Race Relations and Civil Rights
“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.
One of the defining aspects of “Boss” Thomas J. Pendergast’s “machine” politics was its approach to African American voters. During the early 20th century, at a time when black people were routinely excluded from the vote by Democratic regimes in most of the former slave South, Pendergast’s Democratic organization in Kansas City succeeded in part by attracting considerable black support. While such support was not unique to Kansas City—black Missourians never lost the vote in the same way or degree as their counterparts farther South—historians often point to the city as an example of early black political realignment toward a Northern Democratic Party based in urban, industrial centers and at increasing odds with its Southern wing over the issue of civil rights.
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.
Like a prairie fire, a revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) spread quickly across the nation in the 1920s, enrolling upwards of six million white, native-born Protestants into its ranks. Promoting “100 Percent Americanism,” “Protestantism,” “Law and Order,” and the “eternal maintenance of white supremacy,” the Klan found keen reception in quarters where the white majority population felt threatened by immigration, modernization, and illegal alcohol consumption.
This essay analyzes Bluford’s initial reporting on her effort to enter MU, her commentary on her failed civil lawsuit in May 1942, and the announcement of the newspaper’s fundraising campaign for African American education in the same month. The facts of Bluford’s three-year crusade to enroll at MU are known: she repeatedly tried to enroll at the university and pursued three lawsuits, losing the last one in April 1942. The fact that she and The Call collaborated to influence readers’ responses to the quest for African American educational rights has not been acknowledged or analyzed.
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.
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.
There are world records for nearly everything, including cattle processing. And in September 1918, Kansas City broke them all. As World War I entered its final fateful months, the Kansas City stockyards handled more than 55,000 cattle in a single day and 475,000 for the month. That fall, during a remarkable three-month span, more than 1.3 million cattle passed through the city’s yards. The Kansas City cattle business was impressive, but add to these figures hundreds of thousands of sheep, hogs, and horses, and more than 3.3 million animals were yarded in the city. First seven, then 12, then 34 railroads brought these animals into the city and out again to distant markets.
One of the defining political trends of the mid-20th century was the transition of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, accompanied by a major shift in the party’s policy platform toward social liberalism and civil rights. Nationally, this change is usually dated to the latter half of the New Deal, roughly around the election of 1936. In Kansas City and the state of Missouri, however, it happened much earlier and in surprising circumstances that greatly influenced national affairs in later years.
"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.
For most of his 23-year baseball career, Newt Allen was an integral component of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most storied teams in the history of Negro league baseball. A solid hitter and stellar defensive player, Allen was arguably the best second baseman in black baseball during the 1920s and early 1930s.
Relatively little is known about the life of Saturnino Alvarado, but through his legal fight to ensure that his two children and another, Marcos de Leon, would be admitted into Argentine High School in the fall of 1926, his impact on the lives of Hispanic Americans in the Kansas City area was profound and enduring. Alvarado was born November 29, 1883, in Michoacan, Mexico, to Justo and Juanita Chavez Alvarado. He was a shoe cobbler and established a shoe repair shop in the Argentine District of Kansas City, Kansas, after his family immigrated to the United States. When his first wife Concepcion Franco died, he remarried Guadalupe Araujo.
For a half a century starting in 1895, Rev. Samuel W. Bacote was the pastor of Second Baptist Church, one of the oldest and largest black churches in Kansas City. The son of former slaves, Bacote was also a scholar, a writer, and a nationally prominent figure in the Baptist church.
Tom Baird was associated for many years, and in many capacities, with the Kansas City Monarchs—as a booking agent, officer, co-owner and, finally, as sole owner of one of the most successful and innovative teams in the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues. His alliance with J. L. Wilkinson, the team’s founder, lasted almost the entire span of the Negro leagues, from the formation of the first viable league of all-black teams until the demise of black baseball following the integration of the major leagues.
Tom Bass is credited as a founder of the American Royal Horse Show, where for years he was the only African American allowed to exhibit. During a career that spanned half a century, he won competitions at every horse show in the country, earned more than 2,000 blue ribbons, and won championships at two world's fairs.
Lucile Bluford has been called the “Matriarch” and the “Conscience” of Kansas City. Miss Bluford, as she was always known, was a pioneer, a crusader for equal rights for African Americans and women, but above all she was a journalist, dedicated to getting the news out.
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.
Vocal in print and at the podium, publisher Nelson Crews purchased the Kansas City Sun newspaper and trumpeted a message of advancement. Its reporters covered every aspect of the Kansas City African American community and integrated an organization previously closed to African American workers. Meanwhile his brother James established one of Kansas City’s most important African American institutions, the YMCA at 1824 Paseo.
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.
Minnie Lee Crosthwaite filled many roles during her 90 years: teacher, wife, mother, business woman, and community leader. She is remembered best as a pioneering social worker at Wheatley-Provident Hospital, a private hospital with African American staff and patients.
One of the top catchers in the Negro baseball leagues, Frank Duncan spent most of his playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs. He was the first-string catcher during the Monarchs' glory years of the 1920s, when the team won three consecutive league championships and beat the Hilldale Club of Philadelphia in the first Negro World Series. He was their playing manager for most of the 1940s, when the Monarchs were, once again, one of the premier teams in black baseball.
Ada Crogman's father, one of the distinguished scholars of the African American race, was professor of Latin and Greek at Clark University for 37 years and then became the first African American president of Clark, serving for seven years. Mrs. Franklin, along with her two sisters and five brothers, grew up on the Clark University campus. She became nationally known for her production, "Milestones of a Race," which was presented in cities throughout the country. She married Chester Arthur Franklin, owner of The Call newspaper, in 1925 and began to devote her talent and her interest to the paper and the Kansas City community.
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.
Daniel Arthur Holmes was born the son of slaves in Randolph County, Missouri, in 1876. His family moved to Macon, Missouri, after being freed at the end of the Civil War. Holmes, a third generation preacher, answered the call to preach at age 17 and was ordained in 1901. Holmes began his career in the greater Kansas City area in 1914 as pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas. He later took over leadership at Vine Street Baptist Church at 1835 Vine and soon led the church in an expansion program. By 1927 the church was built at its current location at 25th Street and the Paseo and renamed Paseo Baptist Church. Holmes served as pastor for 46 years—from 1921 to 1967.
His booking agent gave him the nickname "Speedy" for his slow, soft-shoe dance style and his relaxed pace. While the multi-talented dancer, drummer and singer never gained national fame, as did contemporaries Count Basie and Charlie Parker, Speedy Huggins was one of the most beloved musicians in Kansas City. Prior to his death at the age of 85, he was a living legend, as well as a cherished Kansas City icon. He was one of the few jazzmen still working whose musical roots reached back to the heyday of Kansas City jazz, when the 18th and Vine district boasted one of the liveliest music and nightclub scenes in the country.
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.
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.
Julia Lee was known for her husky voice, her straightforward piano style, and the easy, but heartfelt way she sang. In a professional singing career that spanned four decades, Lee built a national reputation as one of the great female blues singers of all time.
Kansas City jazz, a hard-swinging, blues-based musical style that flourished in the 1920s and '30s, is arguably this city's greatest contribution to the uniquely American art form of jazz. Of the countless musicians and bandleaders who played at nightclubs, ballrooms, social clubs, and all-night jam sessions in the 18th & Vine district during that golden era, none embodied Kansas City jazz more than Bennie Moten.
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.
By the 1930s, Satchel Paige had acquired a reputation as one of the finest pitchers in the game, white or black. He earned more money than any other black player and even more than many white major league players. Seemingly everywhere he played he attracted record crowds that sparked wider interest in black baseball players and helped the Negro Leagues ball clubs attain financial stability.
Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he played in jazz clubs as a teenager and young man. The local jazz culture based in the Vine Street nightclub district cultivated his talents as a teenager. Indeed, it was during this period that Kansas City made notable contributions to jazz with hometown artists such as Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Buster Smith.
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.
In 1910, Dr. Perry opened a private hospital, the Perry Sanitarium and Training School for Nurses, at 1214 Vine Street. There he developed strong medical and pediatric units to serve the minority community. The sanitarium became Wheatley-Provident Hospital, a public institution, in 1916.
Sarah Rector, Kansas City’s “First Black Millionairess,” was known in Kansas City for her “fairy tale” ascension to money and fame, fine living at Rector Mansion, and reported entertaining of African American celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson. Rector’s story, however, is a complex narrative that stands at the intersections of race, indigenous sovereignty, children’s rights, and the oil boom in Oklahoma; it requires wading through questionable news reports and legal statutes while examining the shifting status of freedmen during the early part of the 20th century.
Homer Roberts was as persistent in the 1920s as any car salesman today, but his goals reached well beyond the next sale. With enduring determination and a love of the motorcar, Roberts was the first African American to own an automobile dealership in the country.
Wilber "Bullet Joe" Rogan was one of the best and most versatile players in the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Known primarily for his fastball, Rogan had an assortment of effective pitches that made him the ace of the pitching staff of the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1920s.
James Scott, who was born in Neosho and died in Kansas City, Kansas, was one of the biggest names in ragtime, second only to the great pianist and composer Scott Joplin.
Hilton Smith was a mainstay of the Kansas City Monarchs' pitching staff from 1936 until 1948, a time when the Monarchs were one of the dominant teams in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Although he was well known in the baseball world, the quiet, workmanlike Smith was greatly overshadowed by Satchel Paige, his flamboyant teammate, and Smith never got the public acclaim he deserved.
Harlan Leonard once described N. Clark Smith’s impressive persona as the segregated Lincoln High School’s band leader in Kansas City, saying that Major Smith held a “commanding personality”: “He was short, chubby, gruff, military in bearing, wore glasses, and was never seen without his full uniform and decorations. His language was rather rough and occasionally shocking to the few young ladies who were taking music classes, though never offensive. Major Smith simply ran a tight ship. . . . He drilled the Lincoln marching bands until they were the best in the area, some said the best of their kind in the Middle West.”
As a teacher, school administrator, public official, and civic leader, Earl D. Thomas forged a long and distinguished record of achievement. Although his efforts were focused largely on the betterment of Kansas City’s African American community, the city as a whole benefited from his activities in a wide variety of fields.
The son of a former slave, William J. Thompkins had a multi-faceted career as a physician, hospital administrator, newspaper publisher, and civil servant. A respected physician, Thompkins was involved in the founding of General Hospital No. 2, which opened in 1908, and by 1924 it was the first hospital in the U.S. to be staffed entirely by African Americans.
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.
Joe Turner had a tremendous voice and a talent for improvising lyrics. He was called the "Boss of the Blues," and during the 1930s—Kansas City's musical heyday—"Big Joe" Turner was the greatest blues singer in town.
Dr. Unthank began a crusade to develop a municipal hospital solely to serve the minority community. White physicians and city leaders showed little interest in his proposal. Dr. Unthank eventually overcame the indifference and prejudice shown by city officials and the white medical community. He persuaded the city to allow the old General Hospital to become the "colored division" when white patients were moved to a new, modern facility in 1908. The building was renamed General Hospital No. 2. This was the first public hospital used exclusively for minority citizens in the United States.
Few goals were too ambitious for Bruce R. Watkins, Kansas City's first African American to serve on the city council and make a serious run for mayor. Although he lost his bid for mayor in 1979 to Dick Berkley, Watkins left an indelible mark in Kansas City history.
On August 30, 1901, Roy Wilkins was born in St. Louis, Missouri. From a modest background, Wilkins would go on to graduate from the University of Minnesota, become the editor of The Call newspaper, and lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for more than two decades at the height of the civil rights movement.
J. L. Wilkinson made his mark on history in three important ways: as the founder and owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the greatest teams in the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues; as a pioneer in the use of lights in baseball; and as the man who gave Jackie Robinson his professional start in the game.
Claude "Fiddler" Williams didn't play the instrument for which he became best known until after he had already mastered the guitar, mandolin, banjo, cello, and bass. Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on February 22, 1908, Williams began his musical career 10 years later.
A glimpse into the history of education in Kansas City would not be complete without a profile of Hazel Browne Williams, the first African American fulltime professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Hazel Browne, a native Kansas Citian, was born on February 9, 1907, the only child of John and Effie Moten Browne. She graduated from Lincoln High School in 1923, where she earned the honor of serving as the first woman sponsor major of the school's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Her reputation for breaking barriers would continue throughout the rest of her life.
In a remarkably productive career that spanned a half century, Mary Lou Williams established herself as a pianist, composer, and arranger, an unprecedented feat that has remained an inspiration to women in jazz.
Lester Willis Young was one of the premier saxophonists of the 1930s and 40s whose style and sound was emulated by future generations of jazz musicians. Hailed as “The President of the Tenor Sax” by his close friend Billie Holiday, he was simply “Prez” to his peers. While in Kansas City, Lester freelanced with Bennie Moten, George Lee, Clarence Love and other bands, before joining the Count Basie-Buster Smith band at the Reno Club in 1934.
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.
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.
On October 6, 1922, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Kansas City Blues baseball teams embarked on a six-game series that would end with the Monarchs being crowned "The New City Champions" by the Kansas City Star.