Gwen B. Giles (1932 – 1986)
Gwen B. Giles was the first African-American woman to serve in the Missouri Senate. She was also the first woman and the first black to hold the position of St. Louis city assessor. She devoted her life to public service and worked diligently to secure civil rights and improve living conditions for the citizens of St. Louis.
Early Life and Political Involvement
Gwen was born on May 14, 1932, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her parents were Dennis Wood and Irene Burdette. She was three years old when her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. She attended St. Liguori High School and St. Louis and Washington Universities. She married Eddie E. Giles in 1955 and with him had two children, Karl and Carla. After a divorce, Gwen married John W. Holmes, Jr. in 1980.
During the 1960s, Gwen took an active role in St. Louis politics. Her early political activities included managing political campaigns for Ruth C. Porter, a civil rights leader, and William L. Clay, the first black congressman from Missouri. Clay later described Gwen as “a community bridge builder, bringing together black and white, and Catholic, Protestant, and Jew.” She “personified in every respect the true meaning of goodness and humanity.”
Gwen was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in St. Louis. In 1970, St. Louis Mayor A. J. Cervantes appointed Gwen to the position of executive secretary of the St. Louis Council on Human Relations. Three years later, Mayor John Poelker appointed her Commissioner of Human Relations. In this position, Gwen changed the city laws to protect women, the elderly, and the disabled. She also promoted the passage of an important civil rights law in 1976.
First Black Woman in Missouri Senate
Gwen became the first black woman in the Missouri Senate when she was appointed to fill an unexpired term from the Fourth District. In 1977, she ran for and was officially elected to this Senate seat. During her elected term, Senator Giles served on a variety of committees. She chaired the Interstate Cooperation Committee and was the vice chair of Industrial Development. She served on such committees as Apportionment, Elections, Military and Veterans Affairs, Labor and Management Relations, Public Health, Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, Welfare, Medicaid, and Consumer Protection. When she co-chaired the Legislative Black Caucus, Senator Giles examined the Bi-State Development Agency for racial discrimination in hiring policies.
Senator Giles worked to improve the lives of Missourians. She sponsored important bills when she served in the Missouri Senate. One historic bill that she sponsored was the state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She worked on school desegregation issues in St. Louis. Through her leadership, the West End Community Conference in St. Louis received thirty million dollars for housing renewal.
In 1981, St. Louis mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, Jr. appointed Gwen as city assessor. A city assessor determines the value of property for taxation purposes. Gwen resigned her Senate seat representing the 4th District to take this important position. As the first woman and the first black to hold this post, Gwen fairly and efficiently guided the city through a state-ordered re-evaluation of property values.
A Great Public Leader
Through her many contributions, Gwen Giles helped a diverse population of Missourians gain rights and much-needed human services. She is remembered with fondness by her colleagues for nurturing each citizen’s mind and character. Her longtime friend, William Clay, said of her, “Mrs. Gwen B. Giles was one of the great public leaders in St. Louis. Her intelligence, independence, and dedication earned her the respect of the entire community.”
According to former Mayor Schoemehl, “Gwen Giles was a pioneer whose life of public service will serve as a model for generations to come.” Gwen also had a national reputation. Former President Jimmy Carter appointed her to a task force to assist in selecting talented women for positions in the federal government when he was in office.
Gwen B. Giles died of lung cancer on March 15, 1986, during her term as city assessor. The Wellston Post Office in St. Louis was renamed the Gwen B. Giles Post Office Building in her honor. Catalpa Park, located in the West End of St. Louis where Gwen lived, was also renamed in her honor.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 337–38.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 2: 192.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 27, 1986. p. A3.