Last year, 162,062 visitors walked through the doors of the American Jazz Museum. Some visitors were here to see Spectrum, an innovative and powerful exhibition featuring artist Juliette Hemingway, who finds her inspiration in music and autism awareness. Other jazz pilgrims went straight to Charlie Parker’s plastic saxophone.
Still others came to work on a monumental community project: Harmony on the Vine: Spill Paint Not Blood, an 8-by-26-foot painting representing four months of work by 750 community artists (including Tech N9ne) from ages 9 to 90.
However, despite being front and center in the museum, the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center is often overlooked. Visitors are drawn to the flashing lights and sounds of a jazz fan’s interactive paradise. And while I would argue that recent development projects like the Urban Youth Academy can be good things, each day, a little bit of the history that made 18th & Vine slips away. I realized that I owed it to the neighborhood to take an afternoon to visit the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center and spend some time getting to know the history of this special place a little bit better. Here are a few things I learned:
At the turn of the century, many African Americans migrated to the cities in search of new opportunities. Kansas City boasted better jobs, better education and a familiar sense of community. The city’s economic industry was booming with abundant meat-packing, railroad and domestic service jobs, which provided better income than sharecropping or other rural work. Despite the limitations of Missouri’s segregated school system, Kansas City’s African American educational institutions were producing quality education. Churches and social clubs created tight-knit communities and social opportunities.
Following the end of World War I, a different battle raged on the home front: Jim Crow was alive and in full force. 18th & Vine was only one of several African American neighborhoods during segregation. If you were black, you didn’t live past 27th Street; you couldn’t buy, lease or rent property, it was just understood. In the 1920s and ’30s, African Americans couldn’t go to shows downtown, they wouldn’t be served at restaurants, and the stores might sell them clothing, hats and apparel, but items couldn’t be tried on prior to purchasing.
So 18th & Vine became the heart of Kansas City’s growing black community, the beating pulse of culture, commerce and entertainment. There were barbecue restaurants and clubs, and the Lincoln building (located at 1601 East 18th Street) was a collection of professional offices. There was a drugstore, and the first black-owned automobile showroom in the country. 18th & Vine boasted numerous beauty shops and Elnora’s was the restaurant because there, they had linen tablecloths, china and silver.
Musicians Local 627 (now affectionately referred to as “the Foundation”) was a mecca for black talent and creativity. When work had dried up in other cities, Kansas City’s jazz scene was thriving, and out of 18th & Vine came an entirely new style, unique to Kansas City.
As for education, no matter where you lived, you went to Lincoln (22nd and Woodland), and you got there the best way you could. Students came from both the Kansas side and the Missouri side, and as far away as Liberty and Independence.
The Monarchs were the celebrities in Kansas City’s black neighborhoods. A band would lead a parade to the ballpark, and it wasn’t unusual to see attendees showing off large hats and silver fox furs — baseball fans would head to the games in their Sunday best, straight from church.
The original Blue Room was a nightclub in the Streets Hotel (18th and Paseo) and Mr. Street was there all the time. As a single young woman, you could go there to meet your friends, and Mr. Street would look after you. Everyone had to stay at the Streets Hotel, so it wasn’t a surprise to run into Buck O’Neil or Duke Ellington on a given day.
Black publications were imperative to news and communication for the community around 18th & Vine. Through the work of Mr. Blankenship, Lucille Bluford and Chester A. Franklin, local injustices, marriage announcements and obituaries were covered in the black community papers, since they weren’t covered in city papers like the Star.
Following World War II and the 1944 race riots in Detroit, life started changing for the neighborhood at 18th & Vine. There were movements across Kansas City to fight for opportunity and freedom. There were picket lines and boycotts, with the goal of integrating downtown by affecting the pocketbook of those creating the injustice.
Of course, the history doesn’t come close to ending there, but it isn’t up to me to tell it in its entirety. And new history is being made every day. We all get into the habit of the “it will be there tomorrow” mindset, putting off being a tourist in our own city until friends or family come to visit. But 18th & Vine won’t be the same tomorrow, and it isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago. Whether you’re a jazz fan or not, come visit the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center and spend some quality time down here on 18th & Vine. We all owe it to this city, and to ourselves.
Images: Yasmin Bernal