By Renée S. Gordon
Kansas City, Missouri is so filled with history and culture that there is no time when a visit is not wonderful. But the city has really “kicked it out” for Black History Month’s recognition and celebration of nearly 300 years of black heritage. Kansas City is hosting a series of performances, exhibits and activities throughout the city.
First, Some History…
African American history in the Missouri Territory actually preceded the founding of Kansas City by more than a century. In 1719, Sieur Philip Renault brought 500 Santo Domingo slaves into the territory. Kansas City was established around Francois Chouteau’s second trading post in 1821 and was not named after the Kansa Indians until 1850. The small, but lucrative, settlement went from being called simply Kansas to Kansas City three years later.
“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” —Satchel Paige
At the close of the Civil War, Kansas City emerged as a mecca for African Americans because of the need for labor. Because a number of blacks were already settled there, African Americans once again migrated there in the early 1900s, fleeing the South’s harsh segregation. Once in the city they formed a vibrant community, filled with political, sports, artistic and musical innovators whose cultural influences and innovations continue to resonate.
Kansas City became known as the “Paris of the Plains” largely based on the music scene in what is now the 18th and Vine Historic District, bordered by 18th and 19th Streets and Woodland Ave. and the Paseo, placed on the National Register in 1991. In its heyday there were more than 123 jazz clubs and every African American of any stature passed through.
The Museums at 18th and Vine are the natural place to begin. Two major museums, the Kansas City Jazz and Negro League Museums, plus the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center are housed in a single complex. The center features exhibits and an orientation film that provides background information on the community.
The American Jazz Museum was founded in 1997 to preserve, promulgate and present America’s indigenous art form. Four musicians, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald serve as anchors for the exhibits, honoring their impact on the genre. Other artists’ careers and contributions are also showcased. The museum fulfills its mission through audio, video, documents, clothing, instruments and interactive presentations. Highlights of the self-guided tour are the second most valuable horn in the world and the John Baker Jazz Film Collection. The museum includes an award-winning jazz club, the Blue Room, named after the 1930s nightclub that was inside the famous Street Hotel. Patrons tables on the first level function as mini-galleries filled with memorabilia. Live performances are regularly scheduled.
In 1883 Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first black major league player and no black player would play in the majors again until Jackie Robinson decimated the color barrier in 1947, 64-years later. During the years between, African Americans could only play exhibition games against whites and in 1930 it was ruled that a maximum of three white players could play with blacks on a team.
Andrew “Rube” Foster, the “Father of Black Baseball” founded the Negro National League (NNL) in Kansas City on February 13, 1920. Since 1990 the story of African Americans in baseball and the story of black baseball are brilliantly related in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum from the time you pass through the turnstile entrance. The orientation film, “They Were All Stars,” sets the stage for an immersive experience. The self-guided tour culminates when you step onto the Field of Dreams and stand beside life-sized sculptures of the greatest Negro Leaguers to have graced a baseball field, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson and Leroy “Satchel” Paige. Gibson said, “Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could get out of bed, turn out the lights across the room and be back in bed under the covers before the lights went out.”
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Jr. was born in Kansas City in 1920 and is widely regarded as having had the greatest influence on improvisational jazz artists. Parker died in 1950 and 49 years later Charlie Parker Plaza was dedicated near the Jazz Museum. A large bust, “Bird Lives,” created by Robert Graham is on the plaza. Parker is interred in Lincoln Cemetery on East Truman Road.
The oldest jazz venue in the world, the 1917 Black Musicians Local Union 627, is located in Kansas City. It was established to protect musicians’ rights and it continues to host jam sessions on weekends after midnight. In 1982 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Live performances are still on view at the historic Gem Theater Cultural and Performing Arts Center. Constructed in 1912 as a silent movie theater, The Star, it underwent exterior renovation and renaming in 1923 and the most recent remodeling has created a state-of-the-art performance venue. The neon marquee is original.
The Coterie Theatre was founded in 1979 to foster interracial and intergenerational dialogue. Until February 21st the theatre will present “And Justice for Some: The Freedom Trial of Anthony Burns” (1858). The play is based on the true story of 18-year-old Anthony Burns who fled slavery in Virginia and began working in Boston. He was recaptured, shackled and returned to slavery under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Riots and trials ensued and ultimately his freedom was purchased and he returned to Boston. The audience participates in the fate of Burns as they sit in as members of the 1858 Massachusetts State Senate.
If research is your thing you will love the Black Archives of Mid-America, the largest collection of items related to African Americans in the Midwest. The center is offering a series of lectures, films and events.
Mid-Continent Public Library is presenting three outstanding special programs “Born a Slave,” “Negro Leagues Baseball: The Deep Roots of African-Americans in America’s Great Game,” and “A History of Military Service by African-Americans.” The programs run February 4-27 on a varying schedule and are all presented by noted scholars. @21plusTravel Tip: Reservations required.
The Kansas City Public Library is showcasing a “Black History Month Book-to-Film Series.” Four screenings will be held of film adaptations of novels by African-American authors. Receptions precede each screening. Additional programming will take place throughout the month.
Frederick J. Brown was born in 1945 and over his 67 year lifetime gained fame as a portraitist, most notably for his more than 300 portraits of artists including jazz musicians such as Armstrong, Basie, Charles, Hampton, Monk, and Morton, exploring the connection between art and music. The Kemper Art Museum displays his spectacular work, “The History of Art,” 110 paintings created over a six-year period.
The African collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is displayed in the Helzberg Family Galleries and exceeds 400 objects. The collection began in 1958 and currently represents 30 African cultures. A highlight of the African American collection is Charles White’s “Goodnight Irene,” a painting once owned by Harry Belafonte.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial exhibit “Make Way for Democracy” showcases on African American men on active duty and on the home front. “Make Way for Democracy” has additional content online that offers access to rare photographs and documents.
Kansas City is renowned for two of African Americans’ greatest contributions, Jazz and barbeque. You must not leave until you sate your appetite on some of Kansas City’s best. There are more than 100 barbecue eateries in the city and it may be difficult to choose, though we @21plusTravel loved our meal here. But since it’s so good and renowned, you really should plan to enjoy KC BBQ more than once while in the city….
Arthur Bryant is considered the “Father of KC Barbecue” and such notables as Jimmy Carter, Bryant Gumbel, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg and Harry S. Truman have sought out his ribs. Originally the ribs were wrapped in newspaper and sold by the slab and were an immediate sensation.
Black history is a shared heritage. It spans 365 days, 50 states and each destination adds threads to a tapestry that is distinctly American.
– Photos courtesy Visit KC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.