A wide range of ethnic groups have made significant contributions to Kansas City’s cultural landscape for centuries.
In the beginning there were the Wyandotte, Osage and Kansa Native American tribes, followed by Eastern Europeans, Irish, Italians, Germans and other immigrants.
African-Americans, originally brought as slaves, date back to the early 1800s – an estimated 4,000 laboring here until Emancipation in 1865.
The tumultuous Civil War era over free and slave states played out on both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line. Yet numerous ardent black and white abolitionist communities helped slaves escape along the northbound Underground Railroad.
Not just Surviving, but Thriving
Later, beyond slavery but still under the auspices of harsh oppression and racism, African-Americans began to migrate to KC in record numbers from rural Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and all over the South, slowly establishing vibrant communities of activists, clergy, educators, physicians, laborers, and so forth.
Some of the more prominent figures were J. Milton Turner, an early teacher at Lincoln School, the first African-American school in Kansas City; Dr. J. Edward Perry who built the first hospital here owned and operated by African-Americans; Sarah Rector, born, raised and owned by the Creek Indian tribe and later becoming a millionaire from oil money inherited from the government; and Emily Fisher, a freed slave operating a successful hotel in nearby Independence and credited with inventing a healing salve.
Later notables included Alan Wheat , a U.S. Congressman and the youngest African-American appointed to the House Rules Committee; Civil Rights leaders Bernard Powell and Leon M. Jordan; and Lucille Bluford, editor and publisher of The Kansas City Call newspaper, among many others.
By the 1920s and 1930s, black culture was centered east of downtown with numerous restaurants, retail stores, barbershops, clothing boutiques, and the like. In the middle of it is what became the birthplace of Jazz: The Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District.
During this heyday, Kansas City Jazz emanated from more than 200 clubs where venerable musicians like Charlie “Bird” Parker, Count Bassie, Ella Fitzgerald, Big Joe Turner, Jay McShann, Mary Lou Williams, Orin “Hot Lips” Page, Julia Lee and Claude “Fiddler” Williams played.
Today, Kansas City continues this great tradition at several distinctive venues within the Jazz District.
The Blue Room, located inside the American Jazz Museum and named after a former 1930′s District hot spot, is a “working exhibit.” Here, vintage photographs, memorabilia and artifacts serve as a backdrop for a wide array of regional, national and international artist performances.
The Mutual Musicians Foundation, which began as the Black Musicians Union Local 627 in 1904, is now a National Historic Landmark. With the distinction as “the longest running jazz place in the world,” it continues on as an after-hours, come-one-come-all open jam session meeting place.
And the Kansas City Blues & Jazz Juke House features live blues and jazz sessions, open mic poetry and karaoke almost every night of the week.
Downtown at the Majestic Restaurant, a classic Kansas City steakhouse and jazz hotspot, music lovers flock to their lower-level club—the site of an actual prohibition-era speakeasy—to enjoy some of the best jazz acts in the country.
Jazz wasn’t the only hot ticket in town. It was here in 1920 that the Negro National League, founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster, and the legendary Kansas City Monarchs black baseball team, organized by J.L. (Wilkie) Wilkerson, made history.
A tribute to this legendary league highlighted by iconic stars like Jackie Robinson, John “Buck” O’Neil, Satchel Paige, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Andy Cooper, “Crush” Holloway and three women— Toni Stone, Judi Johnson and Connie Morgan—is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Fashioned to replicate a baseball diamond, the museum is a throwback to the nostalgic feel of the mid-1900 ballparks. Here, visitors meander through themed galleries, historic timelines, state-of-the-art interactive displays, lifestyle exhibits and treasured artifacts, all culminating at the centerpiece Field of Legends dotted with life-sized bronze sculptures of several Negro League players.
The museum is a testament to the perseverance of a people who, despite the Jim Crow segregation of the day, attracted throngs of interracial crowds to celebrate America’s favorite pastime. And, in the process, fostered a peaceful stand for social justice for all.
A Community for the Ages
Deeply intertwined in the history of America’s Heartland, Kansas City’s African-American community is dynamic and multifaceted. It’s just one of many distinct characteristics that make Kansas City a top travel destination for people from around the world.
Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin