University of Kansas City

Author: 
Kansas City Public Library
UKC Administration Building
University of Kansas City Administration Building. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

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. The following day, classes began with 264 students and 17 instructors.

Local business leaders had long envisioned a university that would add to Kansas City's existing assets. Various technical, medical, and trade schools had existed in Kansas City since the late 19th century, but the city lacked its own comprehensive four-year university. Undaunted by the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent economic depression, a group of business leaders and philanthropists obtained a charter for the University of Kansas City (UKC) and began a fundraising campaign.

In truth, the UKC Board of Trustees required assistance from an earlier movement that in 1925 had sought to establish a Methodist university on farmland at the intersection of 75th and State Line. The proposed Methodist university would have been known as "Lincoln and Lee University," a name which acknowledged leaders from both sides of the Civil War in an attempt to sooth divisions between the northern and southern branches of Kansas City's Methodist churches.

The leaders who advanced the Lincoln and Lee movement the furthest were Ernest H. Newcomb, an experienced high school and college administrator, Kate B. Hewitt, a local philanthropist, and Bishop E. L. Waldorf, a Methodist minister. Kate Hewitt donated her farmland for the university, while Newcomb and Waldorf organized fundraising drives, sought church support, and even ordered architectural drawings to be made. These efforts failed, however, and Newcomb turned to promoting the need for a private university more generally.

Newcomb eventually allied with the UKC Board of Trustees. He helped bring Lincoln and Lee supporters behind the non-sectarian UKC cause, and the two groups combined their assets. At this point, another philanthropist entered the fray. William Volker, owner of a flourishing home furnishings business named William Volker & Co., had quietly donated his time and money to numerous public projects since 1910. He played a critical role in the creation of Kansas City's Board of Public Welfare, Liberty Memorial, and Research Hospital. To help the UKC movement, Volker acquired 40 acres of land in Kansas City's Rockhill district and donated it to the university. He then donated money for the purchase of the Walter S. Dickey mansion at the site. The Dickey mansion served as UKC's Administration Building and was shortly joined by a science building in 1935, and a library in 1936.

Nearly double the projected number of students began classes on October 2, 1933. In all, 264 entered the first freshman class. UKC expanded greatly in subsequent years and merged with many of the existing professional schools. These schools included the Kansas City School of Law, the Kansas City-Western Dental College, the Kansas City College of Pharmacy, and the Conservatory of Music. On July 25, 1963, UKC finally succumbed to longstanding financial difficulties and ceased to be a private university. It instead joined the University of Missouri System, which already had campuses in Columbia, Rolla, and St. Louis.

Renamed the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), the university continues its mission today.

Acknowledgement: 

A previous version of this article is published on kchistory.org: http://kchistory.org/week-kansas-city-history/university-born

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.