Kansas City’s cultural vitality was made possible in large part by the diversity of its citizens and by the oft-contested relationships among people of minority races and ethnicities. Prominent leaders confronted traditional legal, social, and political barriers. One of them, Lucile Bluford, opposed segregation by applying for admission to the University of Missouri school of journalism and documenting her struggle in one of the nation’s leading African American newspapers, The Call. African Americans and people of Irish, Mexican, and Italian ancestry comprised significant constituencies of the Pendergast political machine, and consequently they were able to exert unprecedented influence on the city’s politics and development.
There remained, on the other hand, strong resistance to racial liberalism. Hopes for true progress were often dampened by the corruption associated with machine politics. A resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached some six million members nationally by the mid-1920s, holding its second national convocation in Kansas City, Missouri, and exerting considerable influence on the Kansas side of the metropolitan area. As Professor Jeffrey Pasley argues, Kansas City’s contested racial and political landscape ushered in the transition of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party under the banner of the Pendergast coalition, years before the same party realignment occurred nationally under President Franklin Roosevelt.
When people think of Kansas City jazz in the 1920s and ‘30s, certain images come to mind: political corruption, gangster activity, and music that catered to and benefited from this type of environment. But vice and corruption were not the only elements that made the city a center of innovative music. The black middle and upper classes also supported the music and the musicians, especially at dance halls such as the Paseo Hall. And there were black organizations such as the NAACP, men’s groups like the Elks Lodge, and ladies’ groups like the 12 Charity Girls, who organized formal dances to raise funds for various institutions in the community.