Roots: North Webster Groves community fights to save its history

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Above West Kirkham Avenue, north Webster Groves sits separate from the rest of the affluent, artistic Webster Groves community. Like other pockets of America, Webster Groves was built on the back of slavery. North Webster thrived as a Black community after emancipation. Now, the town is growing away from its roots.

The commemorative statue at Barbe Park in North Webster. Photo by Vanessa Jones.

Kate Northcott moved to a house on Holland Avenue in 2002, just before adopting her daughter. Northcott chose this area intentionally; she wanted her daughter to grow up in a diverse place. 

Northcott remembers when Barack Obama ran for president. She knew the voting lines would be long. She arrived hours early at the polling location on the first floor of an apartment building. In 1956, a segregated school called Douglass Elementary stood at that same site. 

Those who had attended the segregated school returned over 50 years later to elect the nation’s first Black president. 

“This tall older man in a nice suit bent in half to talk to my daughter at eye level and said, ‘I’m glad you’re here; this is an important day, and I want you to remember it forever,’” Northcott said. 

Families in north Webster Groves, Missouri, have passed down homes through generations. The town was founded in 1866 as a community for enslaved people who had recently gained freedom. On West Kirkham Avenue and Brentwood Boulevard sat First Baptist Church, built by formerly enslaved people that year on a plot of land previously owned by an enslaver. 

The community grew, and schools and businesses were created. North Webster had grown into a completely self-sustaining community by the next generation. 

“It was a stand-alone community,” Toni Hunt, a former council member of Webster Groves, said, “For the reason that it was segregated from the city, it had its own volunteer fire station, doctors, everything.”

The town was unincorporated until the 1960s, lacking sewer and trash service, road paving and other amenities. Still, it became known as a model community where African Americans found success in the face of discrimination. 

“[It was] a wonderful place to live, with tall trees to shade the hottest days, creeks full of crawdads, homegrown vegetables, a good school, and seven churches,” wrote Ann Morris and Henrietta Ambrose in a commemorative book titled, “North Webster: A Photographic History of a Black Community.”

In 2017, community members created a walking tour and a book, and they placed a commemorative statue in Barbre Park. The tour provides in-depth detail on the community, including the Douglass Elementary building, the original site of First Baptist Church, the first school for Black children in St. Louis County and numerous businesses, homes, parks, restaurants and more. 

“It was very fulfilling to see the community come together,” Hunt said. 

Now, it seems that north Webster is growing away from the history it was built on. 

While greater Webster Groves grows in enterprise, north Webster is becoming more expensive. The evolution was distinctly seen beginning in 2018. The Steger computer school on North Rock Hill Road transitioned from being a fifth- and sixth-grade school into Givens Elementary School, named after Henry Givens Jr., an African American teacher at Douglass Elementary during its time as a segregated school. Givens later became the principal of a new school, innovating education and advancement of the study. 

At the new Douglass Demonstration School, even white children enrolled to experience the quality of schooling — a concept that, in 1967, was still frowned upon in some communities.

Givens Elementary is on the border of neighboring Rock Hill in north Webster. Avery Elementary sits closer to the main parts of the city, as well as Webster University, the art galleries and City Hall. 

This meant that the school a child attended depended entirely upon which side of the train tracks their family lived on. 

“They enthusiastically voted for segregation,” an anonymous voter said about many residents outside north Webster.

Efforts to ostracize members of north Webster have long been underway. The community has seen a significant rise in new home construction, coming with the destruction of family homes. Big businesses have overtaken elements of the local economy like other smaller communities. 

In an interview for The Journal in 2020, lifetime resident Florida Cooke Cargill spoke on the loss of Black businesses in the area.

“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.”

Katherine DeHart, an 86-year resident of the area, understands the negative and positive sides of the neighborhood’s changes.

“I’ve got this school next to me; it’s called the Waldorf School— it’s a private school. It used to be houses there. So now, yeah – it has changed quite a bit,” DeHart said. “The last five years it has really changed; we’ve got nice homes over here now. Like I said, it’s not all Black people now; it’s not just a Black community now. I’ve got some nice neighbors. And that makes it really nice now. It could be better. Now we have more patrol from the police officers, [and] they patrol over here quite a bit now. All we have to do is call them, and they will come.”

The residents of north Webster are committed to preserving the community’s history. The north Webster neighborhood coalition meets monthly and works closely with community members.

According to DeHart, government officials, firefighters and police attend these meetings to hear community voices and improve the area, including Ivory Crockett Park.

Residents plan to continue the conversation, working with archival institutions and local ministries, including the First Baptist Church. 

Individually, memories of the vibrant community are close by. Northcott’s daughter remembers the significance of her neighborhood, writing about the site of the Douglass school. Even with the community’s evolution, residents of north Webster have successfully archived history. 

To learn more about north Webster, visit the Webster Groves Historical Society at Hawken House or pick up a pamphlet for the north Webster walking tour at City Hall.

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Lauren Brennecke
News Editor | + posts