Lifelong Webster resident and guest speaker Florida Cooke Cargill addresses the crowd at the Juneteenth Jubilee Celebration on June 20 at Ivory Crockett Park in Webster Groves. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

When Florida Cooke Cargill was just six months old, she and her parents moved to the thriving community of North Webster from Tennessee.

Eighty-three years and an incorporation later, on a balmy June evening just yards away from her childhood home, Cargill addressed her lifelong community at the third annual Juneteenth Celebration at Ivory Crockett Park.  

The day — June 19, Juneteenth — is described as the country’s “second Independence Day.” It became a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Holiday Independence Day Act, federally observing the day in 1865 when 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and announced to enslaved Black people that they were freed by executive action.

“I want us to call it ‘Freedom Day,’” Cargill said. “We have the freedom now to live wherever we want to live, to attend any school or college that we wish, to secure any job that we are qualified for, whether that’s a janitor, vice president of a company, owner of a company, airline pilot or even president of the United States of America.”

Pastor Jason Bryles, 45, was appointed to serve at Webster Hills United Methodist Church, 698 W. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves two years ago. Bryles is the congregation’s first Black pastor and was also a speaker at the Juneteenth Celebration last Thursday.


Nadia Maddex, director of Choral Activities at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School, and Jaylen Davis, director of choirs at Webster Groves High School, perform at the Juneteenth Jubilee Celebration. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

“Juneteenth means truth telling,” said Bryles. “It’s an opportunity for our society to tell the truth about its past, its wrongs and its hurts. The truth is important no matter how ugly or painful.”

Bryles harkened back to his own Sunday school education in Kansas, where he learned about his roots and his culture, and about Juneteenth. 

“We had to study about what our faith means to us in real life,” he said.

Along with guest speakers and music, Webster Groves Mayor Laura Arnold and City Manager Marie Peoples recognized lifetime residents Charles and Laura White for their achievements in the community and declared June 21, 2024, as Charles and Laura White Day in Webster Groves.

An estimated 100 other community members and city officials were in attendance at the celebration. 

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

In the fall of 1956, because of the desegregation of public schools, Cargill attended 12th grade at Webster Groves High School. She graduated and made history as part of the first integrated class to graduate from the school.

But like much of the country, the process of integration was met only to the letter of the law, not the spirit.

“We were not equally graded in our class work,” Cargill said. “We were not allowed to walk the halls without a white counterpart. Some teachers didn’t even want to teach us.”


A large crowd turned out on Thursday, June 20, for Juneteenth activities that included speakers, music and food. The celebration was held at Ivory Crockett Park in North Webster. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

As graduation loomed, Cargill and her Black classmates were judged by school counselors as fit only for manual labor. But in what Cargill credits to the quality of her education at previously-attended Black institutions in North Webster, she and her Black classmates went on to pursue professional careers as business owners, physicians, nurses and bankers. 

“We have taken lemons and made them into a great big bowl of lemonade!” Cargill told the crowd.

North Webster was unique, according to Cargill. It was alive with thriving Black-owned businesses and growing families, providing an oasis of optimism and hope for its residents in the shadow of the resentment and bigotry in the South, she added.

According to the Webster Groves Historical Society, North Webster was a community established in 1866 by and for recently-freed slaves of James Marshall, who just before his death, gifted two of his former slaves land to build and live on.

By the early 20th century, the community was completely self-sufficient. The neighborhood had its own churches, grocers, barber shop, contractors, funeral home and pharmacy. 

On the community’s centennial year in 1966, on the wave of the national Civil Rights movement, the municipality was incorporated into Webster Groves.

At 238 W. Kirkham Ave. is the grounds of the First Baptist Church of Webster Groves, which was built in 1866 by 19 freedmen of North Webster, which also served as the first school for Black children in St. Louis County, according to the Webster Groves Historical Society. The church was destroyed in a fire in 1982, but was rebuilt a year later where it still stands today, according to additional information from the society.


Webster Groves Mayor Laura Arnold presents a proclamation to Charles and Laura White for their achievements in the community. The proclamation also declared Friday, June 21, 2024, as Charles and Laura White Day in Webster Groves. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

Juneteenth is a particularly important holiday in Webster Groves given the history of North Webster. Despite the Black community’s rich, resilient history in the neighborhood — including Black residents and Black businesses honored by the city — the population of Webster’s Black residents has declined in recent years. 

During the 2010 census, roughly 6.6% of Webster Groves’ population was reported to be Black or African American, while the 2020 census reported 4.8% — an almost 2% decrease, despite the city’s overall increase in population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2023, the decline sped up, with Webster Groves’ Black population  estimated at only 4%.

The city’s 2024 Juneteenth Celebration wrapped up with brassy covers of hits like “Just The Two of Us” and “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” by the Red & Black Brass Band, known for its eclectic fusion of St. Louis and New Orleans jazz styles, while The Crooked Boot, an award-winning Creole-Caribbean food truck, served food to attendees. 

Brian Ostrander is a journalism student at Webster University, and a summer intern with the Webster-Kirkwood Times.