KCUR’s Beyond Our Borders project has kicked off a year-long examination of the geographic lines that separate our region.
We have spent our first three months looking at life east of Troost Avenue. It is a part of the city that is dear to me. It is where I was born and spent my entire adolescent life. Reflections about personal experiences can come off as self-indulgent. That’s my worry. It is not meant to be that way, but as we wrap up our examination, this is an opportunity to look back at a community I experienced first-hand growing up.
I remember my mom and her brother, my Uncle George, having distinctly different world views. Both were educators. She taught kindergarten and first grade. He was a college professor. She was an integrationist, determined to break down color barriers. He too fought segregation, but felt that integration was not necessarily all good for blacks. He feared our rush to assimilate would mean the eventual deterioration of community and our sense of self-pride.
As a child of the pre-civil rights era, when Kansas City was divided, I was too young to understand the politics of the day, but I do have vivid memories of instances that clearly illuminated the realities of racial segregation. There was W.T. Grant’s lunch counter in downtown KC, a place where “negroes” could order food but could not sit and eat. I recall Fairyland’s one day a year when blacks could go to the amusement park. As a matter of principle, my mother would not let me go if I wasn’t allowed on other days; and then there was Watermelon Hill, the designated picnic area in Swope Park for black folks.
It was the late ‘50s and societal changes were gaining momentum. Many blacks who were limited to living north of 27th Street and east of the Paseo, began moving south. My family moved from an apartment at 28th Street and Benton Boulevard to a house on 39th Street and Askew Ave. The neighborhood was predominately white, made up of neat cookie-cutter brick bungalows. There were a few other black families that moved in around the same time. Within weeks after we moved “for sale” signs began to appear.
Meanwhile, my mother was crossing lines in both traditional and new ways. As a school teacher, she had summers off and would work as a nanny for the Feld family. They owned Feld Chevrolet in Kansas City, Kan. I had a Jewish doctor, we shopped at Steve’s Shoes on the Plaza, and occasionally at Wolferman’s in Brookside.
I had no awareness of “redlining” or neighborhood covenants. I later learned that both were tools to control the pace of housing integration. There were black and white-owned businesses in the black community, which meant goods and services were nearby, plus access to those things in other parts of the city. My public school education prepared me to compete academically. I always knew college was in my future. We continued to encounter discrimination, but life was pretty good.
Then came the turbulent 1960s, and my uncle’s perspective began to make sense. The aftermath of the riots of the late ‘60s marked the start of an economic downturn in the black community. White store owners were burned out, or chose to leave and did not return. Black businesses struggled to maintain, as we began to shop more in other communities. Shifting employment sectors and increased crime are major factors in the decline of the city’s east side. The educational disparities continue to grow. At the same time, our community sense of pride is diminished.
Fast forward to today … Kansas City’s black community continues to be largely economically depressed. Access to capital, transportation issues, pre-conceived notions, and yes, let’s face it — race are all contributing factors.
Despite all of its challenges, there are many positive aspects associated with living on Kansas City’s east side. There are also other untapped perspectives. Community listening sessions and your insights have helped us discover new issues, voices, and new aspirations.
We have attempted to tell stories, based in large part, from what we learned. We learned a lot, and we hope you did too.
Ron Jones is the Director of Community Engagement at KCUR.