KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A mural behind the Westport Presbyterian Church is trying to be the first step in a much larger effort to preserve and remember the Steptoe neighborhood before it’s lost to history.
The open lots around West 43rd Terrace and Pennsylvania don’t do a very good job telling the story of the Steptoe neighborhood.
“I think this was the greatest childhood,” said Bernadette Bryant Jordan, who grew up there. “If you did something wrong, by the time you got home, everybody knew it. “You might get a whooping along the way too.”
The once tight-knit African American community is now marked with plots where homes were recently demolished sitting next to open lots, all of them bordering surface parking lots for St. Lukes Hospital a block away.
“Oh, you don’t feel too good,” said Sandra Parker Hayes. “When I ride through this neighborhood, and it just breaks my heart, because of the memories.”
Steptoe used to be a bustling Black community before and after the Civil War through the early 1900s. Penn School was one of the few places black people could learn nearby until Brown Vs. Board of Education desegregated American schools.
When it burned down, Jordan was beside herself.
“So, we sat on the porch, and I was crying and I said, “My favorite place is gone,” said Jordan, to her father, who also went to the school. “he said. “The place may be burned but your memories go on forever,’ and that’s why I liked growing up in Westport.”
After generations of disinvestment and an expanding St. Lukes’s campus, the memories are becoming harder to pass on.
“If you walked this neighborhood, if you were visiting someone at St. Luke’s and needed time to get out and walk, there’s no connection to the physical,” said Historic Kansas City Board Member Amelia McIntyre.
That’s why she is working with a coalition of local groups to try to limit what can be demolished and potentially put up markers to tell people about the once-thriving community that used to be here.
“Much like Steptoe, it’s hidden but in plain sight,” said mural artist Stan Morgan.
Not only Morgan painted the mural but Jasmine Ali also was part of the project and painted the mural.
Morgan’s mural depicts a part of Steptoe near where Penn School used to stand. He was drawn to it after noticing the open land and a missing plaque near the area. After researching the history of the neighborhood, he was hooked.
“There are a lot African Americans who helped establish Westport,” Morgan said. “There were laborers there, but there were lawyers, teachers, you name it, a lot of professionals came from that school too.”
The mural and future efforts to remember the neighborhood have the chance to give the next generation a glimpse into the past.
“Our children will get to see part of what we were and part of what we still are,” Jordan said.
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