From the River to the Jail House – The Story of Francis McIntosh

When I began researching the life and death of Francis McIntosh, I was struck by editorial writers of the time who called “let the veil of oblivion be lifted over the whole affair.”   I’m a life-long St. Louisan and that is the region’s approach to anything vaguely related to white guilt.  Just in the past week, we’ve seen Rockwood School District parents fighting tooth and nail to keep objective history teaching out of the classroom, shouting “I’m not a racist, dammit.”

This project has gone through several iterations. Initially, I focused on the white voices: Lovejoy and Lincoln and Dickens. My thinking was that because St. Louis’ barbarity and injustice were so great as to provoke the whites of conscience on an international stage, it elevated McIntosh’s importance. But it’s still filtering the experience, the pain of McIntosh, through how it makes whites feel. 

Professor Geoffrey Ward was very good at placing the McIntosh case in historical context and again, filtering the experience through white behavior, especially the notion of “ungovernable whiteness.”  He also made important linkages between the instructions that Judge Luke Lawless gave to the grand jury and St. Louis’ well-documented grand jury failures regarding policing.

Originally, his interview was to be the centerpiece of the McIntosh segment, and the remembrance event would be a poetic capstone to the film.  However, when I heard Cheeraz Gorman speak at the ceremony, and especially when I re-listened to her recording while editing, I realized she nailed the points that I was missing, where I was unable to even articulate how I was off the mark.  She placed McIntosh in a different pantheon; that of Harriet Tubman and Breonna Taylor.  I thought the candlelight march and the river were appropriate images, evoking fire in a sacred way and using the river as a cleansing metaphor.

Ultimately, in the McIntosh segment, and in the other two, we found the use of authentic voices to be far preferable to dead white voices or academic insights.  And on a personal level, it feels good — and subversive — to tear a little at St. Louis’ veil of oblivion.

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