‘Our Community Needs to Know’

Library Joins LINC, Black Archives, Watkins Center in Spotlighting KC’s Black History

Junius G. Groves was 19, a former slave from Kentucky looking for a better life, when he walked more than 500 miles as part of the great post-Civil War exodus of African Americans to Kansas. The young freedman found work around Edwardsville as a farmhand. He came into some land of his own, bought more, then much more, and authored one of great success stories of the early 20th century — as the country’s most prolific potato grower with a grocery store on the side, additional interests in mining and banking and a 22-room mansion to call home.

“I used to teach about him and how he came here with just a few cents in his pocket and wound up becoming the Potato King of the World, having hot and cold running water when nobody else did,” says Carmaletta Williams, the executive director of Kansas City’s Black Archives of Mid-America. There’s a picture of Groves and his wife Matilda in the center’s exhibition hall.

“It’s important for us to get these people’s stories out there, in an accessible form,” Williams says. “Having their lives and their work acknowledged is something that doesn’t often happen for the Black community.”

A new publication, Kansas City Black History: The African American story of history and culture in our community, answers that call. Released in January, ahead of February’s annual observance of Black History Month, it profiles 74 men and women who blazed trails, broke barriers, led and left a mark on history in Kansas City and the surrounding area.

Some, like jazz great Charlie Parker, civil rights leader Leon Jordan, and Negro Leagues icons Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, are widely known and remembered. Others bear getting to know.

Cathay Williams posed as a man, William Cathay, in becoming the first African American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army and the only female Buffalo Soldier.

Lincoln High School graduate Melvin Tolson coached the small-college debate team that defeated the defending national champions from the University of Southern California and inspired the 2008 Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters. Later, he’d be appointed the first poet laureate of Liberia.

Thomas Unthank, a physician born to former slaves, was struck by the poor treatment of Blacks after the city’s historic flood of 1903 and pushed for a facility to treat them — General Hospital No. 2 — underscoring his legacy as the “father of Kansas City’s Negro hospitals.”

Leona Pouncey Thurman became the first African American woman to practice law in Kansas City.

Most of those individuals and their histories have been spotlighted, half a dozen or so at a time, in booklets and poster and calendar sets produced annually since 2010 by the Kansas City Public Library, the Local Investment Commission (LINC) and the Black Archives. The Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center joined that partnership on the new 44-page compilation, which also includes an introduction by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and essays by other current African American leaders.

It’s being distributed to area schools, churches and community centers and across the Library system, and individuals can request single print copies — free of charge — at kclinc.org. A digital version can be downloaded there or at kcblackhistory.org.

The latter website, maintained by the Library, also offers school lesson plans drawing from the booklet.

“A lot has been written on Kansas City jazz — Charlie Parker, Count Basie. A lot of people know the story of (former Kansas City Call editor) Lucile Bluford. And about Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues,” says Jeremy Drouin, manager of the Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections. “But we’ve gone into the contributions of people you won’t find in a lot of history books.”

LINC Deputy Director Brent Schondelmeyer allows that “you can take some satisfaction” in that. “But you can also say it comes with disappointment,” he says.

“How is it that this history is not known, that it’s so lost? It may be well known in communities of color. In other parts of our region, it’s not. So, we’ve been successful in the absence of others.”

The release of Kansas City Black History comes, of course, amid a local and national reckoning over centuries of racial inequity and injustice, heightened by the killings of George Floyd and other African Americans. That pattern of bigotry and discrimination courses through the publication, beginning with the stories of those born into slavery. All who are featured met roadblocks born of bias. None would be defeated by them. They overcame.

The book celebrates the overcoming.

“It gives you a counter,” Williams says at the Black Archives. “Everybody knows Missouri was a slave state, that Missourians held onto racist attitudes. A Kansas Citian, J.C. Nichols, used redlining as a way to restrict access. That part of history is not a secret. But I think it’s important that we illuminate the part about how people succeeded even with all of those strictures in place. So folks know that they may have tried to put their knees on our necks but there was perseverance and there was growth.

“Every person in that book, they helped their community. They helped other people. And I think people need to know that. Our community, all of our community, needs to see and know that.”

–Steve Wieberg

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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