September 21, 2018

Webster Groves plans to honor local black history with Barbre Park sculpture

The City of Webster Groves, in cooperation with the North Webster Neighborhood Coalition, plans to put an 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture in Barbre Park after the park is fully renovated this spring. The sculpture will commemorate and memorialize the little known history of the North Webster community. North Webster is an area of Webster Groves which was predominantly black when it was first settled in the 1860s all the way through the late 20th century.

Longtime Webster Groves resident Kevin Brackens was president of the North Webster Neighborhood Coalition when the group  suggested the idea to the city in 2016. He said the area is remarkable because of what its residents accomplished on their own throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

“It’s always been a black area and it’s been treated like a black area,” Brackens said. “So the people created their own identity and their own culture and their own livelihoods.”

As an African-American, Brackens is well-aware of the challenges black people faced throughout the history of the United States. He said he remembered when he first learned from his father about racism and its effects on black Americans.

Brackens said he was seven years old and he had gone with his father to a lumber store to buy some nails in Southeast, Mo. His father was assisted by the store employees there. However, when a white man came into the store, the employees stopped serving Brackens and his father to make the other customer their priority instead. Brackens said he and his father waited over an hour before they were assisted again.

Kevin Brackens has lived in Webster Groves since he was 10 years old. He served as president of the North Webster Neighborhood Coaltion from 2014 to 2016.

Kevin Brackens has lived in Webster Groves since he was 10 years old. He served as president of the North Webster Neighborhood Coalition from 2014 to 2016. Photo by Andrew McMunn

Brackens said he grew angry, and his father told him told him to “cool it, son.” His father promised to explain the situation to him when they left the store.

“When he explained it, it didn’t make me feel any better, but I understood my dad,” Brackens said. “And I love my dad, because that was the only hardware store within 25 miles that would serve a black person. And all my dad wanted was nails. And he’s not going to drive 30 miles, and burn his gas and time, when all he has to do is keep his mouth shut and wait.”

Brackens said he is a man of action and he believes the most important thing is to get things done, regardless of any obstacles or hardships. This was something he learned from his father, who was a schoolteacher in possession of a master’s degree.

“It still pisses me off, but I love my dad for his patience and his wisdom to get the job done,” Brackens said. “You know, that’s the bottom line, get the job done.”

Brackens said this incident was not at all unique to just him or his father. Webster Groves has its own share of similar events in history from the time North Webster was established in the 1860s and ‘70s by freed slaves to the swimming pool lawsuit in 1950, when Sgt. Benny Gordon wanted to swim in a whites-only municipal pool.

To Brackens, the statue is symbolic of not just the history of the North Webster community but also the acknowledgment of its past oppression by its very own oppressor, the city of Webster Groves.

“That is what this is all about, putting a marker on history,” Brackens said. “To say ‘You know something, folks? We recognize you. Webster Groves recognizes you. Yeah, we didn’t recognize you before, you were on the same ZIP code, but basically you could have been in another country. Physically or spiritually, you might as well have been on another continent.’ That’s what all of this is about. Generations of folks that never got that respect.”

Gerry Welch is the mayor of Webster Groves. She said the city of Webster Groves was planning on renovating Barbre Park when the North Webster Neighborhood Coalition pitched the idea to build the sculpture. She said the North Webster area has an important history, and she believed wholeheartedly in the concept from the very beginning.

“There is so much fine history in that community, such tightness in that community, that to be able to celebrate and recognize this is just terrific,” Welch said. “And it’s an honor to do that.”

Preston Jackson teaches art at the Art Institute of Chicago. He works out of Peoria, Ill.

Preston Jackson teaches art at the Art Institute of Chicago. He works out of Peoria, Ill. 

Welch, along with the Webster Groves Art Commission, organized a committee for the purpose of finding an artist to build a sculpture and finding a way to fund the project.

Marilynne Bradley, a Webster alumna and former professor of art, is one of the current members of the Webster Groves Arts Commission. She said the commission wanted to find a traditional sculptor whose work would best reflect and represent the area’s history in a way that wasn’t too abstract.

After narrowing down a long list of artists, the committee reached out to Preston Jackson, an African-American artist located in Peoria, Ill., in 2017.

Welch said Jackson immediately fell in love with the committee and the project.

“We loved his work, and he seemed to really love us,” Welch said. “That’s how this whole thing got started. It was a group of good people working together.”

Brackens said Jackson came to St. Louis to get a tour of North Webster. He dove into the history of the area by reading Henrietta Ambrose’s “North Webster: A Photographic History of a Black Community,” one of the few written accounts of the local history. Jackson drew up a visual concept of what the statue would look like free of charge for the committee.

In Jackson’s design, the sculpture is a dark and tall, arm-shaped structure, with the images of North Webster and its community members carved into reliefs all along its sides. The images are not based on a specific year or decade in the area’s history. They are meant to encompass all of North Webster’s history, as well as all of the people who have lived in and contributed to the community in its over 150 years of existence.

“It covers everything and that’s why it’s a piece that is still moving,” Brackens said. “It’s reaching, it’s reaching up and reaching out. It’s a piece in motion, it commemorates the past but it’s still moving. That’s what I loved about it at first glance.”

The total cost of the sculpture is $150,000. Brackens said the committee is more than halfway to its goal, with the first $75,000 donated by the Steve and Linda Finerty Foundation. Other donations have been made by various other charities and individuals from the Webster and larger St. Louis area.

The statue will feature numerous depictions of the people who lived in Webster Groves throughout its history.

The statue will feature numerous depictions of the people who lived in Webster Groves throughout its history.

Donations can be made to the Arts Commission of Webster Grove. Contributors also have the option to buy a 4” by 8” brick for $100 or an 8” by 8” brick for $180 through the Pave the Way program. These bricks would have the names of the donators engraved on them. All of the donated bricks together are planned to make a path which circles around Barbre Park and past the sculpture.

Brackens said he already bought his brick with both his and his wife’s name engraved on it. He said he is proud to know his name will be walked on by park visitors on their way to see the statue.

“100 years from now, when people walk past that statue and walk their grandchildren by the statue they’ll go “Oh, what’s this all about,’” Brackens said. “There was a community here that you don’t know anything about. They are markers in time that point towards the future but also remind you of your past.”

For more information or to donate to the project, visit https://polarengraving.com/CityofWebsterGroves and http://www.webstergroves.org/169/Barbre-Park

 

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