Communities and Neighborhoods
In the years between 1915 and 1925, Mexican migrants such as Paula Sanchez and her family arrived at Kansas City in large numbers to work for the city’s railroad and meat packing companies. These jobs proved to be erratic and poorly paid. In addition, these newcomers possessed few resources upon their arrival, save determination and a strong work ethic. Anglo Kansas Citians worried that this group would drain the city’s resources. Several female reformers, however, banded together to form a social service organization, known as the Guadalupe Center, to aid these arrivals.
Kansas City, like other American cities, added new suburban-style developments at its edges during the early decades of the 20th century. What makes it a unique case for understanding this shift is the character of Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols. Born in Olathe, Kansas, in 1880, Nichols had a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, and included transforming thousands of acres of land into a planned suburban community.
"They did not try to build something ‘good enough for Negroes’ but something as good as money could buy." This is how Chester Arthur Franklin, the Republican founder of The Call newspaper and one of Kansas City’s most prominent black leaders, greeted the newly constructed eight-story building that housed General Hospital No. 2, serving the indigent African American population of Kansas City. When the new building opened on March 2, 1930, national public health experts joined the local black and white communities in considering the new facility to be the finest black public hospital in the nation, even rivaling some of the best white public hospitals with its state-of-the-art equipment and modern architecture.
“The black schools [in Kansas City] were much better than they had any right to be, partly because they were full of talented teachers who would have been teaching in college had they been white, and partly because Negro parents and children simply refused to be licked by segregation.” Then-reporter Roy Wilkins’s statement about education in the Kansas City area aptly summarizes the unjust obstacles that segregation created for black students, their parents, and educators at the segregated schools of Kansas City. Before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared separate public schools for white and black students to be unequal and unconstitutional, black communities and activists made personal sacrifices in their fight for quality educations; they arguably had to do so afterward, as well. The African American schools that managed to stay open in the Kansas City area during segregation did so despite discriminatory policies that frequently underfunded, closed, and overcrowded schools.
Born in Quebec, Alfred Benjamin and his family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he began working as a clerk at the Abernathy Furniture Company. In 1880, the company opened a branch store in Kansas City and the family moved here, where Benjamin soon became first vice-president of the company. It was rumored that he gave as much as 50 percent of his annual income to charities, a reputation that inspired a namesake medical organization named the Alfred Benjamin Dispensary.
From 1918, John B. Bisceglia was a pastor, social worker, teacher, scholar, and civic leader in charge of the Italian Mission of the Central Presbyterian Church. The energetic, young pastor immediately swung into action, starting programs and ministering to his flock. A kindergarten came first, then a free nursery school for working mothers. Sports teams and organizations like Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls followed. A free clinic was established, as well as adult education programs and mothers clubs. He instituted a Sunday evening service in Italian.
In October 1894 in the midst of a nationwide depression, Edwin Brigham, a 20-year old printer from Kirksville, Missouri, stepped off a train in Kansas City hoping to find work. Little did he know that this would mark the beginning of a 52-year career in social service helping thousands of homeless men and women in Kansas City. From 1898 to 1950, “Terry” as his close friends knew him, was superintendent of the Helping Hand Institute. Housed in a former saloon at 4th and Main, the institute provided food, lodging, and work for homeless and destitute men on the city’s North End.
Girard Bryant was a highly respected teacher and school administrator in Kansas City for 45 years. As a community leader, he took an active part in major social issues of the day, particularly education, race relations, health care and law enforcement. Bryant came to Kansas City in 1926 to teach at Western Baptist Seminary and later at the Kansas Vocational School in Topeka. He became a teacher in the Kansas City School District in 1930 and remained with the district until 1964. During his long tenure he filled many positions, including teacher and vice-principal at Lincoln High School, and dean of Lincoln Junior College.
Richard T. Coles was a Kansas City teacher and principal who not only taught his pupils, but introduced new methods to educate students. Coles initiated the idea in Kansas City of teaching African American grade school children lifetime job skills. His concept conceived a program of industrial training that began providing instructions in skilled fields for children in the fifth grade that continued through high school.
Over the duration of 40 years at historically black Lincoln High School, Hugh Oliver (H.O.) Cook shaped the school’s culture and curriculum, both as a mathematics and psychology instructor and later as principal of the institution from 1921-1944. A Washington, D.C., native and a graduate of Cornell (with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Secondary School Administration), Cook’s vision for Lincoln High to serve and connect to the Kansas City region’s black community continued a legacy set by the school’s earlier principals.
From the mid-1930s until the 1960s, hundreds of Kansas City Catholics saw Dante Cosentino’s paintings of angels and saints each Sunday. Cosentino was an ecclesiastic artist who adorned the interior walls of these churches with his frescos.
Elizabeth Bruce Crogman, who in 1925 became founder of Kansas City’s Florence Home for Colored Girls to house unwed African American women who were pregnant, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 1, 1894. The home functioned as the counterpart to similar organizations that served the area's white residents but denied care to young black women.
If you have ever admired the towers, tiles, and colors of the Country Club Plaza, you have appreciated the early work of Edward Buehler Delk, an architect who came to Kansas City in 1920 to help design the Plaza.
More than 5,000 homes in dozens of neighborhoods bear the mark of Napoleon Dible, one of Kansas City’s earliest and most expansive developers. For more than 50 years, Dible methodically platted and developed tracts of land into the city’s early suburbs.
Rarely has a Kansas City couple made such a mark on the community as Henry and Phoebe Ess. Phoebe Ess channeled her abundant leadership skills and zeal for reform into more than 30 clubs and movements. Those she founded and led included the Kansas City Athenaeum, the Woman's City Club, and the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club
Unity—the name came to Charles suddenly during a meditative state in 1891—was neither a church nor sect, but carried a message that physical health and material wealth were the natural states intended for humanity by God. The Fillmores encouraged unity of all denominations, of science and religion, of God and man, and of people with one another. During the 1920s, the Fillmores extended the reach of their message via the new medium of radio, eventually purchasing station WOQ. Unity also began acquiring land southeast of Kansas City, near Lee’s Summit, Missouri; the tract came to encompass some 1400 acres, later incorporated as a village.
Chester Arthur Franklin was a leading African American editor and publisher of the Kansas City Call, who used his newspaper platform to advocate for systemic change and equity, both for Kansas City’s black community and for African Americans nationwide. By the time of his death in 1955, Franklin had served as a prominent publisher over 30 years and was heavily impressed in Kansas City’s memory as an editor, activist, and leader.
Dorothy Gallagher was born on January 8, 1894, to a wealthy Kansas City family. Not content to live quietly in affluence, Gallagher gained interest in a Catholic women’s group called the Agnes Ward Amberg Club, which carried out social work in Mexican communities in the west side of the city.
Catherine Hale was determined that her brother would not miss out on everyday pleasures simply because he was blind. She taught him to play cards and dance well. When he joined The Workers for the Blind of Greater Kansas City in 1911, she accompanied him to his meetings. Her lifelong devotion to helping Kansas City’s blind citizens had begun.
Whether strolling the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or campus of the University of Kansas, appreciating the layout of Mission Hills and the Country Club District, or paying respects at Forest Hill Cemetery, most Kansas Citians have experienced designs of Sid J. and S. Herbert Hare. As the work of this father and son evolved from engineering to urban planning, their careers reflected the development of the modern American approach to building great cities.
Barnett Helzberg, Sr. was one of Kansas City's boldest and most successful businessmen. From an inauspicious beginning in 1915, he built a small, family-owned jewelry store into one of the largest and most profitable jewelry store chains in the country.
As one school historian has written, the Kansas City Country Day School opened its doors in a September 28, 1910, ceremony resembling "a cross between the launching of a crusade and an old-time Fourth of July celebration." It was the culmination of much hard work on the part of Vassie James Ward Hill, a trailblazing female political leader whose progressive vision led to the founding of Country Day and its sister institution, the Sunset Hill School, today known collectively as Pembroke Hill.
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.
Dr. Burris A. Jenkins used Kansas City as his pulpit, communicating with thousands of people through newspapers, radio waves, and authorship of 17 books. He served as pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Christian Church, later the Community Christian Church at 4601 Main Street. Often considered too liberal for his era or occupation, Jenkins won scores of followers with his blunt sermons, essays, and novels.
John A. Jones owned and operated his barber shop and pool hall as one of the most respected businesses in the 18th and Vine neighborhood. By installing the best equipment and insisting on high standards of conduct, Jones’s business succeeded as one of the earliest and longest-lasting establishments in the neighborhood.
Isaac "Ike" Katz, who would go on to found the Katz Drug Co. in Kansas City and become a pioneer in the modern pharmacy business, was born in the town of Husiatin in western Ukraine (then a part of Russia) on March 8, 1879. Ike Katz brought customers into his drug stores with a unique business model, where customers could fill prescriptions, shop for groceries, buy appliances, and even purchase exotic pets such as monkeys or baby alligators; all at cut-rate prices. At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, the company boasted 65 retail locations spread across seven states.
She is said to have belonged to the "silk stocking set," but Della Cochrane Lamb spent most of her life working with those less fortunate than herself. Della began channeling her abundant energy and talent into community service in 1897, when she was still a teenager. That year, Melrose Methodist Church Auxiliary opened a day nursery on Fifth Street. One of the first day care centers in Kansas City, it looked after the children of immigrant north side families so that their mothers could work. When the Fifth Street nursery evolved into the Institutional Neighborhood House in1906, Lamb became president of its board of directors. She remained president for 27 years.
In 1914, Frank Sherman Land sold a restaurant to work full-time coordinating Scottish Rite masons’ relief efforts to needy Kansas City families—a job he had begun as a volunteer. Several years later, Land became interested in helping boys rendered fatherless by World War I, and after a failed effort to recruit mentors from the business community, he conceived the idea of a fraternal society in which boys could find fellowship with other boys.
Dorothy Lillard began teaching in the Kansas City public schools at the age of 18. When she retired 50 years later, she had traveled the world, taught school in four countries, and become something of a Kansas City legend. Lillard began her teaching career in 1927. Her first assignment was with a first-grade class at the W. W. Yates Elementary School at 13th and Lydia streets. She quickly earned a reputation as an exacting instructor, a stickler for excellence, and a teacher who insisted that parents take responsibility for raising their children. As a result, she made a lifelong impression on generations of young Kansas Citians.
McRill died as he had lived, pushing his handcart through downtown streets. For almost 30 years, he was a familiar sight to people working or shopping downtown. He collected discarded newspapers and sold them to a paper processing company. He found broken wooden boxes at the City Market, repaired them, and sold them back to the vendors.
Father Jose Munoz arrived in Kansas City in 1914, a penniless refugee of the Mexican Revolution and was welcomed into the city’s Mexican community as the only Spanish speaking priest for miles. Soon after his arrival, he founded the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe on 23rd Street, a foundation for Kansas City’s Hispanic community.
His name was never a household word in Kansas City and, although Ernest Newcomb played a large part in determining the location of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he was not even well-known on campus for many years. As the administrative founding father of UMKC, Newcomb is now considered to have been an important figure in the history of higher education in Kansas City, but a change in management during the university’s early years strained his relationship with the school for nearly four decades.
Jesse Clyde (“J.C.”) Nichols was a nationally renowned city planner in Kansas City from the first decade of the 20th century to the 1950s. Among his numerous legacies are several subdivisions in suburban Kansas City, the Country Club Plaza, and the national spread of deed restrictions and homeowner associations
When he became bishop of Kansas City in 1939, Bishop O'Hara brought with him a national reputation for progressive achievements. The clergyman decided early in his career that education was the key to success for individuals and the church.
Nelle Nichols Peters is known as a pathbreaking female architect, designer of nearly 1,000 local buildings, and one of the most prolific architects in Kansas City during the 1920s. Despite the fact that many of these buildings still occupy prominent locations, especially near the Country Club Plaza, Nelle Peters remains a relatively obscure figure in Kansas City history.
Vivian’s characteristic assertiveness led to her activism with the “clean sweep” reform movement of the late 1930s in which a non-partisan coalition triumphed over the corrupt but crumbling Pendergast political machine in city elections. After several years working as an office manager for a telegraph company, she took a job in the Kansas City office of the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
With Kansas City, Missouri, physician, T. C. Unthank, M.D., Dr. Thompson founded Douglass Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Dr. Thompson’s hospital fell under the authority of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1905. In 1924 the hospital purchased a new building at 336 Quindaro Boulevard. In 1937 it moved, for the last time, to 3700 North 27th Street, on the campus of Western University.
The twin terra cotta towers of the former Beth Shalom synagogue serve as a distinctive landmark for the neighborhood at 3400 the Paseo. The striking building is the only example of Byzantine architecture in Kansas City, a style that was popular for Jewish houses of worship in the 1920s. Completed in 1927, the building has won accolades from the architectural community and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Elizabeth Bruce Crogman, who in 1925 founded Kansas City’s Florence Home for Colored Girls (which housed unwed African American women who were pregnant), was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 1, 1894. The home functioned as the counterpart to similar organizations that served the area's white residents but denied care to young black women.
Architect Henry Van Brunt once called the Baltimore Hotel "the grand hotel for three decades at the heart of the city, both physically and sentimentally". Located on Baltimore between 11th and 12th Streets, the Baltimore was the hotel of choice for the local elite and for visiting dignitaries, including several United States presidents.
The first edition of the Kansas City Call or The Call, was published on May 6, 1919. It was one of 22 newspapers published by Kansas City’s African American community near the beginning of the 20th century, but the only one that survived past 1943. Starting as an inauspicious four-page paper, the paper soon grew to one of the most successful black newspapers in the nation.
During a bright autumn day on October 1, 1933, nearly 2,000 people gathered in the shade of trees along the south side of Brush Creek to officially celebrate the opening of the University of Kansas City. Inspired speeches by Chairman of the Board Ernest E. Howard and Dr. Burris Jenkins, a prominent local minister, declared the founders' intention that the university should serve as an institution of opportunity for Kansas Citians who could not travel far away to attend college.
In the midst of a sweltering summer heat wave, the temperature reached a record-high 113 degrees Fahrenheit in Kansas City on August 14, 1936. These high temperatures in the summer of 1936 remain the most extreme in modern North American history. Compounding the problem, virtually no one had air conditioning in their own homes in the 1930s.