G.S. Griffin's RACISM IN KANSAS CITY: A Short History ( 2015, Chandler Lake Books) should be required reading in all public schools and universities in the greater Kansas City, KS, Johnson County and Kansas City metropolitan areas. In a short 183 pages, Griffin covers not only the story of an important Mid-West Community in a nutshell but also places it in context of how anti-black racism in America as a whole has not been dealt with in social studies classes across the 50 states and other territories.
RACISM IN KANSAS CITY connects well all the dots from the arrival of slavery in 1619 in North America to the continued imbalance in wealth and opportunity for blacks and many minorities in our society in 2019.
Moreover, RACISM KC does so by starting with the Kansas City area being first visited by slave owners, including the likes of William Clark (of the Lewis in Clark fame) at the turn of the 18th to 19th Century. On their two year odyssey West, Clark brought his prized slave named York on the entire mission to the Pacific Ocean and it might be said that York saved the life of his owner on at least one occasion while carrying out many other heroic deeds. At the end of the journey York asked for his freedom but Clark denied him this for at least 20 more years.
Griffen does an excellent but concise job of showing how southernized Jackson and Clay County Missouri life was lived out at the time of the Civil War. In fact, not only was Missouri a slave state but even after the Civil War, KC would continue to legally segregate blacks and whites in schools and in living conditions up through the mid-1960s. Thereafter, it failed to improve things better, instead sought to hollow out the inner city and sent stable new black communities throughout the segregated metropolitan area to face scrupulous lenders and realtors on their own.
The era that preceded the U.S. Civil war in 1861 i.e. the era we know as Bleeding Kansas saw both sides of the Missouri line on war footing from 1854 through 1865. Plantation owners and leaders in Jackson and Clay Counties fought to make the Kansas City, Missouri area the capital for Slavery overlooking all the western territories. They sought to expand their southern culture west into Kansas through raids and skulduggery.
There were certainly anti-slavery proponents active in the same region at this same junction. These would include some residents in what have become Leavenworth, Wyandotte and Johnson counties on the Kansas side. It includes Indian tribes who helped freed blacks. Many blacks crossed either the Kansas or the Missouri rivers to gain their freedom often with partial assistance from prohibitionists of slavery. Meanwhile, free blacks resided in both what became KC, Kansas area and the KC, Missouri at this time.
According to Griffin, "By the time the Confederate States of America was conquered in 1865, Missouri had seen over 1,000 battles, third only to Virginia and Tennessee." In the days before the end of the Civil war and the years that followed, Griffin continues, "Tens of thousands of former slaves fled the South and headed for Kansas, idealized as the Promised Land. Benjamin "Pap" Singleton (who is buried in Kansas City) traversed the South encouraging this migration, which passed through Kansas City. Some white Kansas Citians formed charities and relief to provide black migrants, whom they called exodusters, with food, clothing, and money. The Kansas Freedmen's Relief Association formed to help blacks find housing and work."
As in much the South, the Reconstruction had its successes. Across the South blacks were elected to leadership and representative government. In the KC areas similar temporary progress was made in the way of integrating blacks into the American society. "A black college, Freedman's University (later Western University), was established in Qindaro, where slaves had previously escaped to freedom. A black paper, the Freedman's Record, [also] appeared in 1876." The first black school and later high school was founded in KC Missouri. It was named naturally, Lincoln High School. According to Griffin, by 1885, a higher percentage of blacks than whites were going to public schools in the city.
Sadly, however, a great Southern (and northern) backlash against blacks and those who supported by black rights and opportunities in post-Civil War in America enfolded. Kansas City soon joined this black stain of a trend in USA history. Almost from the start Kansas City greatly underfunded it black schools. Test scores were lower than whites and often these scores became worse as segregation efforts in the city and across Missouri continued for over a hundred years.
The white press in the Kansas City quickly began to ignore all stories of blacks, except those articles involving crime or editorials loaded with racism and stereotypes of blacks. Kansas City area police were known as more racist than even in the rural areas of the states of Kansas and Missouri. Meanwhile, the number of show-lynchings of black men by out-of-control area mobs (running into the thousands in over taking a local jail from police) were present on both sides of the Kansas and Missouri borders up until the end of WWII.
Between 1890 and 1950 Whites owned 99% of the property in the Kansas City area . "One study conducted in 1912 found that 20% of the houses" where many blacks lived, though, "lacked any water supply at all. Moreover, in 1915, "one [tiny] 22-block area had 4295 people". Therefore, "rows of privies lay just outside the shacks; human waste and flies were everywhere". Then the real estate powers-that-be really went to work on the black and the poor of Kansas City.
"A real estate tycoon named J.C. Nichols perfected the art of keeping darker people out of white neighborhoods. From 1910 to the 1940s, Nichols built the most beautiful and expensive areas of Kansas City, such as the Country Club Plaza, Mission Hills, and Prairie Village. He made membership in his neighborhood associations mandatory upon buying a home, and all members were legally required to enforce racial restrictions: homes could not be sold to minorities. He also ensured that those restrictions renewed automatically" with each sale decade after decade.
In addition, "Nichols advertised to scare whites" who found their status in society threatened by the middle class blacks in town. Meanwhile, for the city proper, keeping "white neighborhoods clean was important, too. In 1926, the city installed a garbage dump in a black area on the east side, at 20th and Woodlawn." Soon, from all over the city arrived "trucks dripping with swill and drawing clouds of flies".Classrooms at Lincoln High and the living rooms of surrounding homes were said to be almost unendurable."
Meanwhile the student-to-teacher ratio at the few black schools in the city were 60 to 1 or higher. This meant that educational quality was low. It wasn't until the mid-1930s, when New Deal moneys were made available, did the powers sitting on Kansas City's school board agree to build an new Lincoln High structure. (Recall that the first one was built over 60 years earlier and had become quite worn.) It wouldn't be till 1963 that blacks in Kansas City would be allowed to be on the local school board at all. Through the 1950s, blacks were prohibited from teaching white children.