Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

James Wesley Hurse

Author: 
David Conrads

From humble beginnings, Rev. J. W. Hurse became a pillar of the African American community in Kansas City and an important religious figure in the United States. He came to Kansas City as an unskilled laborer with little formal education. Over the course of the next 50 years, he founded and presided over St. Stephen Baptist Church and rose to become the president of the National Baptist Convention.

James Wesley Hurse was born in Colyerville, Tennessee, and spent his early years on a farm in nearby Mason. He left home as a teenager and worked in Memphis at a variety of odd jobs before moving to Kansas City at the age of 21. He enrolled at the Washington School of Correspondence while working as a day laborer. After six years of study, he earned a degree in divinity. In 1898, he began preaching in an area of Northeast Kansas City known both as "Bellevidere Hollow" and "Hell's Half Acre." Preaching under a tent and baptizing converts in the Missouri River, Hurse quickly developed a following in the mostly black and Italian neighborhood, said to be one of the roughest in town.

Hurse formally organized St. Stephen Baptist Church in a tent at Independence Avenue and Charlotte Street. He and his congregation bought a church building at 604 Charlotte, but it burned down before they held their first service. The church was rebuilt, largely by members of the church, and opened in 1905. In 1921, the congregation moved to a church at 910 Harrison Street. Hurse presided over St. Stephen until his death in 1935. He was also active in the National Baptist Convention and served the organization as vice president for eight years. He became president in 1929.

Hurse contributed immeasurably to the economic, social, and cultural life of Kansas City, and spoke out on the importance of education, morals, and home-ownership by African Americans. An ardent champion of the black businessman, he encouraged his congregation to support black-owned businesses in Kansas City.

Acknowledgement: 
A previous version of this article is published on kchistory.org: http://kchistory.org/content/biography-james-wesley-hurse-1866-1935-minister