A Visitor’s Perspective: Black History in KC
This article originally appeared on Black Chick On Tour: Adventures of a Travel Addict and was republished with permission.
Anyone who has heard me talk about Kansas City know that I have nothing but love for this city. It’s friendly, there’s plenty to do, and there is a ton of great restaurants, and of course there’s barbecue. Kansas City made it as my favorite new city that I visited in 2013. So, I wasn’t surprised that it made it as one of Lonely Planet’s “Top 10 U.S. Destinations for 2014.” It has a vibrant black American community, and there is a ton of black history.
Kansas City’s history seems to be a city that fits my personality. A person who hates to see injustice, and believes it should be irradicated by any means necessary, but also a person who’s seen her fair share of partying all night long, till the break of dawn. So, I will start with the fighting to irradiate injustice, and end with music and drinks.
Before the outbreak of the American Civil War, the territory of Kansas had been the scene of fighting between pro-slavery and antislavery forces.
The town of Quindaro, in what is now Kansas City, Kansas was founded in 1856 as a port of entry for escaping slaves. Quindaro became an important station on the Underground Railway, with slaves escaping crossing Missouri river.
After the end of Reconstruction, racial oppression and rumors of the reinstitution of slavery led many blacks to seek a new place to live. The first major migration to the North of ex-slaves was in 1879. Thousands of blacks fled the South. They headed for the homesteading lands of Kansas, and the land of John Brown, an abolitionist who advocated, and “practiced” armed insurrection as a means to abolish all slavery.
John Brown gained attention when he led small groups of volunteers during the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 in Bleeding Kansas in retaliation of pro-slavery advocates raiding the free-soil town to Lawrence, Kansas, killing two people, burning down a hotel, and destroying two printing presses.
A statue dedicated in tribute to John Brown stands at the corner of 27th & Sewell Streets, in Kansas City, KS. Nearby is home to the ruins of Quindaro. The ruins of Quindaro now belong to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the City of Kansas City, Kansas. There is a stone platform overlooking the ruins, but the ruins themselves may only be visited by prearranged tour.
When you move over to the Missouri side of Kansas City, you find an even more interesting history, that’s still is a part of the energy of this city.
Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine District was once the epicenter of the city’s black community. It’s fitting that it is now home to several venues that celebrate this community’s history. There is so much to see all within this 3-block area.
The Black Archives of Mid-America, was founded in 1974 by Horace M. Peterson III, with the goal of collecting the ideals and images of black Americans in Kansas City. The Black Archives of Mid-America collects, preserves, and honors the heritage of black Americans.
Thematic in design it covers different periods of history of Kansas City. It starts with the early pre-civil war years, which is a very important time period in this region since several important pre-civil war battles were fought in this region. It takes you through the 20th century with memorabilia, photographs, and documents relating to community groups, and social and political events that helped shape Kansas City.
Across the street from the Black Archives in the complex that houses The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the National Jazz Museum.
The Negro Leagues got their start in Kansas City, when eight independent black baseball teams met at the Paseo YMCA in 1920. Buck O’Neil played for the Kansas City Monarchs, and had a major role in opening the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Thousands of players, and hundreds of teams receive the recognition, respect, and admiration they earned on the field at The Negro League Museum. It takes you from the early years and pioneers before the actual forming of the Negro Leagues, to the founding of the Negro Leagues, through the golden years, and the roles the players played in the community.
A few of the highlights are The Heroes of the Games Lockers, and the collection of nearly 200 autographed baseballs donated by Geddy Lee of the rock band Rush. This really is someplace you want to visit. I’m not even a baseball fan, but I’m a fan of history, and I found this museum fascinating. For example, did you know there were a couple of women who played in the Negro Leagues? I didn’t then, but I do now.
On the opposite side of the same complex is The National Jazz Museum.
Jazz is a part of this city’s fabric. Kansas City for a while was the only city that could compete with New York, and Chicago in when it came to jazz musicians. During the great depression when most jazz musicians in other cities were in trouble, Kansas City’s jazz musicians prospered. When other cities were experiencing the great depression and prohibition, Kansas City was prospering and drinking.
Political boss Tom Pendergast controlled Kansas City, MO from 1925 – 1939. His intimate links with organized crime, not only help build the city, but made Kansas City one of the wildest places in America. It was the Las Vegas of its time, filled with gambling dens, bars, and brothels. Prohibition never existed in Kansas City. It was never enforced. Which means the jazz lounges were on and poplin’ all night long. Kansas City was known as being “wide open.”
The downfall of Tom Pendergast in the late 30s, and the reforms that followed brought about a gradual demise of Kansas City’s prosperous jazz scene. Deprived of corruption and vice his administration enabled, nightlife suffered, and work for musicians declined.
Today, you can visit The National Jazz Museum, put on some headsets and be carried away, back in time, by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charlie “Bird” Parker. It also houses one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of early and rare jazz films. Then come back in the evening when The Blue Room, the jazz lounge that is a part of The National Jazz Museum, is jammin’ with some of the best jazz in the country.
The vibrations of contemporary jazz echo throughout the many venues, and there’s plenty of local talent. There are numerous venues in the city where you can experience local jazz. Many of them are close to the city center and are free, or next to free (meaning inexpensive).
This young local talent has been coming down to the Blue Room to play his saxophone since he was 13.
Close by is the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Founded in 1917 as Local 627 Colored Musician’s Union, nearly every jazz great in the country has jammed here. Since 1930, musicians have gathered at the Foundation every Friday and Saturday night after midnight to jam into the early morning hours. The term “Jam Sessions” originated with these all night jam session. The Mutual Musicians Foundation is the only location in Missouri that is legally permitted to serve alcohol all night long.
I can tell you, when I got off of the plane in Kansas City, I didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t know anything about this city’s vibe, nor it’s history. What I thought of as a “fly over” city, is now one of my favorite towns.
Located less than a two hour flight from most of the US’s major airports, Kansas City is a great weekend getaway to discover during Black History Month.
Learn more about Terri and her blog at http://www.blackchickontour.com/.