An Historical Look At African Americans in Greater Kansas City

An Historical Look


African Americans in Greater Kansas City

The following excerpts are taken from the book Kansas City: Mecca of the New Negro by Sonny Gibson. For more infomation about this book call: (816) 861-9107

A Black History of Independence, Missouri

Early Independence was built by the strength, skill, and ingenuity of its first Black settlers. They cut trees, cleared the land, and began the farming that would sustain the pioneer population. They sawed the timber and made the bricks to construct the houses and businesses of the community. Most are not remembered by name, but many of their accomplishments have lasted to the present. Some of the early brick houses and public buildings were constructed by these pioneer Black craftsmen. The 1836 Jackson County Courthouse on the Independence Square is a good example. Sam Shephard built the 1827 log courthouse which still stands as a testament to his skill. The trails and roads that were to be the highways of the nation’s westward movement were constructed by these workers. Most were brought here as slaves from the East by their masters.

The cruel bondage of slavery kept them from realizing the income from their labor. Slaves were bought and sold on or near the public square. The largest owner was Jabez Smith, whose plantation home was located on the present site of William Chrisman School. When slavery was abolished by a state proclamation early in 1865, many had already fled to Kansas and freedom. Slavery left a bitter memory, but those who lived through those years left a proud heritage of endurance and the love of freedom.

Not all Black pioneers were slaves. Hiram Young had already purchased his freedom when he arrived in Independence with his wife Matilda. He set up a highly successful blacksmith shop at North Liberty and 24 Highway that made ox yokes and outfitted wagons for the long trip west on the Oregon Trail. Many of those making the trip west would also be Blacks looking for better opportunities. Young became one of the wealthiest men of Jackson County. (Page 77)

A Historical Beginning Around the 1860’s

In early Kansas city, around 1860 into the 1900’s, people of color, most of the Negro business and professional families lived in the vicinity of Church Hill at 10th and Troost. Two of the most influential Negro Churches, Allen Chapel AME and Second Baptist were located in the area. The community which formed around the churches became known as “The Church Hill Street Settlement.” Five thousand five hundred Negroes lived in the Church Hill Community.

During the late post-slavery years, the growing Negro population in Kansas City began to make demands and the visible progress of the Negroes gained the attention of the white community who viewed the Negro as a political force. After 1863, the Negroes were all Republicans because of the Abraham Lincoln deal, and the fact that the Democratic Party was organized with former slave holders and staunch segregationists. Negroes who could vote made a substantial contribution to the Republican Electoral strength, but the needs of the Negro community were largely ignored by the Republican party.

In 1882, the Independent Negro Party was organized under the leadership of Paul Gaston, D.V.A. Nero, and James Woodland. The purpose of the I.N.P. was to serve notice to white politicians that the Negro block of votes was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of Colored people. Because of this new organized Negro power, the group was invited to the Labor Party convention and James Woodland received the Labor Party nomination for Justice of the Peace as mentioned in an article in the Kansas City Times on September 22, 1882, titled “Colored Coalition,” and in the Kansas City Star article “Workingman’s Ticket” on September 22, 1882.

Around the early 1890’s, Negro political aspirations surfaced in the leadership of Nelson Crews who voiced the Negro Communities dissatisfaction with the Republican Party. The Negro political community denounced Mayor Davenport and Republican leaders for the lack of representation and appointments to City jobs. The Kansas City Times article, “The Colored Man’s Defi” on March 13, 1890, reflected the numerical strength and the Negro political dividends as the force to break into the system.

There were many public issues effecting the early Negro community. One major issue was police brutality and discrimination against Negroes in the system of law and order. The Negro Protective League was organized by Andrew Hightower, R.T. Coles, Paul Gaston ,and others to offer information often overlooked by the police investigations, enabling Police Commissioners and the Grand Jury to push for a full and fair investigation of the killing of Negroes by the police. A race riot was narrowly averted in July, 1888, when a crowd of 300 Negroes surrounded the police station after a Colored woman was arrested for disorderly conduct, and she was struck on the head with a police night stick. The woman’s brother saw this happening and grabbed the policeman who then shot the woman’s brother. Suspicion was cast on the policeman’s story because the Negro was shot in the back. As Negroes came to Kansas City during the early development of the City, they were ... with issues that created open conflict as stated in a Kansas City Time’s article “Shot by a Policeman” on July 28, 1888.

In spite of social conflict in those early years of Negro life, in Kansas City, certain accomplishments reveal great Negro leadership of that day. Among the developing Negro leadership, none of the ensuing contemporaries would have characterized Sam Easton as a leader. But he was, in fact, he founded one of the great services in the Kansas City Colored community, The Niles Home for Negro Children. Sam Eason was not wealthy, well-educated or socially prominent. He was a man of compassion and out of his limited income he rented a house at 1214 Highland in 1849. He organized an Association of Negro Women to help provide care and moved the home to 2446 Michigan. Sam Eason’s talent and leadership was different because he worked quietly and solicited funds that allowed the effort that supported homeless Colored children through the critical period of its struggle for existence. After his death other poeple became interested, and the Niles family who was the chief supporter of the effort to house homeless Colored children built the Niles Home for Colored Children.

After the Civil War the scope of freedom encouraged white citizens to break the chains of the institution of slavery to befriend Negroes and eliminate segregation. In early Kansas City there was no institution of separatism among the race. Early migration of Negroes to Kansas City due to construction work on the railroads and work on the Hannibal Bridge in early 1870s, forced most blacks to established residence in the West Bottoms and the neighborhood became known as “Hell’s Half Acres.” (Page 2)

Of The Black Populated Areas

Near the end of the 19th Century (1880–1890), the Black population in Kansas City, Missouri was not large enough to record much sufficient evidence of its growth. However, Black families were spotted living in Westport, and small fringe areas, 28th Street near Raytown Road in an area known as “Round Top” and Leeds, Missouri. The largest populated area was scattered along the east and southern boundaries of the then rapidly expanding downtown area, spotted between Charlotte to Harrison and 9th to 19th Street.

Several Black churches were located in this area. The largest was the Allen Chapel AME at the southwest corner of 19th & Harrison, with another sizable Black church across the street on the southeast corner. Other small churches and Black businesses spotted this area. As the downtown area expanded, so did Blacks—pushing the population further east and south. This push consequently caused the need for Black trade and service to the Black movement. Segregated laws, and restricted area problems became more prevalent, as the Black population grew. At the turn of the century a wave of Black migration set in from other states, largely from the southern states. This caused the city fathers to institute more ridged laws of segregation and restrictions and enforcements of the Black inhabitants and the problems they deemed as intolerable.

At the turn of the century, around 1900, the beginning of the 20th Century, significant development began to take roots, east of Paseo to Woodland Avenue and 12th Street to 19th, for Black owned businesses and their professionals. A few white, Chinese, and Jews saw the upcoming potential surge of making money off the segregated Black inhabitants and established their businesses within the sector, along 12th Street and 18th Street. This empire grew as a God sent bonanza. The Black community had few outlets for survival due to city law enforcements in a segregated atmosphere. Spotted enterprises began to develop south of 19th and Vine to 24th Street and at the corner of 23rd and Forest. (Unfinished manuscript, Page 217)