A quiet voice in a loud city: Almeta Crayton’s story
by Lauren Foreman
On a small side street in the First Ward, there are no pedestrians, no cluttered chatter, and no neighbors sitting on the front porches before 5 o’clock. There are plenty of parking spaces and quiet. The neighborhood is neglected, fenceless, beware-of-the-dog-signed and roof-tops-patched. Each house blends in, in a neighborhood that sticks out like a missing Lego.
The three rickety, creaking wooden steps begging to break with every step of pressure, the windows still lined with Christmas lights, the thin walls that let sound escape them, this is 409 Oak St. The house reveals the story of Almeta Crayton, a working class single mother. Near 50, she says in a tone that restricted age questions to that one.
Although her kidney disease limits her work to part time with the Columbia Public School system, dedication and curiosity keep her hands and feet moving. Single mother and mother to the community, the wide-smiling inhabitant of house 409 is hard at work for her community.
She watches anything on TV pertaining to African Americans or politics, then tries to affect change, Crayton’s good friend Wynna Faye Elbert says.
To Elbert this dedication is more than a characteristic. It is who Crayton is. Her will is her way.
“I remember the first time she ran, she said very seriously ‘I’m going to run for city councilwoman.’” Elbert laughed, unconvinced. True to her promise,
Crayton ran for councilwoman and lost by only 100 votes. Three years later, she won and served the First Ward for nine years.
Elbert says her good friend is one of the few community leaders actually doing something to push her ward to the future.
Crayton speaks candidly about a racially fuelled, systematic inequity in Columbia. She speaks about the local government, the education system and society as a whole ignoring the black community of Columbia.
“The ideal of the thing is they just can’t shut you out forever, and if you don’t know that, then you allow them to continue to do that.”
When she speaks, the “thangs” often replace “things”, and the “sholl ises” flow out where the “sure ams” belong. But she means every word she says the way she says it.
Crayton stays true to her beliefs: true to herself. Placing what she considered an ignored community in the limelight, she puts the forgotten children on stage. She brings out their best qualities with her limited resources.
One afternoon in New Franklin, this came in the form of a pig.
“I had a fella that gave me a hog.” In a room full of suits and business casual, she went on to explain her seemingly unusual request for a whole pig, the sound coming out of her in bursts.
“I cooked the whole hog, and I brought it to the kids in the park, and they had never seen nothing like that.”
With her friend, a police officer, doing the cutting, the line of kids wrapped around the table as they took pictures in front of the pig before eating.
She does not look like a suited and detached politician and does not act like one. “Good ol’ common sense down to earth person,” says Floyd Turner, an acquaintance of Crayton’s.
At the annual Poor Man’s Breakfast for MLK Day, she gets knee-deep in the poverty that plagues her community.
What started more than 10 years ago as the University’s MLK breakfast at $20 a person became Crayton’s Poor Man’s Breakfast.
She got T & H, a local restaurant, to put on the breakfast at $5. “Biscuits, toast, grits, bacon, eggs. Lunch fried chicken, candied yams, greens and pig feet. We had people in standing room only,” she says laughing.
When T& H closed, Crayton was determined not to let her breakfast die.
“I told them. I said I’m not gon let it stop because these people need somewhere of their own too to celebrate Dr. King.” So she rolled up her sleeves.
Accepting only donations this year, Crayton hosted the breakfast at St. Luke United Methodist Church.
Wearing her “we elect Almeta Crayton” shirt, red sweat pants, and teacup-shaped brown hat that signaled her readiness to work, Crayton ran back and forth to the store, organized the volunteers and served hot plates of food to everyone who came to the Poor Man’s Breakfast. Serving others is a part of Crayton. It is simple.
Throughout her life, she has committed herself to what she is passionate about. An emblem of her upbringing, it is simply how she is.
It is familiar. The only girl of four, she was raised by her grandparents in St. Louis and has held on to the simple logic and common sense that is a part of her.
“I think even though I grew up in the ghetto, my grandparents were more conservative then anything,” she says as she describes her “working poor neighborhood.”
Her belief in hard work and pride of ownership is based on the example of her grandparents. She remembers how her old neighborhood fostered togetherness and community.
“Families got out on their porch in the evening. People got together and we’d sit up all night especially in the summer. We’d be up to 2, 3 o’clock in the morning sitting outside,” Crayton says as she thinks back to a simpler time.
There was a sense of community formed of the people who shared stories on those front porches. It seeped into almost every aspect of the neighborhood. It seeped into the exploding laughter that echoed from neighborhood block parties. Sectioned off so only people flowed through the streets, there would be games, food and music for the kids. Competition and camaraderie.
It seeped into the spirit of the grandmother selling candy out of her house, into the street vendors.
“It wasn’t nothing for them to sell snow cones or sell Bomb Pops or sell watermelons and stuff like that,” Crayton says. They were as much a part of the community as the people.
She wanted to see the First Ward emerge as this type of community. She wanted this for the children. Their faces would light up when she was able to come through for them. One year she took a teenage girl to the annual Annie Malone Parade in St. Louis.
“I took that young lady down there, and she was just in awe. I said you know black communities do do something,” she responded to the girl’s amazement. “Well those kids look forward to that. There’s nothing going on here.”
As councilwoman, Crayton battled that idleness by fighting for resources the best way she knows how– from the ground up.
Seeking balls, ropes, and hotdogs for the neighborhood kids, she has even gone to local drug dealers.
“I’ve seen her walk up to drug dealers and ask them can they give her money to do that, and they do” Crayton’s good friend Nathan Stephens says.
Rather a city official or a man sleeping on a park bench, if they are in her way, then she simply moves them.
“I been in meetings. I met the president, four governors, and I say to them like I’m talking to you. If you wrong, you wrong, and I’m gon say it,” she continues. “They can’t make me no poorer, so I might as well say what I’m gon say.”
Crayton is outspoken, but her power lies in her ability to listen. She questions officials who do not try to understand what it means to not make a lot of money.
“They’ll say ‘well how come you can’t get to this job, this job, this job. There’s no transportation go out there,” she says. “Well how come you can’t get out there? Well, I have to have a babysitter too.” Crayton asks politicians to think like a person of modest means– to think like her.
“The unspoken words are that they really don’t care. You get there the best way you know how.”
She tries to be the bridge between those politicians and the kids on the street. She pulls for them when few do and relates to them in a way that few can.
“I can work with the lil kids with the lil droopy pant, and I tell them ‘pull your pants up honey.’”
They do it. It is a matter of respect.
“They know who takes care of them.”
Crayton says it is not their fault their mothers are absent. Someone has to be their mother, and someone has to care. She takes on the job.
Single mother and mother to the community.
The girls who idolize gang life, the teenage mothers, the gang members. It is not who they are, but it is all they know. As soon as she can show them something different, they change. They become kids again.
However, Crayton grabs them before they become criminals.
“One little boy asked me, he said, ‘I seen you in that newspaper, what was you doing in that newspaper?’ And you know I tell him, I said, get the paper and read it. And tell me what I was doing,” she says. She is reminded of a failed opportunity to change the futures of those teenagers who grew to become gang members.
“Now the chickens have come home to roost. If you would have had something for those boys to do constructive when they was 9 and 10, you wouldn’t have this,” Clayton speaks about a missed opportunity for prevention of gang activity.
She calls African American youth her people and says they have always been fighters in their idleness. Recognizing this, she cares enough to want to change it. She gives them something to do. Again, she rolls up her sleeves.
“I got the firetruck, and I put the fire truck down in the neighborhood, and I did hotdogs and bratwursts and the kids eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat; and they can eat what they want, and I say go for it,” she says.
“She’s one of those old school stand-up type of people,” her friend Stephens said. “She calls you a friend, you’re a friend but equally if she hasn’t called you a friend, you are not a friend.”