Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Felix Payne

Author: 
David Conrads

Politician, gambler, night club owner, newspaper publisher, and bon vivant, Felix Payne was one of the most influential African Americans in Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s. An associate of machine boss Tom Pendergast, the soft-spoken and charismatic Payne controlled the illegal numbers racket in town. In return, he used his enormous influence to get blacks to vote for Pendergast and his Democratic machine candidates.

Payne was born in Marshall, Missouri, in 1884 and moved to Kansas City by the time he was in his 20s. He worked as a barber, then branched out into a succession of sports and entertainment ventures. In 1906, he operated the Twin City Club, a tavern on the western edge of downtown Kansas City. He was also the co-owner of the Kansas City (Kansas) Giants, an all-black baseball team.

In Kansas City, the 18th & Vine area became the black community's downtown in the days of segregation, and Payne bought real estate in that area. He set up gambling operations, opened nightclubs, and became one of the notable figures in the district. The Sunset Club, which was owned by Payne, managed by Thomas "Big Piney" Brown, and featured Pete Johnson on piano and a singing bartender named Joe Turner, was the favored spot among jazz musicians for after-hours jam sessions.

Payne was very active in politics, particularly in support of the Democratic Party. He was such an electrifying speaker that he even addressed white political rallies. In 1928 he organized 75 black Democratic clubs in Missouri. That same year, Payne and Dr. William J. Thompkins, a prominent physician, started the Kansas City American, a newspaper that became a rival to the Kansas City Call, published by Chester Franklin, a staunch Republican. The paper struggled financially after Thompkins left Kansas City for Washington, D.C., in 1934, and it ceased publication by the late 1930s. Payne remained active in the Democratic Party and other civic causes until his death in 1962.

Acknowledgement: 

A previous version of this article is published on kchistory.org: http://kchistory.org/content/biography-felix-payne-1884-1962-businessman...