Dream Research Project #1: A Jazz, Sports, and Urban History of Kansas City’s African American Community

I watched the short documentary above this evening. I love anything Kansas City and Negro Leagues related. Because it’s my hometown, I have an irrational love and passion for KC. I grew up hearing apocryphal  stories about it’s heyday. Many of them centered on the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood. The city was an African American cultural mecca, as the story goes, famous for its jazz, baseball, and barbeque. This clip alludes to these facts as well, yet I have never found a good historical study to back it up.

Scholars have observed Kansas City as an the important symbol of African American culture and community during the 1920s and 1930s. They often point to the city’s jazz and baseball history. Although reality was likely much different than the perceptions, for many the city served as center for black culture in the Midwest and gained a national reputation for its lively community situated around jazz and baseball. Yet there are relatively few scholarly books on KC. Two studies of note are Kevin Fox Gotham’s Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000 published in 2002 and Frank Diggs’ Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop–A History from 2006. Gotham’s book focuses more on the city as a whole and it’s reorientation via white-flight in the real-estate market, the Federal Housing Administration along with highway construction. Diggs’ study gets more at my interest area. He mentions baseball, but focuses primarily on jazz. There are a few others books on the Kansas City Monarch Negro Leagues team but they mostly focus on individual players or games instead of the team’s connection to Black culture and the city.

In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to connect these themes. I’ve envisioned an urban, cultural history of African Americans that focuses on jazz and baseball in KC, but links it to other cities too. Something similar to Lewis Erenberg’s Steppin’ Out that also invokes Delores Hayden’s the Power of Place and has a public (and digital) history component. A book that provides a glimpse of what the thriving neighborhood was like and anchors it to the city as well as the region and the nation. I’ve always been curious about how and why Kansas City became an African American center for jazz and baseball, and what led to its demise. Too often it’s assumed that it was the integration of Major League Baseball, but I’m not convinced that was the sole reason. Were there other political factors, migratory trends, jobs issues? Or maybe World World II played an important role. I’m positive there is are a lot more to the story.

As a fourth generation Kansas Citian, I’ve heard bits and pieces. My Grandmother was born in 1923 in KC and her father, who was a doctor, lived in there long before that. My grandfather was also born and raised in KC. and his Dad owned a grocery store on the Kansas side. I’ve deep roots in the community, but they never shared their knowledge of the cities racial and urban history. And perhaps, as middle class white, they simply didn’t know much of it. They moved around from 1940-1960 as a Navy couple and missed a lot of the period I’m interested in.

Growing up in KC the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum were the best sources of information. They opened in the mid-1990s and are helping to share much of this story. The historic 18th and Vine district is trying to help too. Buck O’Neil spent the last two-decades of his life at the NLBM sharing his memories. The old Paseo YMCA, where the Negro Leagues were founded, is also in the process of being renovated and preserved. It will join the NLBM as a site for research, cultural preservation, and a community center. I’d like to see more done, however. I’ve written in other places about the potential for cultural heritage tourism that could make the area a real tourist destination. Public historians have increasingly become more interested in these types of projects. Cities are interested in them too for their economic impact. Studies have shown that cultural heritage travelers stay longer and spend more money than other kinds of travelers.

For me, such a project would be a fun opportunity to blend all of my academic interest: sports, race, public history, and digital scholarship. I’m not sure why I haven’t considered it more seriously for a potential dissertation project. It’s something that I’m passionate about, I have family in the area so going to KC to do research would be a easy, and would make me very marketable when looking for jobs. Of course, there are some drawbacks. It’s a complete 180 from my previous work on Native Americans, the Olympics, and football. While I do know a fair amount about the Negro Leagues, it’d take me a bit to get caught up. Likewise, though I’ve read a lot of the public and urban history literature most of that is from a later era, and I feel like I’m a ways behind on the African American component too.

Perhaps someday in the future I can shift that direction. As a KC native, I’d love to see Kansas City leaders combine their existing resources and sites with new research to build a thriving heritage area. Few Kansas Citians venture to the east side of downtown so such a project would revitalize that area and connect it to the rest of the city while emphasizing its remarkable history. Success hinges on strong leaderships and the willingness of researchers, museums, politicians, and community leaders to work together.

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