By Diane Euston
It was called a “little island” due to its unique segregated setting in the middle of the city. Unless you lived in the area, many didn’t even know of its existence, and even today, finding information on this unique neighborhood is limited.
Nestled in between city blocks was once a thriving African American neighborhood in Westport called Steptoe. Its origins today still remain much of a mystery, and many have called it a “pre-Civil War enclave” for African Americans. What records do indicate is that at the turn of the century, several black families had chosen to call this neighborhood home. Today, only a few houses remain as the expansion of St. Luke’s Hospital seems to have been the final nail in the coffin.
For a city as segregated as Kansas City with the heart of the African American community on the east side, how did a small little section of Westport become a thriving neighborhood? What is the true story of Steptoe?
To understand the settlement and the people who chose it as their home, we have to travel back to its earliest days.Westport as a New Gateway to the West
In 1830, Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy (1784-1846) followed the Native American tribes west and landed in the area now known as Kansas City. He built a log cabin at the site of St. Luke’s Hospital on the Plaza in 1831.
With him was his talented son, John Calvin McCoy (1811-1889). Trained as a land surveyor, McCoy purchased land on the public road that led from Independence, Mo. to Indian Territory- a public road known as the Santa Fe Trail in 1833. There, he platted out lots and built an outfitting store at the corner of current-day Westport Rd. and Pennsylvania. He called the town “West Port.”
Business was slow and no one seemed interested in purchasing land, so he came up with a solution. If he could get people to take steamboats further west down the Missouri River and dock closer to Westport, he could gain their business and have travelers bypass Independence. At the foot of current-day Grand Ave. was a rock landing that could work for this purpose. With his slave, Tom, McCoy built a road from this rock landing called “Westport Landing” and created a three-mile trail to the town of Westport.
His plan worked. By 1850, travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails were choosing Westport for their business needs. By 1858, the population of the town was around 2,000.
Many of those who settled in the town were from the South; predominantly, families from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee who brought with them enslaved people.
Some records indicate that McCoy established a way for slaves to buy their own freedom. They could earn $3 per week and work toward paying off their masters for their freedom. Others have suggested that townspeople such as John Wornall set aside land for freedmen, but there are no records to prove this.
As land around Westport became more valuable, many residents began platting their own farms to make way for subdivisions.
Henry Clay Pate (1832-1864) was born in Bedford County, Va. and led a group of Virginians to Westport in 1855 with the intent “of swelling the emigration from the South and making Kansas a slave state.” He was appointed Justice of the Peace shortly after his arrival and started his own pro-slavery newspaper in Westport called The Border Star.
In 1856, he led a group of men into Kansas to track down the notorious abolitionist John Brown. At the Battle of blackjack, Pate and his pro-slavery men from Westport captured two of John Brown’s sons only to be attacked and captured by John Brown. A few days later, Pate was released and went back to Westport.
In August 1857, Pate turned his sights toward real estate. He took a small piece of land bought months earlier and platted out “Pate’s First Addition.” East-west streets were named Pate (43rd Street), Steptoe (43rd Terrace) and Clay (44th Street). Within a few short months, lots were sold to white settlers in the Westport area.
Pate left Westport at the outbreak of the Civil War and went back to Virginia where he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He rose to Lieutenant Colonel but was shot in the head at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in 1864.
Back in Missouri, the town of Westport was trying to pick up the pieces post-Civil War.
A Black Community in Westport
After emancipation, many former slaves stayed nearby their old masters while others traveled back to the South to locate their families. In 1860, there were approximately 125 slaves and two freedmen living in the vicinity of Westport. By 1870, there were over 25 black families living in the area – but they were not concentrated in one area.
The first evidence of a black family settling in Pate’s Addition occurs in 1867 when Christian Saulter, a German liquor merchant in Westport, sold land bordering Pate’s Addition to Jerry Collins, a black man, for $30. Jerry was born in 1834 in Missouri and was likely a freed slave.
In 1869, Wyatt Webb of Westport sold Marcus Hamilton, a 41-year-old black man, two lots in Pate’s Addition. A month later, Hamilton bought three more lots on what would be 44th St. (then Clay St.) from Edward Blossom for $75.
The 1870 census reveals that African American families were scattered throughout Westport, but there was a concentration of black families, including Jerry Collins and Marcus Hamilton, living next door to one another. This was the beginning of the small community known as Steptoe.
At this time, most families were working as farm laborers, general laborers and domestic servants. Part of what may have drawn the black community to the area was the creation of a school.
Penn School and the Churches
Penn School at 4237 Pennsylvania was the first ever school west of the Mississippi created to solely educate black children. According to graduate Marguerite B. Smith. children were first taught by Mrs. Sam Ellis, a woman who “understood and felt the need of these boys and girls and knew that to become first class citizens they must acquire an education.”
The goal of Penn School, which operated out of a two-room brick building, was to extend education to freed slaves. The school educated students from first to seventh grade, and students could then continue their education at Lincoln, Central or Manual High Schools.
Education was paramount to the African Americans who settled in Westport and later in the Steptoe neighborhood. While most parents couldn’t read or write, their younger children were taught these essential skills.
In order to understand how much of a draw a black school had in a community, one has to understand that even in 1900, the black population was evenly distributed throughout Jackson, Cass and Platte Counties. But if you wanted to have access to education, you had to travel to Kansas City- and Westport had one of the few black Schools. This created pressure for parents to either move to the area or make their children travel long distances to school.
Thus, Penn School likely instigated a large population boom of black families to Westport.
One principal appointed to Penn School was Maryland D. Wise (1855-1911). Born in central Missouri,Wise attended Lincoln Institute in 1878 and became a teacher in Richmond, Mo.
Wise and his family moved to Westport in 1896 where he was given the job as principal of Penn School.
In 1898, he built a frame residence at 514 Steptoe where he and his family lived for several decades. His wife lived there until her death in 1932. Although Wise was transferred to Page School in the East Bottoms in 1902, he stayed in the safe and well-kept neighborhood of Steptoe.
In addition to a school for black children, two black churches also anchored the Steptoe neighborhood. Saint Luke’s African American Methodist Episcopal (AME) church was organized in 1879 and completed their building in 1882 at 43rd and Roanoke. The land for the church, according to the church records, was allegedly given to the congregation by John Wornall and Seth Ward.
St. James Baptist Church was organized in 1883 and erected a building at 4041 Mill Street in 1886. They moved in 1939 to 508 W. 43rd St. to make way for the expansion of Manor Bakery.
Steptoe’s Early Residents Hold Stories
Neat little houses, all well-manicured and taken care of, once were a part of the Steptoe neighborhood and led to permanent residents. The father of one of these residents didn’t live in Steptoe but lived in the Westport area.
Moses Collins was born around 1830 in Missouri and was a slave to Mary B. Collins in Howard County. At the onset of the Civil War, the Union offered owners of slaves the chance to receive $300 (once they proved their loyalty) if they turned their slave over to military service. The slaves enlisted were given $10 per month ($3 less than white soldiers). Mary enlisted Moses in the Union Army in the 68th United States Colored Infantry.
After his service, Moses was one of the first freed blacks to make Westport his home. He was later a trustee of the AME church, and his daughter lived on Steptoe.
Perry Fristo (cir. 1821-1911) was born in Virginia and settled in the Westport area prior to 1870. In a colorful interview with the Kansas City Star in 1898, Fristo recalled his days as a slave owned by Henry W. Younger (1820-1862), father to infamous outlaws Cole, Bob and Jim Younger. At the time of the interview, Fristo was living in the back alley in a cabin at 41st and Summit.
The Kansas City Star described Fristo as “a little, bent old Negro, with a stoop in his shoulders and a crook in his knees. His yellowed skin is dry and wrinkled. Small, shifty black eyes peer from under shaggy gray brows and little tufts of white wool overhang his ears.”
He claimed that on the plantation where he lived in Cass Co. since the age of six, there were little cabins for married slaves and two larger cabins for male and female slaves. In the cabin for male slaves, many parties occurred where the Younger boys would join them. He even claimed that he still received letters from the Youngers who were at the time in jail.
Stories of the lives of these African Americans who settled in the Steptoe area are limited. Westport was annexed to Kansas City in 1898 and the Steptoe community prospered into the 1930s and beyond.
Segregation in Kansas City was certainly a strong movement that shifted most of the African American population of Kansas City to the east side, and Steptoe wasn’t exempt from this attempt to segregate the whole city.
In 1921, a group of Westport property owners proposed to the Park Board that “the city condemn the property fronting on Steptoe Street, between Washington Street and Broadway, for a public playground.” This was the heart of Steptoe’s black neighborhood.
Residents weren’t about to go down without a fight. Residents insisted that “the sole purpose of the movement was to drive the negroes from the district.” Even some white neighbors were opposed to the project. The project died and the neighborhood continued to thrive.
In 1933, the name of Steptoe St. was integrated into the grid system of Kansas City and its name was changed to 43rd Terrace. But, long-time residents continued to refer to it as “Steptoe.” A reminder of this history was set in blue and white ceramic tiles in the sidewalk at each corner spelling out “Steptoe.”
By the 1930s, Steptoe’s black community expanded onto Broadway, Pennsylvania, Washington, and 43rd Street in addition to 43rd Terrace (Steptoe Street). Even though racism thrived in Kansas City at the time, the little neighborhood of Steptoe continued to stand strong in the shadows of Westport and the Country Club Plaza.
The Final Steps of Steptoe
Ironically, what drew the population to Westport likely sealed the demise of the Steptoe neighborhood. Penn School was closed in 1955 as the school district moved toward desegregation. Efforts to save the historic building were launched by Westport Historical Society so they could open it as a historical and liberal arts center.
The school board delayed plans for years to sell the building, but in 1961, it was sold to a developer for $20,000. In 1967, the building was destroyed by fire.
The Kansas City Star lamented, “If Kansas City had been more careful with its few remaining landmarks, the loss of the Penn School by fire would not seem quite so regrettable.”
By the 1980s, most of the neighborhood had been engulfed by the expansion of St. Luke’s Hospital. The Steptoe neighborhood was diminished to about two dozen homes. There was movement to designate the area as a historic district but plans waned. The little island of Steptoe didn’t survive.
Saint Luke’s AME church was demolished in 2003 when the congregation only had 26 members left. Slowly but surely, St. Luke’s Hospital has replaced the neighborhood that once was.
St. James Baptist Church is the only institution remaining in the Steptoe area and stands out next to paved parking lots and new building structures for the hospital.
What once began as a subdivision platted by a pro-slavery man turned into the heart of a thriving African American community. Although it is likely not as old as some historians have attributed, Steptoe holds an important spot in our city’s history.
Times certainly do change, but progress is often given as an excuse to destroy our history. In midst of the Westport neighborhood, this area was united by race, religion and education that flourished even past the boundaries of racial segregation. Steptoe is a community that should be memorialized due to its unique spot in our city’s ever-evolving narrative.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.