The Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson


Author photo by: Iris Schmidt

In this memoir, Gibson shares stories about growing up in Mill Creek Valley—a segregated neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri—before a massive urban-renewal project emptied the once thriving community of its 20,000 residents and 800 businesses.

The book begins with an introduction giving an overview of Mill Creek’s origins interspersed with anecdotes focusing mostly on the author’s mother, and discusses what the book is about and how it came to be. It felt casual and conversational, and immediately made me want to get cozy and settle in for a lengthy reading session. (Which is exactly what I did.) That conversational tone carried on throughout the book. It reminded of how, when I was a little girl, I used to go over to the houses of a few elderly ladies who lived in the neighborhood. I loved listening to them talk about their families, because it felt like storytime to me. That same pleasant feeling was evoked as I read this book, and it made for a wonderful reading experience.

The Last Children of Mill Creek describes the final years of a community marked for destruction. The focus of the book is not on that impending doom, however. Stories about her large family (which included her parents, paternal grandmother, and seven siblings) are shared alongside vibrant details of everyday life in the close-knit community. Mill Creek and its former inhabitants sprang back to life through Gibson’s words, taking the reader back to a time where sundown laws and segregation domineered the lives of African-Americans.

Mill Creek Valley demolition

I couldn’t help but be struck with a sense of loss, so to speak, when the author shared that she knew little about her parent’s early lives. It made me reflect on how important those unknown details become after the loss of a loved one… and how easily the opportunities for those stories to be told slip away, often without notice. There have been so many times I regretted not knowing what shaped the early lives of people I loved. There were so many little things I wish I knew, unknown things that only became important to me after my chance to hear those stories was forever lost. If anything, it serves as a reminder to request those stories, and not to fall into the trap of thinking you have plenty of time and can do it later—because time always run out when you least expect it.

I realize the above may seem off-topic for a review, but it’s actually highly relevant in illustrating the thoughts I had while reading this book. A single sentence informed the reader that there was much she didn’t know about her parents… and yet, that sentence lingered in my thoughts throughout the entirety of the book, and was something I connected with on a deeply personal level.

One of the reasons I read books like this is to try to understand, as best I can, how racism impacts the lives of people who experience it. It’s important to me to try to see the world through their eyes, so that I’m able to consider things not only from my own perspective, but that of others whose experiences are vastly different from my own.

I also look for the things I can easily connect with and understand, because I feel that is equally important. As people become increasingly divided over political and social issues in the U.S. and other countries across the world, the need for empathy and understanding are more crucial than ever—and I believe that begins with a willingness to discover the ways in which we are alike, as opposed to focusing solely on our differences.

I loved this book. In addition to be a great read, it sparked a several lines of thought (as shown above) that I expect to reflect upon for some time. The family stories are every bit as enthralling as the details surrounding the demise of the Mill Creek community, both of which I found fascinating to read.

Highly recommended for readers of memoirs/personal narratives dealing with segregation and racism with a strong focus on family life.

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Belt Publishing via Netgalley.

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Author: Vivian Gibson
Title: The Last Children of Mill Creek
Genre: Memoir
Publication Date: April 20, 2020 by Belt Publishing
Rating: 5 stars

About the Book

A true story of growing up in segregated St. Louis, The Last Children of Mill Creek is the debut memoir by a talented writer finding her authentic voice later in life.

Vivian Gibson is a native St. Louisian who grew up in Mill Creek Valley, a neighborhood razed in 1959 to build a highway. Her family, friends, church community, and neighbors were all displaced by this act of “urban renewal.” In this moving memoir, Gibson recreates the everyday lived experiences of her large family, including her seven siblings, her crafty college-educated mother, who moved to St. Louis as part of the Great Migration, and her at-times forbidding father, who worked two jobs to keep them all safe and fed. With an eye for telling detail, she sketches scenes populated by her friends, shop owners, teachers, and others who made Mill Creek into a warm, tight-knit, African-American community, and reflects upon what it means that Mill Creek was destroyed in the name of racism disguised as “progress.”

Now 70, Gibson started writing short stories about her childhood memories of the dying community after retiring at age 66. Her book is a personal account of family life at a time very different from the modern-day, when many working-class African-American families did not have indoor plumbing and when sundown laws were still in effect — and a document of an era that is now often forgotten or denied. In Gibson’s words, “This memoir is about survival, as told from the viewpoint of a watchful young girl — a collection of decidedly universal stories that chronicle the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.”

About the Author

VIVIAN GIBSON was raised in Mill Creek Valley―454 acres in the heart of downtown St. Louis that comprised the nation’s largest urban-renewal project, beginning in 1959. She started writing short stories about her childhood memories of the dying community after retiring at age 66. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.