Living with history, fighting for the future in Westland Acres: Part 1
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 24, 2010 - A few miles from the commerce and hustle of Chesterfield Valley, where traffic's a steady flow and neon lights advertise fast food and gas, Wild Horse Creek Road narrows.
Surrounded by long, skinny trees dropping their leaves, a few right turns lead to Strecker Road, past well-manicured neighborhoods like Countryside Manor and Pacland Place and past Goddard School. Here, large homes sit, stately, spotless, the very picture of life in West County.
One more right turn now onto Church Road, up a narrow hill where the trees once again take over, sits Westland Acres.
Never heard of it?
Not a big surprise. It's home to about 40 people, mostly black, with a handful of small, old houses that show their years with fading paint.
Straddling the border between Chesterfield and Wildwood, Westland Acres was once home to 46 black families, mostly descendants of William West, a former slave who settled here in 1881.
Now, the families dwindle as the older generation ages, finding an unsure future for the community.
Unlike many of the historic black communities in St. Louis that have disappeared because of blossoming opportunities or buyouts, Westland Acres remains here, at the top of the hill, settled into the trees, filled with descendants of the man who started it all.
At least they do for now.
Issues the community has faced over the years include
- the failure to preserve the whole community, now split between Chesterfield and Wildwood, in one city;
- battles with neighbors about reducing zoning restrictions on the land from three acres to one in order to build affordable housing for the next generation of Westland Acres descendants;
- suspicion and reluctance on the part of some residents to participate in plans for development;
- being bypassed by water and sewer lines to this day, despite surrounding development;
- and most recently something that affects nearly every community -- the economy.
Time may now be a determining factor, too.
Clifford Frazier, the community leader, is 83. In November, he went into the hospital for aortic valve replacement surgery. He is currently on life support.
In late July, he and his wife spoke with the St. Louis Beacon about their community and its future.
"Our taxes are so high, I know the day that I close my eyes, my kids would not be able to hold onto this land, they just would not be able," Frazier said then.
"And your wife either," Doris Frazier said with a soft laugh.
"It's just a sorry reality," Frazier said. "They just would not be able to do it, and that would be a shame, to lose the property."
Down the narrow main street at the top of the hill sits Union Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the community. There, on a cold November morning, John Frazier, his cousin and brother all blow leaves off the church lot and adjoining cemetery.
Here, and all around, lies the story of a family, a community, etched into concrete and marble headstones that date into the late 1800s.
For almost 130 years, the narrative of Westland Acres has been one of freedom, independence and, eventually, the struggle to hold on to both of those things.
It began in 1881, when a former slave, William West, bought more than 150 acres from Norris Long, a pioneer settler, according to "From Whence We've Come," a self-published history of the community and the church.
For roughly $5 an acre, money he had to borrow, West bought the land at the top of the hill that would one day become Westland Acres.
Over the years, he settled here and began dividing the land among his children. Here, Frazier, West's great-grandson, grew up. He remembers Westland Acres as an idyllic place.
"When I grew up, I could go any direction. It did not matter. I was a free person," he said. "Growing up here for me, it was beautiful. I did not face discrimination or segregation until I went in the Army. I did not know what it was all about."
Westland Acres also seemed a wonderful place to his new bride, Doris Fiddmont, when the two married in 1950 and he brought her out from Maplewood. At the time, 45 families were living here.
"I loved it," she said. "My mother said to me when we got married, do you think you want to go way out there?"
"Dirt roads," her husband said.
"Dirt roads," she agreed.
"Oh, it was dusty," he said.
For a while, the two lived with Frazier's sister until Doris Frazier got sick with yellow jaundice and stayed in the hospital for a month. She went back to her mother's and insisted her husband build them a house of their own.
He built a four-room bungalow, which eventually grew into their current home. Here, the couple raised their six children.
"And that's how we got started," she said.
A World Of Its Own
Until World War II, one caption from a 1967 newspaper article reads, Westland Acres "was a world of its own."
Church Road got paved for the first time that year, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from the time.
"County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos sent greetings to the community, calling the street 'a path to a better tomorrow for the citizens of Westland Acres.'"
At that time, about 200 people lived in the unincorporated community.
In an August story from that same year, a Globe-Democrat staff writer wrote of Westland Acres as a "20th-century Garden of Eden," where, just 20 years before, the families there still farmed the land, grew and preserved their own fruit, tended their own dairy cattle and butchered their own hogs.
"Living in the 20th century is seldom easy for anyone," the story began. "But it's proving a Herculean task for a backwoods settlement of Negroes in west St. Louis County that had little communication with the outside world since the days of slavery. The term 'incredible' well describes this community of 32 families hidden in the wooded hills near Chesterfield, where corn grows higher than a man can reach and the hillside underbrush is too thick to walk in. The settlement sits just a mile south of Highway 40, yet Mrs. Henry Frazier can still tell you how to build a log cabin, and no resident had electricity or a telephone before 1946."
In the story, the reporter introduces Clifford Frazier, then about 40, as the de facto community leader, "working hard to bring the people wholly into the modern world."
Stories from the time set things out clearly -- a historic community that's worked and lived together for years now faces the future.
What it didn't say, what it couldn't know, was how west county would change from country roads to wealthy subdivisions, and what those changes would mean for Westland Acres.
Barbara McDonnell, Kirkwood, has been interested in Westland Acres for more than 10 years, since a job of surveying cemeteries introduced her to the area and the Fraziers.