Published September 24th, 2020 at 10:09 AM
Rosemary Smith Lowe broke color barriers in a segregated city, forged Black political power, raised up neighborhoods and, even in her 70s, could stand as a fulcrum of peace between police and angry youths.
Lowe was a founding commissioner of LINC and vice chair when LINC was established in 1991 by Kansas City business leader Bert Berkley, who asked Lowe along with Adele Hall, Herman Johnson and Landon Rowland to help nurture the idea of a bottom-up organization that was responsive to community. LINC has emerged as a major nonprofit in the region serving children and families in low-income neighborhoods.
Lowe accumulated many awards for her persistent service in Kansas City, but when asked by a filmmaker to account for it all, to her she was simply “working to keep the neighborhood like it should be.”
That meant being one of the first families to move into Kansas City’s Santa Fe Neighborhood in 1952, defying racist covenants. It meant rising in a fraught political climate for Blacks, becoming the first Black ward committeewoman in Kansas City, and helping establish Freedom, Inc., which gave Blacks a political voice.
It meant holding fast to her expectations for her neighborhood and surrounding communities as they struggled against crime and blight and the outward flight of many more-affluent families.
“Rosemary Lowe, you have told us!” the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr. of St. Mark Union Church said to an audience honoring her last year as one of the Communities Creating Opportunity’s activist honorees, “that we should never quit, but always stay grounded.”
And when others may have fled, Howard recalled that Lowe said, “We’re gonna stay right here, build our communities, raise our children, love our family and vote in our own interest!”
The work was rarely easy. Lowe acknowledged that in a 1998 Kansas City Star article recognizing the 50th anniversary of the breaking of the color line in the Santa Fe Neighborhood.
“We have not had anything given to us on a silver platter,” she said. “There has been no battle but that the Lord was on our side.”
The LINC community mourned Lowe’s passing with reverence for her indefatigable work as a “loyal and committed community activist,” LINC President Gayle A. Hobbs said. “Rosemary’s strength and determination to make things right prevailed throughout her entire life.”
Lowe “never settled” for anything less that what was best for her neighborhood and all of Kansas City, said Janet Miles-Bartee, LINC’s Caring Communities Administrator, who also knew Lowe as a longtime member of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, pastored by her father, the Rev. John Modest Miles.
“She always brought her best to the movement,” Miles-Bartee said. “Whether she failed or succeeded, she gave all she had. Obstacles could not prevent or hinder her. They only made her push harder.”
Many who loved and honored her called her “Mother Lowe.” Rising leaders were encouraged by her strength. Troy Nash, in his successful run for the Kansas City Council, raised her up as his role model, calling her the “Rosa Parks of Kansas City.” Her contemporary, former Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks, when running for mayor, said Lowe was his political hero.
In his praise for Lowe at the CCO awards ceremony, Howard exclaimed, “Rosemary Lowe, you have shown us — hallelujah! — that a woman can stand and be a strong, proud voice in a movement.”
The respect Lowe garnered stretched throughout her community — which was evidenced in the days after a police shooting in June 1996 brought out anger and conflict in the neighborhood around 27th and Benton.
Rocks flew through the air after the shooting. A police car was overturned and burned. And as the city and its community leaders struggled amid conflicting news and commentary to react to the tension, Lowe stepped forward.
A coalition of angry youths, many of them in or close to some of the gangs in the neighborhood, wanted to meet with Lowe, according to news accounts. Some of them had heard her speak in the past. They trusted her.
She became a broker for peace, mediating meetings between police officials and youth leaders. She engendered community pride in the youths, helping them organize efforts to clear weeds and trash.
“I wanted to get their minds in a different channel,” she said at the time.
It was Lowe’s forceful nature, and her courage, that also inspired LINC in its early years, co-founder Adele Hall said in a 2001 interview.
“She’s one of the heroes of my life,” said Hall, who died in 2013. One of the images that Hall said inspired her was that of Lowe fighting to get a drug house shut down, and how Lowe waited up until 2 a.m., standing in the street to make sure the police got the job done.
She helped LINC realize the “power of the individual,” Hall said. “I can say what I think….,” Hall said. “I can have a voice. Maybe I won’t be standing in the street closing a drug house, but I’ll be doing that same thing saying, ‘I’m here. I want to make sure that’s done.’ ”
Lowe’s ability to motivate people and get things done was essential in working with Leon Jordan and Bruce R. Watkins and others in creating Freedom Inc.
They pushed for equal public accommodations for Blacks in downtown Kansas City. They rallied Black workers’ groups and plied their communities door to door to build political capital.
“That’s how we got our precincts strong,” Lowe once told KCUR about Freedom Inc.’s history. “We voted and we voted heavy.”
The key, she said, was not to wage the struggles in a way that divides the community, but to persist with ideas that prevail.
“The only way to do anything about anything,” she said, “is you have to come together, and you have to know how to organize.”
In 1964, the Freedom political effort sent Harold Holliday Sr. and Leon Jordan, Freedom founders, to the Missouri Legislature. “We sent them,” Lowe said. “The men got the titles, but the women did the work.”
Freedom Inc. in 1987 gave her its Distinguished Service Award.
Her political involvement won her a place on the Democratic National Committee, where she served from 1980 to 1986. In 1984, she took an African American page to the Democratic National Convention. In 1993, Lowe received the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Foundation Award.
Lowe has served in various capacities in the community, including president of the Santa Fe Neighborhood Association, and a member of the board of directors of the KC Neighborhood Alliance, Missouri Board of Cosmetology, and the Local Investment Commission.
As LINC Commissioner, she was awarded the Rev. Dr. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson Legacy Award during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Kansas City Chapter 2019 MLK Day Community Mass Celebration.
Lowe was honored, via official resolution, by the City Council of Kansas City in 2016. She received the Bruce R. Watkins Foundation Pioneer Award in July 2014 and the Harry S Truman Award in 2004 from the Jackson County Democratic Committee.
Funeral services will be held on Oct. 1 at 10 a.m. at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, 2411 E. 27th Street, Kansas City.