Courtney Logan sat in the family room of a large Swansea home, surrounded by fine furnishings and window treatments, a glowing fireplace and flat-screen TV.
“Ask me anything,” he said, settling into a comfy chair, speaking to eight white women in their 50s and 60s.
It was a scene Courtney couldn’t have imagined as a poor black child in East St. Louis. He grew up with a crack-addicted mother and alcoholic father, witnessed violence and drug deals and spent time in foster care before his grandmother adopted him.
But there Courtney was, sharply dressed in a suit and tie, speaking to members of the Read Between the Wine book club. He’s 29 now, a lawyer, college professor and author of “Shaped by Fire: My Escape from Poverty’s Pit.”
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The women, who discuss literature while sipping wine, had read the book for Black History Month. Connie Lopinot invited Courtney to come to their February meeting, hoping to get his take on problems in East St. Louis and race relations across the country.
“It was a great experience,” said Connie, 61, a court reporter. “We were open and honest with our questions, and he answered them all graciously without any offense taken.”
Everyone in the room admitted being a little prejudiced, including Courtney. He says honesty is key to communication and understanding.
Courtney explained that he and his seven siblings developed a negative impression of whites as children because the only whites in their world were policemen who arrested people, judges who sent them to prison, guards who locked them up, social workers who took them from their homes and foster parents who kept them away.
“I’m saddened by the fact that you were raised with the premise that white people are bad,” said club member Michelle Donovan, 58, of Swansea, a florist and decorator.
Courtney published his book in 2014, despite being crazy busy with his law practice, teaching job and growing family. He saw it as a way to let disadvantaged youth know they can become successful by making good choices.
“I think it’s very important to let other kids growing up in that situation know that there’s an exit,” he said. “There’s a way out. There’s hope. And that’s a time-sensitive message. They need to know now.”
Courtney is a trail attorney with Lashley and Baer, a law firm with offices in St. Louis and Belleville. He specializes in personal and catastrophic injury cases and business litigation.
Courtney teaches at St. Louis University School of Law, his alma mater. He lives in O’Fallon with his wife, Rachel, their 3-year-old daughter, also Courtney, and 1-month-old son, Caleb.
“(My husband) doesn’t sleep that much,” said Rachel, 30, a social worker with Chestnut Health Systems. “He’s got a lot going on.”
Many people tell Courtney they can’t believe he lived through his childhood, let alone attended college and law school.
His father, Robert Price, was hard-working and generous, but he drank a fifth of gin every day and hit Courtney when he was drunk, according to the book. His mother, Pansy Logan, could be loving and protective, when she wasn’t high on crack.
“She remained a slave to this evil menace until very recently,” Courtney wrote. “Thankfully, she is now sober, just like my dad.”
Courtney tells of going to bed hungry some nights and rushing to school early in the morning to keep from missing breakfast. One of his seven siblings was murdered trying to rob a drug dealer. Another went to prison.
“I’ve seen it all, including shootouts in my living room,” he said. “I sat through a DEA drug raid when I was a kid. That was ’96.”
Courtney was a preschooler when the state put him and his two younger siblings in foster care, including an orphanage operated by Catholic nuns. His grandmother, Ernestine Price, became his legal guardian about the time he started kindergarten.
School became a refuge for Courtney, who got involved in sports and other extracurricular activities. He began to see what life could be like outside his chaotic world.
A friend, Tyron Armour, was struck by Courtney’s friendliness and positive attitude at East St. Louis Senior High School. Tyron had transferred from a Catholic grade school.
“I was a little pipsqueak, and he was a defensive lineman on the football team,” said Tyron, 29, of Fairview Heights, a mortgage writer. “But he was the nicest guy. It just caught me off guard that he was nice and not a bully.”
Courtney went to McKendree University on a football scholarship, but played only one semester. He changed his major seven times before settling on communications and philosophy.
Courtney also met his wife on campus. She was impressed by how he had overcome so many hurdles in his life.
“It’s amazing that he doesn’t have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Rachel said. “He had really traumatic experiences when he was a kid, but he doesn’t have any mental health issues. It’s amazing what God can do. It’s amazing what willpower and motivation can do.”
In 2008, Courtney applied to 17 law schools and got rejected by all but SLU, which admitted him into a summer program for students who showed promise but didn’t have the grades or test scores to be in the top tier.
Courtney got his law degree in 2012 and briefly worked as a prosecutor under St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly before going into private practice.
“The thing I love about Courtney is his perseverance,” Tyron said. “Things that normally discourage black youth ... He seemed to thrive on it. He turned it into fuel as opposed to being a victim and letting it limit him.”
Baring his soul
Courtney knew his decision to write an autobiography wouldn’t be well-received by all his family members, but his main concern was his parents.
“We talked about it,” he said. “I told them, ‘I want to write my story,’ and my mom said, ‘It’s your story. It’s what you experienced. How can we stop you from telling your truth?’ And they have sold more books locally than anyone else.”
Courtney published “Shaped by Fire” through Motion Publishing. The 140-page paperback sells for $19.99 at www.amazon.com ($3.99 Kindle version).
The Read Between the Wine book club has been meeting once a month for seven years. In January, Connie suggested they read Courtney’s book after hearing about it from a friend.
“I’m just amazed that you came out of all that and accomplished what you have accomplished,” said Joyce Gerngross, 65, of Swansea, a retired insurance claims manager.
Joyce asked Courtney what he believed was the most important step toward breaking the cycle of poverty, drugs, violence and other social problems in the inner city.
“Early intervention,” Courtney answered. “Statistics show that the earlier you put a kid on a college campus, the more likely he will be to go to college, so I attribute that to exposure.”
In his free time, Courtney works with youth organizations and speaks at school assemblies, church services, conferences and workshops all over the country. Last year, he was named to the 2015 Class of 30 Under 30 by the St. Louis Business Journal.
Courtney gives at least partial credit for his success to people who helped him along the way, including his football coach, teachers, employers, mentors and of course, his grandmother.
“She’s everything to me,” he told the book club. “I hope you all got that. She just had a birthday. She’s 87. She’s resilient and amazing.”
After the meeting, Courtney sat at Connie’s kitchen table and signed books. Michelle called the discussion “eye-opening” and “heart-breaking” because she had never met anyone with such a background, and she hated to hear about children being neglected or abused.
Courtney thanked the women for inviting him to share his story and for helping to promote racial awareness and understanding.
“I think it’s a discussion we need to have,” he said. “It affects us all, one way or another. I believe there’s a disconnect between society at large and the people in the environment where I grew up.
“Knowledge breeds understanding. I challenge people to do more. I push people to go outside their comfort zones. I ask people to be part of the solution.”
To reach Courtney about motivational speaking or manuscript-writing workshops, visit www.courtneyrlogan.com.
This is a passage from “Shaped by Fire” by Courtney Logan.
I should be already dead. By day, I was consumed with the normal worries of being a black boy living in the hood. By night, the echoes of 9-milimeters and 12-gauge shotguns rocked me to sleep. I grew up with front-row seats to an ugly but fascinating underworld of poverty, drugs and violence. My childhood was stripped from me. My family was in turmoil. My future, according to the statistics, was bleak. By the time I was a teenager, I had lived more than a 40-year-old man could attest to.
I’ve been making the same choices every day of my life: Not to become another sad statistic but rather strive to be someone my family is proud of, a person of integrity, a successful man in every sense of the word. This was not always a simple task. Many people never knew the demons I fought growing up because I was able to mask it so well. I made the choice when I was younger that I did not want other people’s sympathy for my hardships, but instead I chose to endure. These choices have built my unconquerable character.