“Here I Come”
By Renée S. Gordon
Visit a museum to get immersed in the events and individuals of another era that changed our way of life. Kansas City, Missouri boasts several museums that should not be missed.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial is the sole museum in the U.S. dedicated to preserving and promulgating the stories of this global conflict. A drive to build it began in 1919 and two years later the site was dedicated in the presence of the military leaders of the five Allied nations, the only time they were together. It opened in 1926, is one of the top 23 museums in the nation, and is a National Historic Landmark. The collection exceeds 100,000 objects.
Enter via a glass bridge over a field of 9,000 red poppies, each poppy representing 1,000 battle casualties. Start your self-guided tour with the introductory film. Explore the war from all viewpoints in various galleries filled with large photographs, artifacts, dioramas, interactive areas, personal stories and films. Highlights of the tour include replicated trenches, a 1917 battlefield Harley, von Hindenburg’s tunic and a 1918 Model T ambulance.
More than 375,000 African Americans served in WWI, 200,000 overseas; approximately 10 percent saw combat. The most famous of the black combatants were the Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th Infantry, originally the 15th New York Colored National Guard regiment. The French suffered massive casualties and in 1917 the 369th was sent to replenish their numbers. The French called them ‘Les Enfants Perdus,’ The Lost Children, until their prowess in battle caused them to dub them the Hellfighters. In 1918 two of the men were awarded the Croix de Guerre, the first Americans to receive the award in the war. They spent more days, 191, on the front than any other Americans, none of them were ever captured and they never lost any ground once taken.
The words “Guardian Spirits, Courage, Honor, Patriotism and Sacrifice” adorn the 217-ft. tower above the Liberty Memorial. It is illuminated at night and a portico offers a panoramic view. Displays inside are dedicated to Missouri’s WWI participation. Housed within the building is the Pantheon de Guerre, once the world’s largest painting.
The Hellfighters left an indelible mark abroad under the leadership of bandleader and regimental lieutenant James Reese Europe. He was assigned to form a band, and in doing so introduced jazz to the world. To better understand the impact of jazz internationally you can stroll over to the 18th & Vine Historic District and the American Jazz Museum and Walk of Fame.
The museum interprets the history of jazz through changing and permanent exhibits as well as the Blue Room, an on-site jazz club that presents regularly-scheduled live performances. Highlighted masters include Armstrong, Ellington, Fitzgerald and “Yardbird” Parker. The jazz experience is conveyed through use of memorabilia, artifacts, photographs and personal items.
Selected jazz artists are honored annually with a bronze star placed on the walkway around the museum. The ceremony is followed by a concert at the nearby historic Gem Theater. This year’s inductees included Louis Armstrong, George Benson and Nina Simone.
The American Jazz Museum shares a facility with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum just as the stars in both fields shared the period before and between the World Wars. No lens better reflects the story of the African American’s 20th Century pursuit of their goals than this $2.5-million museum. Baseball, America’s sport, is an American story. From the Civil War until 1890 there were black and interracial baseball teams. In 1890 the National Association of Base Ball Players agreed to bar blacks from organized teams, nonetheless urbanized areas of the country continued to have all black teams. In 1920, a group of owners led by Rube Foster, established the Negro National League, the first black league.
Enter through stadium-style turnstiles and begin the tour with an orientation film, “They Were All Stars.” The museum tells the story with a masterful use of artifacts, photographs, documents and 15 interactive stations. As you complete the tour you’re invited to join the most legendary players of the Negro Leagues in the form of ten life-sized bronze sculptures at their positions on the Field of Legends. Satchel Paige’s original gravestone is on display and it should be noted that there is no birthdate. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has a complete schedule of educational activities and special events.
Two of the Negro Leagues’ greatest legends, Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige and John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, are interred in Forest Hills Cemetery. O’Neil’s gravesite is unadorned but a monument dedicated to his career and tireless work on behalf of the Negro Leagues is located in Monarch Garden. Satchel Paige is honored with a large memorial on Paige Island. You can obtain information and a map in the office.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is actually two structures, the first built in the 1930s. The newer, Bloch Building has been deemed an “architectural marvel.” The museum’s collection encompasses 5,000 years of world art and is rated one of the top museums of its type in the U.S. The stunning American Indian Galleries include objects from pre-European contact to contemporary American Indian art of North America. Galleries are arranged geographically beginning in the East. The exhibit areas flow into one another representing the fact that early boundaries were permeable. There are two restaurants and a garden on-site so you can make a day of it.
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art exhibits a collection of modern and contemporary art. The restaurant, Café Sebastienne, is an absolute must, serving seasonal, local cuisine in an artistic setting. The Kempers commissioned African American artist Frederick James Brown to adorn the restaurant’s walls. His work, “The History of Art,” is specific to the site and features 110 variously shaped, interlocking, canvasses that interpret individual artworks that span the globe and date from 1445 to the mid-1990s.
KC’s Union Station dates from 1914 and closed as a depot in 1985. This station was the one used by soldiers returning from all the major wars as well as musicians spreading jazz around the country.
Kansas City Fun Trolley Tours depart from the station. These guided tours provide a good overview of the history and attractions in the city. Tickets are available online and reservations are recommended.
Fine-scale miniatures are tiny, functioning, replicas of furniture, artwork and ceramics created by artisans. The world’s largest collection of miniatures and one of the largest antique toy collections is on view at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. Two KC women gathered the foundation of the 33,000-sq. ft. collection. The museum now houses 72,000 objects, 21,000 miniatures, largely on a 1:12 scale. The miniatures are stunning, displayed singularly and in room settings, and each drawer opens and each painting is framed. A seven-inch cabinet with 19 secret compartments is a real showstopper. Self-guided tours include several galleries with interactive displays so you can test your skill. Toys are exhibited on the second-floor both thematically and chronologically and no matter what your age you are bound to find toys that evoke childhood memories.
Lieber and Stoller wrote, “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come,” in 1952. I think that 2016 is not too late.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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