Webster Groves honors legacy of historic African American community with statue in Barbre Park

North Webster is one of the oldest African-American communities in the St. Louis region. Longtime resident Kathryn Dehart remembers when black grocery stores and businesses flourished in the community.

“We had everything in North Webster,” said Dehart, who is part of the North Webster Neighborhood Coalition. “I have lived here all my life. There are some of you out there who have experienced the same thing I have. We have hoped this day would come.”

Dehart spoke at the June 1 commemoration of a sculpture in Barbre Park that is meant to honor the historical neighborhood.

An 11 ½ foot soaring bronze sculpture by nationally known African American artist Preston Jackson was placed in Barbre Park at the corner of Elm and Kirkham avenues on Wednesday, May 29.  Barbre Park, which has recently been renovated, is adjacent to the dominant entrance to the North Webster neighborhood.

The sculpture depicts many scenes from the roots of the 150-year-old community and celebrates the history, contributions, and lives of the journey of African Americans in North Webster. Douglass School, businesses, churches, homes, and people are etched into the bronze tribute.

Stones from the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church, built in 1845, were included at the base. The church was demolished in 2012, but many of the stones from the church were recently retrieved to be added to this tribute.

“The Preston Jackson sculpture serves as a significant reminder for current and future generations of the journey of African Americans in our community,” said Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch. “The park, which contains educational signage about North Webster, will also be a gathering spot to reflect on our past, pay tribute to our rich, multi-cultural history, and provide an inspiration point for future friendships amongst all of our citizens.” 

A committee of representatives from the North Webster Neighborhood Coalition and the Webster Groves Arts Commission worked with the city’s parks and recreation director over the past two years to make this project possible, Welch said. The $150,000 in funding for the sculpture came from private donations, including a sizeable gift from the Steve and Linda Finerty Family Foundation.

Jackson said he wanted to create a sculpture that pointed upwards and towards the neighborhood, “like a single wing or a finger that had strong directional qualities.”

Jackson wanted the residents to feel a sense of pride that they have endured despite their adversities, he said.

“They had their own governing, their own teachers, their own professionals,” Jackson said, “and with the help of majority cultures, abolitionists, they survived. I feel directly connected to it because it’s identical to my childhood. Many of these neighborhoods that were so much like North Webster don’t exist anymore, but miraculously this area is still here today.”

Chris Mullen has born and raised in the neighborhood, as was her father, and she attended the June 1 commemoration event. She was particularly excited that the committee chose Jackson as the artist.

“It actually reflects the history of North Webster,” Mullen said. “I just hope there will be enough of us to tell that story and keep it alive.”

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