The two-page letter, written a week after Easter in 1933, was among hundreds that Harry S. Truman sent to his wife Bess during their courtship and 53 years of marriage. This one started with standard pleasantries about sunny weather and a social outing the night before, and then referenced a conversation with an associate identified only as “T.J.”
That was Thomas Pendergast, the notorious Kansas City political boss whose support had been critical to Truman’s election and more recent re-election as presiding judge of the Jackson County Court. “He told me to do as I pleased with the county payroll, make the adjustments I wanted to, and he’d put the organization in line behind me,” wrote the then-48-year-old Truman. “He also told me that I could be Congressman or collector. Think of that awhile. . . . I have an opportunity to be a power in the nation as Congressman.”
Think of this: Pendergast had the power to make it happen.
“That’s how confident the machine was that they could get people elected, not just locally but statewide,” says Jason Roe, the Kansas City Public Library’s digital history specialist. “Once in a while, a document like that one comes along and it really takes me aback.”
Truman’s neatly handwritten note is among 8,000 items — letters, photos, and other documents — being scanned and assembled along with sound and film clips for the Library’s latest web and digitization project. Drawing from archives across the Kansas City area, it will illuminate the transformative Pendergast era between the end of World War I and America’s entry into World War II. Kansas City evolved in that time from a cowtown into a vibrant, modern city even as it navigated the Great Depression, strained racial relations and Pendergast’s corrupt political reign.
The new website, tentatively titled “The Pendergast Years: Kansas City in the Jazz Age and Great Depression, 1918-1941,” is expected to launch in mid- to late-2017, adding content over several phases. It follows in the footsteps of the Library’s highly successful Civil War website, civilwaronthewesternborder.org, which has drawn more than 300,000 visitors since it launched in August 2013 and won four major awards including the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History from the American Historical Association.
Roe, who owns a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas, is the editor for both projects.
Beyond the cache of visual material, the Pendergast-era website initially will feature 18 essays by an array of scholars covering topics ranging from the paradox of developer J.C. Nichols to race relations and the separate-for-blacks General Hospital No. 2. John Herron, chair of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s history department, writes about the Stockyards and laborers’ efforts to organize. Truman State’s Marc Race delves into the African American neighborhoods — and not just the speakeasies — that spawned Kansas City jazz.
“A lot of these subjects, even though they’re prominent, they haven’t had an original scholarly treatment in 20 years — or 40 years in some cases,” Roe says.
A number of the participating scholars were part of the Library’s Wide Open Town symposium in early April, staged in partnership with UMKC’s Center for Midwestern Studies. Stretching over two days, it spotlighted the Pendergast era and drew 110-120 people to each of its four sessions. More than 400 attended an evening keynote address by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy.
So appetites are whetted.
Plenty of other topics are ripe for this kind of in-depth, web and digitization treatment, Roe says. There have been discussions about the 1950s and ’60s and the social and economic changes in that time — the Civil Rights movement and the growth of suburbs and highway systems. Also about the post-Civil War period, including establishment of the Stockyards in KC in 1871.
Truman’s father, John, was a livestock trader who moved his family from southwest Missouri to the Kansas City area in 1885. Harry was 10 months old. As for the letter he would write some 48 years later . . .
He wasn’t sure he didn’t prefer another county office over Pendergast’s invitation to become a congressman. In the note, which is housed in the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Truman muses, “Congressman pays $7,500 and has to live in Washington six months a year, collector will pay $10,000 and stay at home, a political sky-high career ends with eight years collector.”
The following year, he asked Pendergast to support him in a run for state treasurer. “Boss Tom” had another idea; he had whiffed on a couple of candidates for a U.S. Senate seat and pointed Truman in that direction. Truman took him up and was elected.
He was on his way to the White House.