By Sally Tippett Rains
Can you imagine socializing with Stan Musial and Yogi Berra or having dinner with them? If you were black in the 1950’s or 1960’s it would be a pipe dream, as St. Louis was segregated—but Virgal Woolfolk, OS1, USN Retired (Operations Specialist Petty Officer First Class, U.S. Navy) and his family were the exceptions to that rule. They didn’t go where the whites were—Musial and Berra came to them. His family and others like them played a part to help the St. Louis Cardinals and major league baseball get to where they are today.
Virgal Woolfolk is enjoying the good life these days. The retired disabled Veteran and successful business owner living in a gated community; but there was a day when his world consisted of the prejudices he saw first-hand growing up black in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The story starts with his family doing what they had to do to survive in St. Louis during that time—they ran a business that welcomed those who could not stay at the popular hotels and this included some very famous black athletes who were not welcome where their white teammates were staying.
Can you imagine Willie Mays was not welcome at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel back then?
As bad as that seems– and it was bad; the situation of the times led to Woolfolk living a unique life full of unbelievable happenings—including a lifelong friendship with Musial and other baseball players of that era and many famous people. It almost seems like he has lived many lives, but Cardinals baseball has always been a part.
Woolfolk’s life story is full of names reader will recognize: baseball players, boxers, movie stars and musical and comedy performers, both black and white.
How did he live through segregation, prejudice, and even violence due to racism, yet rise out of it and eventually earn several degrees including a law degree from USC?
He never let the prejudices of the time he grew up in, including laws and rules that are seen as ridiculous today, along with the judgement from some narrow-minded whites at the time, get in the way of him striving for excellence and eventually achieving a great life and success both personally and as a business owner.
His early childhood was during segregation and the only people he knew were black like he was. His family lived in their own section of town.
As he grew up, Woolfolk and his family encountered racist whites, but they also met what he said his father called “decent white folks” who saw the injustices and spoke up along the way.
It’s quite a story about a Cardinals fan who left the segregation of St. Louis for the military, eventually spending more than 30 years in California before returning to a much different St. Louis still a Cardinals fan, the move due to the pandemic.
Virgil Woolfolk’s says his ancestors can be traced to a black man who traveled with Daniel Boone and an enslaved family on a plantation where there was an uprising and the slaves killed the owner; only to see “White folks killed every adult slave and sold their children to folks in St Louis.”
“You had sisters and brothers who spelled their last name differently because of the census takers, and for that reason, some of my cousins spell their name Woolfolk, Woolfork, Wolfolk, Woulfolk, etc.”
His father Hugh Woolfolk, who was born on Christmas Day, 1913 grew up in St Louis and knew the late comedian Redd Foxx who was of the same generation being born in 1922. Virgal Woolfolk’s mom, Virginia Washington Woolfolk, grew up in Wright City and worked at the legendary Big Boys Restaurant, which was a long-time tradition off Highway 70 where travelers would stop and eat their signature fried chicken.
“I learned from Redd Foxx (years later) that my dad was a great dancer and they had an act as kids dancing for money,” said Woolfolk. “I understand he (his dad) was dancing outside Big Boy’s Restaurant when he met my mother. I also learned from the actor George Kennedy that my father served with him in World War II in Germany with Patton.”
After they married, the family settled in the segregated portion of Wright City to raise their seven children, with both parents working for the TNT Plant in Weldon Springs. His father did warehouse work and his mom was a cook.
“I learned first-hand about racism, when my younger sister Donna had polio,” he said. “We would have to leave early and take the train from Wright City to Union Station. Then we would take the old street cars to Cardinal Glennon Hospital. There use to be a Woolworth’s there– with a white counter and colored counter.”
“I remember I was about five years old and had my little St. Louis Cardinals cap on. I got up and went to another table to ask to borrow a bottle of ketchup, and this white man slapped me and knocked me down. Then this other white man hit him, and told him to get out and never come back. That man turned out to be Senator John Danforth.”
Woolfolk said Danforth would eventually become a mentor, helping him throughout his high school years “and I am sure my military career.”
“When I was growing up in Wright City,” he said. “There were two things we were taught early. Number one, we believed in the power of Jesus and we would be going to church as long as we were black in my mother and father’s home.”
“Two, education was important to both our parents, although both only went to the eighth grade. My mother had to travel from Wright City to St Charles to finish school because Wright City was segregated, but both prized education”
When Woolfolk started school in Wright City it was segregated, but as mentioned in an article in the Wright City Record, the city’s history was part of our nation’s history: the desegregation of schools. The district began desegregating students in 1956, and was fully integrated in 1962. . The photo, right is his yearbook photo his senior year at Wright City, High School.
“I met Redd Foxx when he came to our house in Wright City on J Road when I was maybe six or seven years old,” said Woolfolk. “My father knew Redd, Sonny Liston, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Cool Papa Bell, and others in St Louis at the time.
“Things were different then, due to segregation. Black folks tended to help each other and interacted more with each other.”
When Woolfolk was 10 years old, his father left and the family never saw him again. Woolfolk heard from relatives his got a security job at Knotts Berry Farm.
Woolfolk has always been surrounded by sports stars and other famous people—dating back to his childhood, spending time with his aunt and uncle at their home on 4223 E. Page where they housed famous blacks who were not allowed in many of the white establishments.
“We would travel down to St Louis to visit my aunt and uncle on Page Avenue, and then shop in Wellston and go to ball games,” Woolfolk said.
“When I was a child growing up in Wright City it was very segregated. A man named Don Park, who ran the Tom Boy Market in the area, was the first white man I ever spoke to when I was young.”
Woolfolk still knows Park, 90, and recently gave him a picture he had of Stan Musial and Tony Gwynn (shown left). He remembered Park had told him he was in the Coast Guard back in the 1950’s and he said he would walk two to three miles from the Mississippi River to Sportsman’s Park to watch games.
“He didn’t have the funds for bus fare when in the Coast Guard,” said Woolfolk. “Don Park became a success in business and he was very sympathetic to civil rights.”
Park was going to hire Woolfolk and another man to work in his Tom Boy Grocery Store, but a prominent white woman who according to Woolfolk “owned Big Boys Restaurant and the bank” told him if he did she would make sure no one would enter his store. According to Woolfolk, Parks said he would anyway.
“I went into the Navy and left town, and (the other person)got a position with Pepsi in Warrenton, but she still threatened folks and he ended up losing the store. He was a silent champion for civil rights,” Woolfolk said.
That was the world Virgal Woolfolk was born into.
The early celebrities
“Growing up, my father was good friends with Redd Foxx, Sonny Liston, Cool Papa Bell, and Dick Gregory’s folks,” he said. “Redd Foxx was a childhood friend with my father.”
John Sanford, who later changed his name to Redd Foxx, was born in St. Louis spending part of his childhood there with his family, including his dad Fred Sanford — the name he would later use on the television show “Sanford and Son.”
“I was told Redd had lived with my father’s family in St Louis and then in St Charles… He had a hard life growing up,” Woolfolk said.
The Baseball Players
In the 1950’s St. Louis was a very prejudice city and black baseball players who came to St. Louis to play the against the Cardinals could not stay with their white counterparts at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. They had to stay at other hotels, sometimes referred to as “black hotels.”
Even when the first black Cardinals player, Tom Alston, shown left in Cardinals photo, joined the team in 1954, the Chase would not let blacks use their dining room, bar or pool. Alston played for the Cardinals until 1957.
Because of these rules, other accommodations had to be made and one way black families could earn some extra money was to house these players. Some of the ballplayers shut out of the prestigious Chase were some of the biggest names in baseball. The same thing happened with black entertainers who came to town and were not allowed in certain hotels.
“My Aunt Roberta and Uncle Lonnie Holly had a home on Page,” said Woolfolk. “When black ballplayers came to St Louis and were not allow to stay at the Chase Park Plaza with their white teammates, they would stay at Aunt Roberta and Uncle Lonnie’s home.”
Two of Roberta and Lonnie’s children are alive today and they also share the memories of their cousin Virgal.
“My cousin Charles is happy to know their mother and stepfather were being recognized and the story is being told (in this article),” said Woolfolk. “My cousin Renee helped Aunt Roberta along with my Aunt Kitty prepare the meals and wash the clothes for the players. Roberta and Kitty were my father’s sisters. They are both thrilled of what I have accomplished to get this story told.”
The Holly’s house where all this took place was a 2,516 square foot, three-story, home built in 1895 and it still stands today.
Players such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks would come to town and stay on the second floor of the Holly’s home. Woolfolk was a child and he got to meet the players; and some of the white players like Musial would also come around.
Lonnie Holly was the projectionist and help managed the old Comet Theater at 4106 Finney Ave. The Comet, which had opened in 1940, was a couple of blocks from the Holly home. The area of town, now known as the Vandeventer Neighborhood became the heart of black culture in St. Louis and home to many prominent African-American institutions. This area of town is where the stars would perform – including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Cab Calloway.
At the Comet Theater, Holly would meet entertainers like Moms Mabley and BB King, and of course he invited them to stay at their home. Other black families in the neighborhood welcomed the famous into their homes as well.
“The mothers would cook big dinners for the players after the game and wash and iron their uniforms,” Woolfolk said. “My uncle would provide liquid and entertainment for the players.”
Woolfolk remembers that there were two doors to their house: one went to the first floor and basement where the Hollys lived with their son, Charles; and the other door, that led to a staircase to the second floor where there was a living area and bedrooms for the players or performers, and a third floor party room.
“We children were never allowed on the third floor which was for grown folks only,” he said. “It was large rooms for dancing and partying for the players and their guests.”
The green space next to the house on the right side of the photo is where Woolfolk remembers playing catch with Willie Mays.
Because blacks could not go to certain restaurants or bars at that time, rooms like the third floor room served as a gathering place for entertainment and fun.
“On Sunday morning, Aunt Roberta would fix them breakfast,” Woolfolk remembered. “Many of the players would go to church, as shown in the photo and this was both for religious and marketing purposes. The congregation would all leave church to be at the game and say they had Willie Mays come to their service if he was in town.”
Musial did not like it that his black friends were not welcome so he would come over and play cards with them.
“Aunt Roberta had various black mothers working for her,” Woolfolk said. “We would bring in fresh vegetables from our garden in Wright City, along with meat either we butchered or would pick up on the way into St Louis at the Smokehouse in Chesterfield.
“Stan Musial would come over and play cards or dominos with us and drink Falstaff Beer (before Anheuser-Busch bought the team) and eat fried chicken, greens and other foods now called ‘soul food.’”
Because Musial came to the house, the family got to know him. In addition to Stan the Man dropping by, there were other big-named whites who would buck the system and embrace their black friends including Vincent Price and Yogi Berra.
“Yogi and Vincent Price knew my dad’s family growing up in St Louis and they played ball together when they were kids,” said Woolfolk. “Vincent Price’s father ran a candy company.”
Price’s grandfather, Vincent C. Price was a businessman who due to his financial success with Price’s Baking Powder (one of the first baking powders) enabled him to start other companies including the National Candy Company, which his son, Vincent L. Price (father of the actor) ran. It was full of the “penny candy” of the time, so presumably Vincent Price was a popular kid and he came back to St. Louis to visit after he had achieved success as an actor.
“Many black folks worked at the candy store, and Vincent Price would come in there and go to Sportsman’s Park to see the Cards and Browns play,” Woolfolk said. “Yogi Berra grew up in the nearby Italian neighborhood known as the Hill and they all knew each other. The big stars would come to the house.
“When Curt Flood held out against the Cardinals which started free agency, he stayed with my aunt and uncle. I also got to meet Cool Papa Bell. He lived in some apartments, which were very nice at the time, but recently I went by the location and it is an absolute eyesore. The City of St. Louis should be ashamed.”
Woolfolk remembers going to games at Sportsman’s Park.
“The first base side of Sportsman’s Park, known as the ‘colored’ section of the park, was where the sun shined the most,” said Woolfolk, who is pointing to that area on a framed photo of Sportsman’s Park he has on his wall. “Folks would leave church in their Sunday best and head to the ballpark.”
It was a different era in many ways back then and most sports fans dressed up and rather than the ball caps fans wear today, most men wore dress hats to the baseball games. Woolfolk remembers seeing the black ladies fresh from church, dressed to the nines.
“The area around Sportsman’s Park was called the ‘Harlem’ of the Midwest,” he said. “Black businesses thrived at the time.”
That lasted for a while but as Woolfolk saw it, the city leaders moved the stadium for racist reasons.
“Black folks were making too much money around Wellston and then city leaders moved the ballpark to downtown and the highway was configured to cut right through black communities to ruin businesses and cut up voting districts in St Louis,” he said.
The prejudices they all grew up with
Woolfolk is not bitter but he does get angry sometimes when he looks back on what any black went through in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
“America was not always great growing up in segregated Wright City when I was a kid,” he said. “I could not go into restaurants in the front, or in certain stores, couldn’t go into certain movies, and when we did, we had to wait until the white customers were waited on and if the movie started while we were still getting popcorn – oh well.”
Woolfolk also remembers the educational system that did not set him up for the success he eventually achieved, earning a college and law degree. He said that though he was a bright student and could read before he was six, “we were ‘flunked’ as it was called the first year when we integrated into the white school in Wright City. The teacher flunked all eight of us boys.”
As he saw it, everything in the school system made things harder on the blacks. In fact Woolfolk says the “system” is the reason he spells his name with the untraditional “Virgal” (even though it is spelled Virgil on his birth certificate). He was receiving bad grades when he knew he had turned in excellent work, but if not for his mother, Virginia, shown right in the photo he has in his living room it would have continued.
“I was getting ‘whoopings,’ for the bad grades,” he said.
Finally Woolfolk’s mother talked to his aunt who was a teacher and she went to the school to investigate.
“She put her initials on the paper to show it was correct,” he said, “But when I got my grades I still failed and then my mother looked at the homework and it did not have my aunt’s initials on it. Come to find out, the teacher was giving my grades to a white student by the name of Virgil Rose.”
So in order to receive his grades fairly his mother told him to change the spelling of his name and he has always kept it that way.
Throughout his life he has worked extra hard to create a successful life. During the times when prejudices were coming at him he says he was grateful there were whites who had the guts to stand up for him or saw possibilities in him.
“I had good friends like Sam Park, (Don Park’s son) who is a genius and went to MIT, the Naval Academy and worked in the White House for Carter,” said Woolfolk. “He was my best friend growing up in Wright City. His home was the first white person home I ever stayed in.
“His parent are now 90 years old and are like parents to me.”
The photo, left, shows Sam Park, Woolfolk, and their good friend from high school Cathy Lindsay Engelage at a Wright City Alumni meeting.
From segregation to business owner
Growing up Woolfolk became friends with both black and white, and the older he got the less prejudices he encountered in everyday life.
In fact, in later years he was even rewarded with government contracts because he was black. While there are still prejudices, the country is more welcoming to all races– but Woolfolk still remembers how it wasn’t when he was a kid. He says it is hurtful for him to hear about those who want America to be “great again” because he says it was not great for him when he was young.
“And when I met President Harry Truman and he told me America would never be great until colored people were allowed to be great in this country,” he said.
Wherever Woolfolk was in life he always kept hope and never gave up that he would be one who would be great for the country as President Truman had said. He would apply for things that were generally reserved for whites, such as an internship with Senator John C. “Jack” Danforth– which he got. An autographed photo that Danforth gave him after he worked in his office sits on his desk.
As it turned out his hard work and determination, plus a little help and luck along the way has led Woolfolk to be a very successful man. The way his company came about was due to a little luck.
He was working at Eastern Municipal Water District in Hemet, Calif., and participated in a meeting to construct the “San Diego Pipeline 6” project that would carry water stored from the Colorado River in Hemet to San Diego.
Frank Dudek, who ran an engineering and environmental company in San Diego, was at the meeting, and learned that Virgal was a disabled veteran.
“Frank needed a qualified disabled veteran firm on a project with the federal government, so he asked me to start a business so he could qualify for a project,” said Woolfolk, and he started VIRTEK Company.
VIRTEK is not named after Virgal, it is named after his mother, Virginia. (Virginia Technologies). Since its start in 1999, it has become one of the premier service-disabled veteran and minority businesses in California and nearby states like Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.
Interesting Family Member
Woolfolk’s father’s first cousin, Harold Carr, ended up being part of the Tuskegee Airmen division and eventually a teacher in Riverside, Calif.,—but that wasn’t why he is mentioned here.
“He was an excellent musician,” said Woolfolk, and he literally had music in his blood. “Harold Carr was the illegitimate son of W.C. Handy.”
St. Louisans grew up knowing who W.C. Handy, shown left, was as he was the composer of “St. Louis Blues” which he published in 1914 and “the father of the blues.” Handy was the first to publish a “blues” piece, which was a type of music being played in certain areas but never published and he combined it with the popular ragtime music.
There’s a sports angle here also– as the NHL hockey team in St. Louis is the St. Louis Blues, named after the famous song and composer.
W.C. Handy ended up in St. Louis for a short time before he became famous—when he was struggling financially to make it. He later said the bad times he experienced in St. Louis as well as meeting a woman who was down on her luck, inspired the lyrics to St. Louis Blues. Another source of his “blues” towards the city of St. Louis may have come years later as he left a girlfriend who bore his child behind, while pursuing his musical career. No way to tell if it was the same girl.
The child—Harold Carr– was never told of his famous father, and one reason could have been that W.C. Handy married someone else.
“Cousin Harold believed that his grandmother was his mother,” said Woolfolk. “He was nearly 50 years old when he found out the woman he thought was his older sister was in fact his actual biological mother (who had been with Handy, his biological dad).
Her name was Pocahontas Woolfolk.
“My mother fondly called her ‘Aunt Poke,’” he said. “She had a relationship with the great W. C. Handy. She worked on the riverboats up and down the Mississippi River for years.”
Another side note about Woolfolk’s “Aunt Poke” (who is listed on her death certificate as Pokahontas Handy) was that she was the one who developed the recipe for the famous fried chicken that was served at “Big Boy’s” Restaurant that was for years located off Highway 70 at the Wright City exit.
Woolfolk has the recipe for the famous fried chicken and makes it to this day. He is shown in the photo, left, in his kitchen after making the official Big Boy’s fried chicken.
Harold Carr served in the US Army Air Forces and became a musician, playing in bands like the father he didn’t know. He met many of the musicians and singers of the time when he moved to California and even played for some when they performed in Las Vegas.
When Carr died in 1993, he was buried in the VA cemetery in Riverside, Calif., with the name Harold Handy Carr on his gravestone. More on him and his Las Vegas connections a little later.
First the Marines then the Navy
Woolfolk was in the U.S. Marines from January to March 1976 and then from July 1976 until November 1998 he was in the Navy. The photo, right was taken in 1976 after he graduated from boot camp at the Naval Recruit Training Center in San Diego. He served on the task force of the USS Midway—a famous boat in American history.
“I was on the USS Midway– the ship that originally made contact with the hostages in Iran in 1980s.
The photo to the left, is a helicopter attempting to land in heavy seas aboard a Knox Class ship in the Indian Ocean.
“We were deployed here for more than six months attempting to secure the hostages out of Iran back in 1979,” said Woolfolk. “I controlled both jet aircraft (F-16s and Helos). I was one of the few black sailors that was duel qualified (AIC/ASAC) to control both types of aircraft.”
“We also rescued many of the ‘boat people’ from Vietnam,” he said.
One of the people he served beside in the Navy was Craig Turner, the son of singer Tina Turner, shown with him in the photo, left.
“We were both stationed aboard the USS Knox (FF 1052) out of Yokosuka, Japan,” said Woolfolk. “Through this relationship, I was able to meet Tina Turner and know her.”
Coincidentally, Woolfolk and Tina Turner share the same birthday: Sept. 26.
“Miss Tina and I would acknowledge each other’s birthdays when we saw each other and continued to do so on Facebook.”
While serving in the military, he had quite an exciting experience.
“I controlled the aircraft in the movie ‘Top Gun’” said Woolfolk. “I became friends with Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer before they were famous.”
“I was an Air Interceptor Controller (AIC ), which means I was the controller of the airspace off Point Loma and Miramar where most of the filming in the jets occurred. So when the real pilots were flying the planes, I controlled the aircraft and ensured like an air controller at an airport no other planes were in the area and calculated miles to intercept other aircraft. We were in training back then at Miramar Navy Air Base north of San Diego. Never thinking this would be the big movie it was, we all hung out together after work.”
The movie was shot in 1986 and Woolfolk was discharged in 1998 after being hurt in an auto accident carrying classified material over the Vincent Thomas Bridge from Long Beach to San Pedro Naval Shipyard.
His old family friend from St. Louis, Redd Foxx, was in performing in Las Vegas and learned from Woolfolk’s cousin Harold Carr that he was in California so he invited him to Las Vegas.
“There I met Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and more,” he said. (The photo, right is Peter Lawford, Davis and Sinatra)
The Navy brought him more famous connections as he served with MC Hammer, actor Gary Conway, Eddie Murphy’s brother Charlie Murphy and the aforementioned Craig Turner. He is still friends with Gary Conway and was to fly to California to attend a party at Conway’s house last month but he had to cancel due to the storms in California.
After Woolfolk retired from the Navy he lived in southern California off and on for nearly 45 years.
From his time in California he became friends with many stars including Elayne Boosler who he is still friends with and visits at her castle in Italy; as well as James Garner, Clint Eastwood, James Stewart, Sam Elliot, Gregory Peck, Gene Autry, Burt Lancaster, Roy Rogers, Dick Van Dyke, and the list goes on.
Back to the Cardinals
Through Elayne Boosler, who is an animal rights activist, Woolfolk met her friend Tony LaRussa, who was the manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, and became friends with Lou Brock and other Cardinals. He is shown with Boosler in the photo, left.
“Elayne gave me a full bag of autographed materials from the Cardinals, that include manager logs, and baseballs,” he said.
Woolfolk is a big baseball fan and likes collecting memorabilia, some of which is hanging on. his walls at his house.
“I have a jersey from Lou Block and other items that I treasure, but I recently gave Mr. (Don) Park some of my Stan Musial items,” Woolfolk said. “He is a great guy, and I appreciated him and Stan the Man for what they did all those years ago.”
These days Woolfolk splits his days between his VIRTEK Company corporate headquarters which was moved to St. Louis during the pandemic and parts of California including Riverside, where a branch is located.
Woolfolk credits people like Musial and Park—the first white person he had ever talked to, who wanted to hire him at the Wright City Tom Boy Store all those years ago– for championing the cause of civil rights which helped him achieve the success he has today.
“Without folks like them, I would not be living where I do in Innsbrook or running a company that I own,” he said. “Before he died, Stan Musial and I got together and chatted. He signed the autograph picture (shown in the photo, left). I thanked him for being a civil rights advocate and champion for all in St Louis.”
Woolfolk remains a Cardinals fan today.
He enjoys going to Cardinals games when he can and he likes to go with his friend Bob James who is a Padres fan.
“I love our annual St Louis Cardinals against the San Diego Padres game in San Diego Petco Park,” said Woolfolk, shown with James in the photo, left. “Nothing like good friends.”
For all that Virgal Woolfolk has achieved in his life, and the goodwill he continues to spread, Harry Truman would see him as a great man.
Photo Credits: Some photos courtesy Virgal Woolfolk; some courtesy Library of Congress.
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