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Wendell O. Pruitt is probably better known for being half the name of a disastrous housing project on the city’s north side, but his personal story is one of triumph, courage, and a touch of tragedy.
Pruitt was born and raised in St. Louis, youngest child of a large African-American family. A graduate of Sumner High School, he attended Lincoln University and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps at Tuskegee. He received his commission in 1942 and went off to war with the 332nd Fighter Group.
Stationed in the Mediterranean theater, Pruitt flew seventy combat missions, won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and finished his service in the rank of captain.
St. Louis in the 1940s was determinedly segregationist, but it is encouraging to read about the welcome Captain Pruitt received when he came home for a ceremony in his honor on December 12, 1944. City Hall was filled with twenty-five hundred people as Mayor Kaufmann shook hands with the handsome soldier and the Sumner and Vashon high school bands saluted him.
How tragic that, just four months later, Captain Pruitt returned home in a casket, and how ironic that, just days before the war in Europe ended, he had died in a plane crash, a training exercise with a student.
Pruitt-Igoe housing is something of a blot on St. Louis, but Wendell Pruitt is a name that shines in our local firmament.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society