October 28, 2020

North Webster residents keep black history alive in the community

Members of the North Webster community are keeping the history of the area alive by displaying and discussing the town’s black history. 

The north Webster neighborhood has a thorough black history that lies just down the street from Webster University.

North Webster was once a predominantly black neighborhood with a history that dates back to 1866. The last black business closed two years ago, however. Residents keep the community alive by displaying and discussing the black history of the area.

The North Webster Neighborhood Coalition was created to link the neighborhood to the city council. They were responsible for getting the roads paved and adequate streetlights in the community. Louis Davis, a generational resident and husband of Janet Terry Davis, is the president of the coalition.

Today, the coalition works on historical projects with other organizations. These organizations include the city council, the Webster Groves Arts Commission and Webster Parks and Recreation.

Together, they have been a part of the Historic Webster Walk Series and the installation of Barbre Park. They installed a new sculpture in the park displaying the 150-year-old history of the neighborhood in June. Preston Jackson, a nationally known black artist, created the sculpture.

The First Baptist Church of Webster Groves, built in 1866, was the first black church in the area. The church opened the first school in the area for young black children. Douglass School was built when parents started demanding adequate public schooling for black children.

“Our churches would encourage us young people,” Janet Terry Davis said, a longtime resident of north Webster. Janet Davis moved to the area when she was 3 years old.

Fifty years ago, the community had beauty shops, grocery stores, restaurants and a country club. The Y became huge in the community for hosting community functions. They had a place where minor league baseball teams would play called The Bottoms. Every year, the community would have a homecoming parade that would go around the neighborhood.

“You had everything you needed, in spite of the situation during that period of time,” Charles Alexander said. Alexander has been a North Webster resident since the 1960s.

Janet Davis remembers her first integrated fall dance. The president of her school told the students that there were to be no mixed dancing. Mrs. Davis, young and rebellious, screamed “Well I don’t care, you all can’t dance anyway!” This story was so shocking at the time, it made it into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Florida Cooke Cargill moved to the neighborhood when she was 6 months old in 1940. She attended Douglass High School and was a part of Webster High’s first integrated class. She later became a PTA member to advocate for her children in public schooling.

“The sad part about the whole thing is that the neighborhood is now being changed, and it’s just hurting my heart that the change is coming,” Cargill said. “It’s sad because it was such an awesome place to live in.”

As described by Alexander, bigger companies like Schnucks sprouted up and offered cheaper prices, causing black businesses to close in the area. The last black business to close was Yandell Funeral Home two years ago. The funeral home had been a part of the community for over 90 years.

According to Cargill and Alexander, the younger population of the black community tends to leave and not come back. When the youth sees what other places have to offer, they don’t want to move back. Thus, there has been a decrease in the young black population in the neighborhood.

Henrietta Ambrose was the first black resident from north Webster to be on the city council. She was in office for ten years. In 1993, Ambrose teamed up with Ann Morris to write the book “North Webster: A Photographic History of a Black Community.” The book was created in order to remember the historic value of north Webster.

The First Baptist Church is still thriving and working on remembering the community’s history. For Black History Month, the church has set up a gallery showcasing the struggles and perseverance of the black community in north Webster and all of St. Louis.

“I want you to remember the history of black folk; they are survivors,” Alexander said. “They have been surviving through all the struggles.”

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