trying to create space to be retired in. That’s when I decided to join this creative writing group, not thinking anything about being a writer, or about writing a book, I just wanted some help pulling it all together.
Rumpus: What was that experience like for you? Approaching writing with a group and getting feedback on the work you had kept to yourself for so long?
Gibson: It was the best thing I’ve done in a long time. I felt like I was going into a whole new phase of my life, something totally new. I’d worked for so long and I wasn’t really looking for anything to do during retirement. I’ve always been active but it was a way to remake myself, rethink myself.
With the writing group, I loved the experience of having people read and critique and put some effort into making each other’s writing better. It’s exhilarating. I really enjoy it. And pretty soon I started hearing, “You should submit some of these things.”
I was not ready to put myself back out there at first, but the leader of the group kept pushing me and pushing me and then I got requests for submissions from Belt Publishing for The St. Louis Anthology. So, I sent them something late at night and early the next morning, the editor said, “These are great. Do you have any more?” That’s exactly how it happened. And then next thing you know, I’m signing contracts.
Rumpus: Are you planning on writing more? Do you have another book in you?
Gibson: I’m dabbling in writing about a young, naive black girl going to New York City in the 1970s. It was an interesting time. It was disco and no bra and marijuana. And being naive played a big role in the crazy situations I’d get in, and then go home and go, “Wow, I’m not doing that again.”
This first book stopped at me being about twenty-seven. And I had a whole other life after that, an interesting life. I think it might be interesting for people to know how that all happened. After I left St. Louis, I eventually went to fashion school, and I worked my way up through McKinsey when they were first starting to hire people of color. I got married, I had kids. I did a lot. But it’s not all things I want to relive exactly as they were, so I’m experimenting with making it more fiction than memoir.
Rumpus: The structure of the book was an element I really appreciated. You wove in and out of all these different scenes that knit together very well, but could also stand alone almost as a short story or piece of flash fiction. It was a different approach than a conventional chronological memoir. How did you come to that structure?
Gibson: In my writing group we had a five-hundred-word limit, though I often broke the rules and wrote six hundred words. But all of our pieces had to have an impactful beginning, middle, and end, so I got good at working in that framework.
I think writers will pick up on that structure if you look carefully. They really are a bunch of little short stories and the biggest part of editing was knitting these stories together. I had about forty of them, so that was that whole developmental editing process, asking, “What are we going to take from here? And how are we going to structure it? How are we going to organize it?”
Rumpus: What was the hardest part about stringing all of those different pieces together? Since you wrote a lot of these stories on your own first, over many years, was it difficult to step back and see where everything fit?
Gibson: It was. The first thing I did was a chronology. I went through and tried to think about how old I was at each particular time. The other thing was the fact that I was writing from the perspective of a young child. I would sometimes get out of that, but I saw it as a safety net. I thought, if I write this from a child’s perspective, writing what I saw, what I heard, what I thought I understood, then that protected me, or allowed me to talk about other people in a way.
Rumpus: The crux of the book is your family leaving the Mill Creek neighborhood shortly before it was razed in the late 1950s. I’m interested to know, what does Mill Creek look like now? And how did your childhood memories of that destruction hold up against the historical context of “urban renewal” policies in the US, and the different changes that went on after you left?
Gibson: Well, I left after high school to go to college and I didn’t go back for almost twenty years. So a lot of that change, after my childhood years, I didn’t see. But Mill Creek was just wiped out down to nothing. For years. It was just like a bomb had been dropped and what it coincided with was the expansion of suburbs.
They built this highway and the highway took white people to the suburbs, and they went right by us. And once the people were in the suburbs, the businesses started going to be closer to their workers. For twenty years or so, nothing really happened in Mill Creek. There was a little bit here and there due to some kind of tax incentive, but sixty years later, there are still areas you can drive down where there’s just a big open space. Nothing happened there.
They built Pruitt-Igoe, where they just stacked everybody on top of themselves and didn’t build any green space for all those children to play. And the unfortunate but fortunate accident that my father had—he got a settlement from being hurt on his job—kept us from going there. I couldn’t find anything about how much money he got, but we got a car for the first time and we moved to the farthest end of the city before the suburbs started. That was as far as we could go. We couldn’t go into those suburbs.
Rumpus: From when your book came out in April to now, there has been this surge of people going to bookstores looking for antiracist literature and books by Black authors. I was curious if you’ve experienced a shift in the reactions to your book between now and when it was published earlier this year, and how you feel about that.
Gibson: Absolutely! I’m doing interviews and writing articles from my condo since I can’t meet anybody face-to-face. But there’s been so much interest with what’s happening with Black Lives Matter. It’s obvious that there is a renewed interest in race relations. And I really do attribute it to cell phones and these citizen journalists who are in these situations and can say, “See what’s happening, white people, you thought we were making it up?”
I went to college in 1968, which was a crazy year. You know, Martin Luther King Jr. died, there were riots. We were also protesting to get Black studies programs in universities; you can thank my generation for that. But it took a random reporter taking a picture of Bull Connor attacking Black people with hoses and dogs to wake white people up and say, Oh my god, this is really happening down there. It’s a parallel kind of thing happening now with cell phones.
Rumpus: What was your research process like, both within your own family’s history and then situating your story within the broader history of St. Louis and housing policies? Did you find people that were able to help with city records? Or did you have to teach yourself how to find and use different resources as you were putting everything together?
Gibson: I’m a teach-myself-but-also-ask-for-help kind of person. I spent a lot of time in the library of the local historical society and the people there were incredibly helpful. Not a lot has been written about Mill Creek. But then I’d go and look at a directory from 1940 or 1950, and I’d look at the insurance maps that showed where every building was in the city and who owned it, which is how I found out who owned their house in my old neighborhood and who didn’t, and could double check what their names were, for example.
Throughout the writing process, I would find a paragraph here or there about Mill Creek in somebody else’s book, but nobody wrote about Mill Creek itself. And so, because of that, I think there’s a lot of interest now that the book has been published, because people in St. Louis at least have heard of it.
However, people in other cities know about urban renewal, and the stories of how it played out in various places are often the same. People send me stories saying, “The same thing happened to me in Kentucky,” or, “The same thing happened to me in Little Rock in Cleveland.” It’s incredible. I never thought about it either until, in doing my own research, I realized it’s this exact same story that played out across the country. The research supported a lot of what I remembered and crystallized it.
Rumpus: I think access to records is something that’s not talked about as much when people of color, especially Black people, are working on reconstructing family histories. Reading about other people’s experiences trying to navigate either the lack of records, or dealing with the fact that you’re not always sure if the records are accurate, I’m curious to know whether those were challenges you faced at all?
Gibson: So, that’s the other thing you have to do—you need to go to lots of sources. You end up being very familiar with people who have long-since died that you never even knew existed. I read newspapers from the 1800s and actually began to recognize the names because I’ve done so much research.
Part of that genealogy research started with my grandfather, my mother’s father, who was of mixed race. But nobody knew who his father was. Nobody would say who the white man was because it was dangerous to say who the white man was. So it wasn’t anything that was talked about. That’s that’s how that society was. These white men could have their way with any Black woman they wanted. I’ve seen census reports where a woman would be Black, her husband would be Black, and they’d have children that were in the same sentence on the census report that were listed as mixed. I mean that’s how just brazen it was. So, they couldn’t talk about it, but people knew.
I asked some of my older cousins if they knew who Pop Pop’s white father was, and someone said, “Well, we’ve always heard Hamler.” I was searching, and there were a bunch of white Hamlers. I can trace the Hamler family back to Wales in the 1500s. I can only trace my family to Emancipation.
But the interesting part of that is, when I did my DNA through Ancestry.com, Hamlers popped up like popcorn. The records are there. I think the research is really important, it really is, and fun.
Rumpus: When you were going back and either doing historical research or finding things from your mother’s belongings for this book, how did that change your memories? Or perhaps not your memories themselves, but your perspective of your own childhood, did that change at all?
Gibson: I went in motivated by learning more about my mother. So I always thought that she would come out in this beautiful light, which she did, I think. I learned a lot. What surprised me more so was that how I felt about my father changed. I gained so much respect for my father after writing this. I marvel at the fact that he had three jobs for so much of our childhood. Yet he was always there, and not everybody had a father. Certainly not one who got up at the crack of dawn, went to work, came home, had dinner, went to another job, and then went to a third job within that second job. I think about it now, how he pushed all of that aside to raise these children the best he could, and so my attitude about him changed dramatically.
I remember reading something I’d written to my brother one day and he said, “Daddy was a badass.” Can you imagine having that revelation about your father at sixty, seventy years old, that he was incredible? So, when it was all over, I’m glad I ended the book with him.
Photograph of Vivian Gibson by Iris Schmidt.