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A Record of Kansas City Black History: ‘Chant Their Names, Almost As If Holy’

Local Black History Compiled in New Book

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Above image credit: A crowd gathered for the 1914 cornerstone laying at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. (Courtesy | Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library)

Story by story, name by name, the annual Kansas City Black History Project seemed destined to meet this auspicious moment in history.

The determined and reverent collection of biographies, now a decade in the making, was already preparing to stake its ground in the commemoration of the Missouri bicentennial in 2021.

Then came the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement and the uprising against persistent injustice. Now new voices echoed the hallowed deeds and struggles of the Black men and women who fought for their place in Kansas City and American history across two centuries.

“I sing their names . . .,” writes Kansas City poet Glenn North.

His words are one of several contemporary voices joined in a new, 44-page book that collects the more than 70 biographies that the Kansas City Black History Project team has researched and shared with the Kansas City community since 2010.

“I sing of… Langston and Parker, Ms. Bluford and Mary Lou, Old Buck, Leon Jordan, Horace and Bruce . . .”

Every year, the project told the stories behind seven or eight of the names hidden by time. It gathered them in booklets and posters that were given to schools, libraries and other public spaces — used by teachers, librarians, mentors and parents to raise up a neglected history.

The audience grew by the thousands, spreading deep into the Kansas City area and nationwide into multiple states — and even internationally to Nova Scotia, Canada.

The joint effort by the Kansas City Public Library, the Black Archives of Mid-America and the Local Investment Commission has produced a book, is planning special events and is building a website that will be offering curriculum to educators over the next year.

“If we don’t save this history, educate people about this history and share this history, it is lost,” said Black Archives of Mid-America Executive Director Carmaletta M. Williams. “And there was too much blood, sweat and tears that went into this community to let it be lost.”

Williams is another of today’s writers who speak in the book. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who wrote the introduction, is another, along with Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick and Justice T. Horn, a young community leader and social justice activist.

“It all came together,” said Jeremy Drouin, the manager of Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library, reflecting on the history project’s critical moment.

“As a city, as a nation, we are looking at more closely examining racial issues,” he said. “Looking at our past is an important part of that … (as) we’re seeing history repeating itself.”

The faces of Kansas City’s civil rights leaders and barrier-breakers throughout the book reflect back the pain Kansas City still bears today, like the crowd in a photo with Bruce R. Watkins marching during the shocking days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The injustices they marched against — “police violence, segregated schools, lack of affordable housing for the African American community — we’re seeing these issues rise again,” Drouin said.

The book, he said, will strengthen the community with wisdom on “what’s going on nationally and the conversations we’re having, plus the lessons we can learn from the biographies.”

Principal Anna H. Jones (standing, left) leads a class at Douglass School in Kansas City, circa 1911. Photo: The Black Archives of Mid-America.
Principal Anna H. Jones (standing, left) leads a class at Douglass School in Kansas City, circa 1911. (Contributed | The Black Archives of Mid-America)

The project gathers biographies of heroes who have passed. While many of the men and women profiled are well known — like Charlie Parker and Satchel Paige — many more tell of the heroic lives of people whose bold achievements were fading from Kansas City’s history.

The stories are as old as that of Hiram Young, born in 1812 into slavery, who built wagons for westward pioneers and started a school for Black children in Independence.

And the stories are as close as two newly profiled heroes who passed away in 2020 — Bailus Tate Jr. and Rosemary Smith Lowe.

The project historians have drawn from at least 28 archival resources in the past decade to build the collection of stories and pictures. They mined the depths of multiple historical societies and library collections, both near and as far as Wisconsin and New York. They searched newspaper clippings and numerous university records.

Bruce R. Watkins, shown leading a march during protests following the assassination of Martin King Jr. in 1968
Bruce R. Watkins, shown leading a march during protests following the assassination of Martin King Jr. in 1968, is one of more than 70 historical Kansas City figures profiled in the 2021 Kansas City Black History Project. (Contributed | LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries)

“The project is always revelatory,” said Local Investment Commission Deputy Director Brent Schondelmeyer. “You learn stories of people you didn’t know — people you wish you knew. You learn of the contributions they made and, regrettably, the obstacles they had to overcome, often not of their own making.”

In looking back at their stories, Williams said, the book is “forward-thinking” in what builds into a powerful arc toward the future.

These men and women shaped Kansas City and the nation as educators, activists, entrepreneurs, entertainers and athletes.

“Look at how they made so many advances with all the structures that stood against them,” Williams said. “Missouri was a slave state. Racism was rooted here. Here is the positive: How Black people overcame that racism.”

While the Missouri bicentennial can revel in a remarkable history of achievement and generosity, it’s also true that statehood came bargained with the dedication of a slave-holding state — a concession to our nation’s supreme racial injustice.

That’s why Kansas City’s Black history must “reclaim our narrative,” North, the poet, writes, and tell their stories:

“. . . Sarah Rector, Junius Groves, Tom Bass and Anna Jones. Count Basie, Chester Franklin, Bernard Powell and D. A. Holmes . . .

“I chant their names, almost as if holy.”

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This story first appeared on the website of the Local Investment Commission. Joe Robertson is a writer for LINC.

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