Published December 7th, 2020 at 11:30 AM
Delia Gillis still remembers one of the last conversations she had with late historian Joelouis Mattox.
It was right before the screening of the documentary “A Step Above the Plaza: Celebrating Westport’s African American Community” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and they were discussing one of the many mysteries surrounding Steptoe.
“He goes through different scenarios when hunting down (Steptoe’s) namesake,” said Gillis, a history professor at the University of Central Missouri. “He believes the community was named after a woman that Henry Clay Pate had fallen in love with in Virginia.”
The screening was followed by a short Q&A with Gillis, Mattox and film’s producer Rodney Thompson. Gillis said the documentary did a great job of combining material evidence with interviews of current residents, all of which could not have been done without Mattox’s prior research.
“The screening was all about paying homage to Mr. Mattox as an elder in the community,” Gillis said.
Mattox passed away on March 21, 2017, a little more than a month after the screening event. An independent scholar and volunteer at the Bruce Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, Mattox spent much of his life researching local African American history and giving presentations on his findings at the Kansas City Public Library.
While an archivist at the Jackson County Historical Society, Mattox published his findings on the Steptoe community in the Autumn 2004 issue of the JCHS Journal. Near the end of his article, Mattox urged anyone with information about Steptoe, whether it be photographs or even personal recollections, to contact the JCHS.
“Over the next 25 years, Steptoe neighborhood WILL vanish as St. Luke’s Hospital completes its $150 million redevelopment program,” Mattox wrote. “Sooner or later, Steptoe will be paved over…gone.”
Gillis, who is also the director of the Center for African studies at UCM, often uses Mattox as an example for her students.
“You can’t talk about Steptoe without talking about the work that Mr. Mattox did,” Gillis said. “Just sharing with (my students) the lengths at which he went and his detective work is very compelling.”
Mattox’s spirit for digging didn’t stop at Gillis or her students. After reading his article in the JCHS Journal, freelance writer Mary Jo Draper looked up Census records from 1920-40 of the people who lived on Steptoe Street. In 2018, Draper published her findings on her website, Midtown KC Post as part of her Uncovering History Project.
“I’m a big neighborhood person, and to me it’s really important to talk about the history of everyone who lived in Midtown,” Draper said. “The fact is there’s so little known about it.”
According to the Westport Historic Resources Survey, only seven single-family houses remain of Steptoe. In his article, Mattox writes that it was his first attempt at “bringing attention to the critical need of researching and documenting this historic ethnic enclave of Westport in Kansas City.”
So when did it all begin?
Mattox believes it may have begun around the 1850s. John Calvin McCoy, who founded Westport in 1838, owned enslaved people around this time.
However, he established a way for them to purchase their freedom. Enslaved people could earn $3 per week for their work until they paid off how much their enslavers paid for them. In addition, Westport’s founding families set aside land for freed African Americans to settle in.
That small settlement was on W. 43rd Terrace just west of Pennsylvania Avenue, and would later become the center of the neighborhood. At its height, Steptoe’s boundaries were roughly Jefferson Street to Wornall Road, from 42nd to 44th streets.
However, not every enslaved person in Westport was able to buy their freedom and occupy this neighborhood, even after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Slavery was finally abolished in Missouri through an 1865 ordinance issued by Gov. Thomas Clement Fisher.
The African American population in Westport continued to grow as new families arrived, Mattox writes. Penn School was founded in 1868 to educate Black children from grades one through seven. The three-room schoolhouse was the first of its kind established west of the Mississippi River, but was closed in 1955 and burned down in 1967.
The community also established two churches: the St. Luke African American Methodist Episcopal Church organized in 1879, and the St. James Baptist Church organized in 1883. While the former was demolished in 2003, St. James remains open to this day.
During this time, Steptoe became known as a “little island” surrounded by white neighborhoods. Longtime residents describe having German, Italian and Swedish neighbors. And although they were segregated, Mattox writes that the Steptoe residents experienced little racial tension.
This “collection of neat, clapboard houses tucked along narrow streets” became home to many working class African Americans. Steptoe residents worked as cooks, chauffeurs and maids for wealthy white families. But there were other residents who worked as plumbers, teachers and railroad workers.
And while these residents weren’t leaving anytime soon, the name “Steptoe” was starting to vanish from the area. In 1933, Councilman Charles H. Clark introduced Kansas City Ordinance Number 3083 to standardize street names, changing the name of Steptoe Street to West 43rd Terrace.
About 15 years later, 8-year-old Carolyn Celestine and her family moved into house number 314 on that street. They had been living in an apartment in North Kansas City, so a two-story house with a screened-in porch and basement was something very new for her.
“It was just so quiet and I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, we can hear the birds and the bees,’ ” Celestine said. “We loved it…I knew every creak on the floor.”
When she wasn’t babysitting her neighbor’s kids or playing piano at church, Celestine and her friends would often take the streetcar downtown or go to movie nights at church. She recalled a small, close-knit community.
“We formed this cohesive group out there,” Celestine said. “When you grow up in a community like that, everybody was looking out for each other’s welfare and making sure we had what we needed.”
Now 79, Celestine is a retired legal secretary and teaches virtual yoga lessons out of her Overland Park home. She and her sisters still reminisce about their childhoods.
And while she misses her 314 W. 43rd Terrace home, Celestine says selling the property to St. Luke’s was the best option for their family.
“After my mother died in ‘91, it was just my stepdad in that big house,” Celestine said. “There comes a point where it becomes hard to maintain those old houses, so it was easier to just sell it.”
There is now a hospital parking lot where the house used to stand. Celestine and her kids will occasionally drive by the area and joke about how somebody has parked in her mother’s living room.
“There were a lot of happy memories there,” Celestine said.
The hospital’s campus sits on roughly half of the neighborhood, occupying the area east of Pennsylvania Avenue and extending beyond the 42nd and 44th streets borders. According to St. Luke’s Community Relations Vice President Tim Van Zandt, the property was purchased directly from a single owner using private funds.
Any additional expansions in the area were either donated to the hospital or purchased with private funds, according to Van Zandt.
Despite these expansions, the hospital has made efforts to preserve the property’s history. In addition to funding Thompson’s documentary film, Van Zandt said St. Luke’s is looking to add a permanent marker “describing the original Steptoe settlement and its place in Kansas City History.”
“Saint Luke’s Hospital is one of the few hospitals that has chosen to remain and continues to invest in the urban core,” Van Zandt said. “As such, SLHS is very proud of its history and feels it important to share its part of the community.”
Van Zandt says the hospital is open to potential partnerships with community groups on preservation projects. Jacob Wagner, director of urban studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, recommends starting with cultural heritage groups first.
“I think historic preservation has tried to become more aware of ethnic history, but I think that work predominantly comes from people in urban or social history,” Wagner said. “They can better help tell the story, especially when so much has already been lost and you don’t have a lot to work with.”
The projects can be as big as memorial displays in institutions like St. Luke’s, or as small as symbolic street name changes, Wagner said.
“An easy thing to do would be to just rename West 43rd Terrace to Steptoe, what it used to be,” Wagner said. “I would like people to know where Steptoe was…and the history of the people who helped build this city.”
They were cooks and chauffeurs, teachers and plumbers. The people of Steptoe continue to serve as a reminder of the injustices Black people have and continue to face, Gillis said.
She believes remembering Steptoe is still crucial, perhaps even more so now.
“The enslavement of millions of people and their continued bondage and ill treatment, and inequality based on the color of their skin is the original sin in American society,” Gillis said. “And until we grapple with that, we will always be handicapped, we will always not be able to reach the fullness of what America can be.”
Flatland contributor Mawa Iqbal is student at the University of Missouri and a former summer intern at Kansas City PBS.