Before You Begin Your Walk
North Webster was founded as a community for recently freed slaves in 1866, but its roots go back farther. The first African Americans in what is now North Webster were those enslaved by John Marshall, who came from Virginia with his brother James, in 1832. James Marshall’s slaves built the Rock Hill Presbyterian Church in 1845. It stood just north of Webster Groves at the intersection of Manchester and Rock Hill Roads until it was demolished in 2012. As the story goes, the slaves used their day off, Sundays, to build the roof as a special contribution. Landowners and their slaves came from all over the area to attend the church.
Before he died in 1864, James Marshall freed two slaves and gave them property. When slavery ended a year later, many of the freedmen stayed in the area.
In 1866, former slaves built First Baptist Church in Porter’s Subdivision. The church, the school in its basement, and the subdivision were located on Shady Avenue (present-day West Kirkham Avenue and Brentwood Boulevard). This street followed Shady Creek, which wound its way between two hills at the north end of Webster Groves. The small community of freedmen began to build houses along Shady Avenue, stretching east and west from the church. Eventually the community spread up the hill to what we today know as North Webster.
In 1885, John Marshall’s widow, Cynthia, subdivided almost the entire North Webster neighborhood, from Bell Avenue on the west to the other side of Shady Creek on the east and all the way north to Deer Creek. The original lots in the subdivision were sized to be small farmsteads, from about one acre to more than five. The western blocks of North Webster were subdivided in 1892 as Webster Heights subdivision. Some of the early black residents of Cynthia Marshall’s Subdivision, including Annie Polk and Jacob Esaw, further divided their land and created their own subdivision.
By the early 20th century, North Webster was a completely self-sufficient community. Although most of the residents worked outside of the neighborhood, almost all of the other needs of daily life could be met within a few blocks. The neighborhood had its own churches, groceries, barber shop, contractors, real estate agent, funeral home, confectionaries, and druggist. Black doctors and dentists settled here. One of the state’s best schools for African-American children was built in the neighborhood. People kept their own chickens, and there was a goat farm until 1989. Corner stores dotted the neighborhood, and many businesses were run out of homes. There was a thriving business district along Shady Avenue.
Not everything was perfect in North Webster, of course. Most of the neighborhood lacked sewer service until the mid-20th century. Roads were unpaved for years, and the community lacked many of the services available to other Webster Groves residents. But because of the challenges of discrimination and segregation, North Webster became a tight-knit and proud community. It was “a wonderful place to live,” wrote Ann Morris and Henrietta Ambrose, “with tall trees to shade the hottest days, creeks full of ‘crawdads,’ homegrown vegetables, a good school, and seven churches.”
This Webster Groves Historical Walk is more than the story of a neighborhood - it is the story of a community.
This overview of “A Black Community of Faith and Hope: North Webster” was written and edited by the North Webster Walking Tour Brochure Committed: Lous H. Davis, Jr., Kathryn DeHart, Toni Hunt, Ed Johnson, Lynn Josse, and Jean Tarkington.