Kansas City attractions spotlight Black arts, history

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  • Published on January 19, 2023
  • Last Updated March 17, 2023
  • In Places

Kansas City is a rich hub for Black travel and exploration.

Kansas City, Missouri is a diverse, steadily-growing midwestern hub for Black arts, music, history and culture home to more than a half-a-million people. The city’s ties to the early roots of jazz music, the Civil Rights movement, dance, barbeque and Black baseball make it an ideal place to explore for both locals and visitors.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Talented Black baseball players who loved the game formed their own teams while Jim Crow laws prevented them from participating in the sport alongside their white teammates. Still, Black team owners grew frustrated by the mistreatment they faced at the hands of booking agencies, and in 1920, Hall of Famer Andrew “Rube” Foster founded the Negro National League. He revealed an official charter document for the league during a meeting in Kansas City to the surprise of Black team owners who had convened to discuss starting a separate league. That was just the beginning of Kansas City’s long-running significance in Black baseball. Founded that same year, the Kansas City Monarchs became the Negro Leagues’ first “world champions” and its longest-running franchise before disbanding in the 1960s.

“They won several championships and sparked the careers of many future Black baseball stars, including Jackie Robinson,” said Dr. Raymond Doswell, vice president and curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the only museum dedicated to preserving the rich history of Black Americans in baseball.

“We hope to be able to teach people about African-American history through the lens of sport,” Doswell said. “ It’s a good entrée to issues on race and society and does help us reflect back, especially in our current moment and race relations in the country.”

The museum features a timeline of Black history and baseball history that flows around a mock baseball diamond with life-size sculptures of key figures in the sport and hundreds of photographs and artifacts dating back to the 1800s.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City. Photo courtesy of Kevin Harber, Flickr.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City. Photo courtesy of Kevin Harber, Flickr. Kevin Harber, Flickr

Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey

Kansas City’s 18th and Vine is home not only to the city’s historic jazz district, but also to the second dwelling of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which offers year-round community programming.

Alvin Ailey, a legendary dancer, director and choreographer whose work centered on expressing the Black experience through dance and nurturing Black artists, established Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (KCFAA) as a second home for his New York-based dance company in 1984, choosing Kansas City over major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Atlanta.

“Kansas City won out, in part because it’s a jazz route. And it was something Mr. Ailey wanted to explore immediately, said Tyrone Aiken, chief artistic officer with KCFAA.

“His first ballet that he created in 1984, when we were founded, was in tribute toCharlie Parker. It’s called For ‘Bird’ – With Love. And that begins the sort of this partnership that started in 1984.”

Parker, a Kansas City native and jazz saxophonist also called “Bird” or “Yardbird,” played a highly influential role in the city’s jazz scene.

Before the pandemic, KCFAA reached 25,000 K-12 students and an additional 5,000 adult students each year. The annual spring concert happens in May, but KCFAA holds public performances throughout the year, including for Kwanzaa and Juneteenth.

While the dance company has partnerships with institutions across the globe, the relationship with KCFAA is unique. “This is the only second home,” Aiken said. “This is the only place with the Alvin Ailey name connected to it.”

To stay up-to-date on upcoming performances available to the public, keep an eye on KCFAA’s calendar.

The Black Archives of Mid-America

The Black Archives of Mid-America collects and preserves, and exhibits items, photographs, and records documenting the history of Black Americans in the Midwest. Founded in 1974, the Black Archives is free to the public as an educational resource intended to inform the community about Black heritage and spotlight the stories of those who participated in the arts, sports, politics, activism and medicine.

“It’s important that we tell the true story of Black life. And that’s what The Black Archives does,” said CEO Carmella Williams. “There is so much revisionist history out there, and other people are telling our stories, and they’re not telling the truth. So we tell the truth here.”

Exhibits are recorded, making them more accessible for people who want to listen to narrations while making their way through the archives.

Also on display is the cabin of a formerly enslaved woman named Lucy. Lucy was born a slave in Kentucky in 1848, emancipated likely near the end of the Civil War, and died in 1914. All of the items on display in the cabin, including a quilt, family photographs and dishes were found inside the structure when The Black Archives founder Horace M. Peterson III visited it in 1977 in Edinburg, Missouri.

The Black Archives is also expanding a memorial for lynching victims. “We are the only site currently outside of Montgomery, Alabama that has an exhibition dedicated to people who were victims of racial murder of lynchings,” Williams said.

As the locations of the hangings are identified, soil is removed from the site and placed into a jar with the victim’s name and date of the lynching, then displayed at the memorial.

“We have to honor those people,” Williams said. “We have some blank spaces, because those are names that we will never know.”

Niara Savage is a former reporting fellow with National Public Radio’s Midwest Newsroom and author of the novel “The Killing of Gregory Noble.” She holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and is currently based in St. Louis studying Psychology.

This story was originally published January 19, 2023 6:01 PM.