O’FALLON PARK – A 14-foot flag in north St. Louis proudly boasts colors of red, black and green, a tribute to 20th-century Jamaican-born political activist Marcus Garvey and his teachings on liberation for black people.
At 4101 West Florissant Avenue, members of the Uhuru Movement are continuing that message with a building covered in tribal patterns and matching colors.
The name of this building is the Uhuru House, a 9,000-square-foot structure that includes an open hall for events and offices that serve as headquarters of the International People’s Uhuru Movement’s St. Louis chapter.
The house is one of three operated by the African People Socialist Party, a political organization that focuses on African internationalism.
“I like to say that the Uhuru Movement is like a tree,” said Kalambayi Andenet, president of the International People’ Uhuru Movement. “It’s rooted in Black Power and destroying colonialism, and the root of it is the African People Socialist Party.”
The Uhuru House here was a product of the turbulent time after the killing of Michael Brown in August 2014. The party was already present in Ferguson but began to get more attention when they staged their own grand jury on his court hearing.
The party’s chairman, Omali Yeshitela, was here watching the protests and saw an opportunity for his organization to grow its presence and help area residents.
Yeshitela wrote a report in 2014 that offered a strategy called the Black Power Blueprint to rebuild the economic value of the city’s north side. Although Yeshitela doesn’t live in the St. Louis area, he had the help of members such as Andenet who knew the area and saw up close what it was experiencing.
“One of the things they saw was that they had real committed forces fighting on the ground,” said St. Louis resident Ticharwa Masimba, economic developer of the Black Power Blueprint. “They would do anything necessary to forward the objective of our organization and our movement. That was a part of the basis for the Uhuru House being built here.”
With other houses already established in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Oakland, Calif., the party wanted St. Louis to be their next home.
Once local members heard news of the house being established here, the next step was to find the perfect building. Ona Zené Yeshitela, the party’s deputy chair, picked the building on West Florissant.
“The building was dilapidated,” Masimba said. “You probably couldn’t be able to sit and have a chair right there because there would’ve been a hole in the floor. There was a couch in the middle of the floor because people who were homeless were living out of this building.”
The party began renovating the house with the help of local contractors and neighborhood residents – including some of the people who had been squatting in the building. Many of the workers volunteered their help, and many other people gave financial donations.
The Uhuru House opened its doors and arms in April 2018.
The Black Power Blueprint includes plans for a marketplace, for which the land is now being cleared, and a café/commercial kitchen, both near the intersection of West Florissant and East Alice Avenue. The businesses would employ area residents, including those who may have been homeless or recently incarcerated.
”We’re trying to make the North Side more like the South Side,” Ona Zené Yeshitela said.
Neighbors praised the party and the building for the positive influence they have made in the area so far.
“From my perspective, they’re trying to join the community together,” said one nearby resident, who did not want his name used. “They’re trying to build the community back up, instead of tear it down.”
Uhuru House hosts a meeting every Sunday, welcoming both current members and anyone else who may be interested. The group also spreads its political and economic message through local programs and events, and the House also offers its Akwaaba Hall for rental by area groups.
Recently the House hosted a screening of the Netflix series “When They See Us,” to help people understand the importance of knowing their rights. The series is about the five people falsely accused of the assault and rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989 and their long fight for exoneration.
“I learned a whole new world of what it meant to be an organizer and how we communicate with our community,” Andenet said.