Aspiration and reaction in post-Reconstruction Kansas City
Thirty years after Emancipation, slavery’s legacy remained in the lives of Kansas City’s population, black and white. For some, connections were immediate. The Journal carried a short story about a black worker in the Argentine smelter who had gone to Louisville to see his mother for the first time since he was sold away from her before Emancipation.
The Times ran a story about a “Home of Charity” for “old colored folks” on Vine Street in Kansas City, Missouri, calling its inhabitants “relics of slavery days.” The reporter relates his conversation with an “aged mammy” who rocks in her chair with “a melancholy air that savored of the slave quarters and the cotton fields of the ante-bellum days.” The house, although in “unclean and unhealthy condition,” according to the city Sanitary Officer, was all that stood between its inhabitants and confinement in the dreaded “poor farm” a few blocks away, the “dark shadow of which,” the paper reported, “is always hovering over them and their most earnest prayers are for a deliverance from the common fate of the friendless pauper.” A Journal report described workhouse residents shackled like slaves before going to the site where they spent all day breaking rocks.
Many blacks clung literally to a marginal existence in wooden shanties perched on bluffs over Union station in the West Bottoms. The Times reported on the destruction of one shack, during a storm by “a falling boulder weighing about twenty tons” that crushed the shack and its owner, “Aunt Rachel.” Occupants of other shanties talked of moving, since all lived under the threat of another landslide.
A new, aspirational class of African Americans was emerging in Kansas City, however, represented, for example, by the first blacks to be married at the Catholic Cathedral. The Times report conveyed condescending astonishment that the event was to be “strictly de rigeur,” and that wedding cards were “as neatly an engraved card as you would wish to see” while repeatedly pointing out that the address of the bride’s mother, where the wedding feast was to be held, was “in the rear.”
The “charming Estella,” as the reporter calls the bride, is described as a “light mulatto,” while her husband was “black as ink.” He “could not change his color,” readers are told, “but he could change her religion, and two weeks ago Estella was admitted into the Catholic church.” The Times ran two other stories on the wedding, one on the rehearsal, when it was revealed that Sallie Jordan, daughter of Sam Jordan, “the richest colored man in Kansas City,” (and grandfather of future political leader Leon Mercer Jordan) would be Estella’s bridesmaid, the other on the ceremony itself. The city’s “colored ‘400’” turned out, but were only part of a larger crowd of whites curious to see what the Times reporter sardonically termed the “society event of the season."
The attitude of the reporter reflects the discomfort of many white Kansas Citians on both sides of the state line with the aspirations of a nascent black middle class. Things were changing, but many whites were still looking in the rear view mirror, fearful that blacks might aspire to “social equality,” and even intermarriage. The Journal reported on the marriage of a white girl, Rosa Warren, to an African American man, under the headline “A girl’s queer freak.” Warren was arrested at Union Station as she was leaving with her husband, on the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The Mail headlined its story on the affair “Shocking marriage.” It referred to Warren as a “rather handsome white woman” who'd been seized by an “insane fancy.”
The Mail story, as was common with that paper, was a crib from the Times, which pointed out that marriage between blacks and whites was prohibited by law in Missouri but not in Kansas: hence the couple could not be charged with miscegenation, since they had been married in Kansas City, Kansas, but they could be held for “disturbing the peace.” Police Chief Speers talked to Warren “as would a father but she was inexorable. She was of age, she declared, and free to marry as she pleased.” A Times story a few days later reported that Warren’s friends believed “she was temporarily insane when she married the negro.”
It was not only imagined pretensions to intermarriage that discomfited whites but increasingly forthright black demands for influence in political and legal affairs. The Mail ran a story on the opinion of “an intelligent colored man who owns property in the city, and who fought in the civil war,” that blacks in Kansas City, Missouri, were systematically excluded from serving as jurors on city courts: “Not that we care about serving on juries,” he said, “but it is a right guaranteed to us by the statutes, and we think there should be something done about it.”
One judge, James Gibson, told the paper he could not account for the absence of blacks on juries in his court, although later he claimed it had to do with the requirement that jurors be literate, since illiteracy was “marked in colored men of jury age.” Another judge, however, claimed that the names of 500 blacks were on the selection “wheel,” and that statistically some should have been selected.
The same issue arose in Jackson County, Missouri, circuit court, where two African American men were summoned to serve as jurors in Judge James M. Slover’s court, the first time blacks had served on a circuit court jury, according to the Star, which added that the county court “claims to have put several hundred names of colored men in the wheel, but for some reason or other no negroes have served on the juries.”
On the other side of the Kaw, in Wyandotte County, African Americans were demanding political recognition. The Republican Journal reported in March that the blacks of Kansas City, Kansas, were supporting “as a unit” the Republican city ticket headed by Nathaniel Barnes, the GOP having included on their ticket two African Americans, J.F. Bradley for justice of the peace and D.W. White.
However, after his election Barnes appointed a white man as street commissioner, a valuable position since it carried with it a number of patronage jobs. Three blacks were named as deputy street commissioners and, according to the Times, that was enough for Barnes, who decided that the deputyships “were all the offices the negroes need ask for except the two positions as assistant supervisors of renovators of cuspidors.” The Democratic Times treated the matter as a subject for callous partisan humor, indifferent to the aspirations of blacks who sought more than token, degrading positions in city government.
Black agitation against the GOP’s disregard continued throughout the year. In the Wyandotte county elections, after Republicans failed to place any of their number on the ticket, black leaders threatened to put up a full “colored man’s ticket” instead. As the Times put it, with the hypocritical relish Democratic papers displayed at disorder in the G.O.P., black voters "were not only ignored, but insulted at the Republican convention, and now they propose to teach the Republicans that the colored vote is necessary for success at the polls in Wyandotte county.”
In the run-up to the county election, white Republicans brought in William B. Derrick, a prominent A.M.E. minister of West Indian origin, to urge Wyandotte county blacks to remain true to the Republican Party: “There was no law to prevent a man acting the fool if he choose,” Derrick told the crowd, “but he did doubt the expediency of any negro making his political home anywhere save in the Republican party.” The Democratic Times, in response, printed the remarks of an unnamed -- possibly fictitious --“prominent colored Republican” insisting that the true county G.O.P. ticket was not the one nominated by white Republicans, who had “virtually said ‘no negro need apply,” but was instead the predominantly black “Independent Republican” ticket: “The Republicans,” he said, “must take care of its negro allies, for negroes are just like white men in their appetites. They had stomachs to be filled, and when there are positions to be given away the negro is a candidate for the very same reasons that make white men candidates.”
The battle for influence continued up to the county election, not only between white and black Republicans over who were the authentic heirs of Lincoln’s party, but between black factions. Paul Jones, a black lawyer, filed a protest with the county clerk against the Independent ticket, claiming irregularities and fraud in the filing of nomination papers; the ticket, said Jones,“was sprung by a lot of disgruntled negroes who hoped to receive some boodle […].”
The Times fired back with a story about a meeting of the Negro Protective League, described as a “secret organization of leading negroes of the county who have tired of doing the political drudgery for the white Republican bosses and not being allowed to share the party spoils.” It called the meeting the “largest, most enthusiastic and interesting meeting” of black voters, with one speaker comparing white Republicans of Wyandotte County to “lily white Republicans” of Texas: “They both hate the negro,” said the speaker, “and are determined to keep him only as a hewer of wood and a drawer of water. They have treated us so badly that they are ashamed to make campaign speeches to us themselves, but,” alluding to Derrick, “send abroad to get strangers who know nothing of our local troubles, to whip us into line, but it don’t go this fall.”
A later Times story further sought to put white Republicans in the worst possible light by quoting “one of the most prominent local white Republicans” – again, unnamed and quite possibly fictitious – fretting that “The ‘niggers’ are going crazy. They threaten to defeat every man on our ticket in revenge for fancied slights. […] It is true that we might have given the darkies two or three clerkships in county offices and a couple of places in the city, but there wasn’t enough places for our own people, and I’ll be hanged if we want niggers handling books and pens while white men are out with picks and shovels.”
The Republican Journal reserved some of its worst abuse for C.H.J. Taylor, a self-educated lawyer, political activist, and early convert to Grover Cleveland’s Democrats whose blithe self-confidence riled white antagonists. One Southern paper castigated Taylor for “foolish ambition,” “insolent familiarity,” and “impudence.” To mark the thirtieth anniversary of emancipation Taylor took out a half-page advertisement in the Journal touting the virtues of leading African Americans of Kansas City, Kansas – most of them staunch Republicans – and promoting his newspaper, The American Citizen. Journal editors printed the ad, but in the same issue objected to Taylor’s recent appointment as minister to Bolivia, calling him a “scalawag,” and suggesting without elaboration that there were “much better reasons than color […] for objecting” to Taylor’s appointment (which never came to a Senate vote). Not content with that, the paper later noted the claim of a Topeka resident “that he can make black people white,” and added “If C.H.J. Taylor will hurry up he may be able to remove the senate’s objections to confirming him.”
This sort of casual racism came at aspiring African Americans from all directions and in many forms in Kansas City. On one hand there were those who, a quarter century after adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and fifteen years after the de facto end of Reconstruction, remained unreconciled to the demands of African Americans for equality and political opportunity. The Times commented in an editorial on the opinion of Kansas Republican senator J.J. Ingalls that “ the effort to give an equal political power to the colored voter is a failure and that social mingling is as much an iridescent dream in the North as in the South.” Ingalls concludes that “deportation alone will solve the problem.” The Times responded that deportation is unlikely; instead, the country should rely on “home rule,” the favored slogan of southern Democrats, rather than on federal efforts to enforce the still-contentious Fourteenth Amendment: “Local laws and customs will better than outside interference suit both [the African American] and the white man of his community.”
The Star put up a similar righteous smokescreen against Ingalls’ proposition, arguing that Southerners would regard it as “criminal and foolish” and an example of Republican duplicity showing blacks that northerners, “having used the black man to fight his battles, now proposes to send him to the other side of the earth to get rid of his obnoxious society.”
Meanwhile the Republican Journal reported, without comment or criticism, the opinions of John Temple Graves, an Atlanta journalist, that the federal government should set aside a territory in the west “to be officered and controlled exclusively by the negroes,” in return for which blacks would surrender their right to vote in any other state. “We owe it to his loyalty in war and his docility in peace to protect him thus,” Graves averred. “But this is a problem of safety, of domestic tranquility, of national unity, the greatest problem facing the people of this transcendent age. The edict has gone forth that this is a white man’s government and it will remain so forever, for God Almighty has stamped his seal and sign of sovereignty upon the Anglo-Saxon tribe.”
The Star didn't dispute Graves' basic premise, but dismissed his settlement scheme as impractical; blacks, said the editors, were in the U.S. to stay, so there could be only one solution: “for the ‘ruling race,’ which always has ruled and always will rule, and has never been in the slightest danger of doing anything else, to exercise justice and let the world go on with its regular revolutions.”
If the African American of 1893 could expect little help from Republicans like Ingalls, it could expect even less from Democrats, though both routinely used the issue of race to attack one another. When Missouri Democrats proposed to legislate separate railroad cars and waiting rooms for blacks, the Republican Journal printed a scathing editorial mocking a provision in the bill requiring the use of movable screens if separate coaches were not available, “whereby the obnoxious darkey may be hidden from his Caucasian neighbor across the aisle and the peace of mind of the latter thereby better secured.” The colored man, said the editors, “is the specter, the bête noir, as it were, that still haunts the Democratic mind with the hideous nightmare of ‘social equality,’ and it is highly necessary that something be done at once.”
The Journal jousted with Democratic papers, the Star and Times, over the so-called “Tucker bill,” named after Virginia congressman Henry St. George Tucker, which proposed to repeal statutes related to federal supervision of elections in the South. “Southern Democrats in the Saddle and riding roughshod: Will wipe out election laws,” the Journal headlined its story on the Democrats’ determination to move ahead with Tucker’s bill. The South, the paper argued, “is determined to keep its colored citizens disfranchised, and equally determined to retain the unjust share of representation it enjoys by reason of counting them as citizens. It votes Democratic always and solidly because the Democratic party assures it continuance of this injustice and unfair advantage.”
When the Tucker bill passed the house in October, on a party line vote, Republican opposition had more to do with its effects on white Republicans than on black suffrage, the G.O.P. having largely abandoned its concern for the black vote in its pursuit of white southern voters. In an editorial on the bill, the Journal criticized the Democratic “home rule” view that the states would be capable of conducting their own elections without interference from the federal government:
“That may all be true with regard to state elections in which nobody is interested but the residents and property owners of the respective states. But the claim does not hold good with regard to the election of congressmen and presidential electors. In these cases the whole nation is interested, directly and deeply.”
The editors’ objection was not that the bill would open the way for suppression of black suffrage in the southern states, which it clearly would, but that it put national politics “at the mercy of the corruptionists of any commonwealth which happens to be under the control of bulldozers or ballot box stuffers.”
The Times and Star, in contrast, praised the Tucker bill for predictable reasons, without mentioning the elephant in the room, black suffrage. For the Times, citing a cynical plank in the Democratic platform, Federal control of elections was “fraught with the gravest dangers, scarcely less momentous than would result from a revolution practically establishing monarchy on the ruins of the Republic. It means a horde of deputy marshals at every polling place, armed with Federal power; returning boards appointed and controlled by Federal authority, the outrage of the electoral rights of the people in the several States, the subjugation of the colored people to the control of the party in power and the reviving of race antagonisms now happily abated.”
“Race antagonisms” were far from abated, of course, as one former slave state after another disenfranchised African Americans through “literacy” or “comprehension” tests and poll taxes, while lynchings and violent attacks on African American communities were becoming increasingly common. In Rich Hill, Missouri, a mining town, a black from Kansas City, Will Jackson, was lynched by a mob of 300 men, which accused him of attempted assault on the daughter of a local farmer. In Independence, Missouri, a newspaper with the ironic name Progress, decried the number of blacks in the city, saying they were “more numerous than cockroaches or mosquitoes and a greater nuisance than either.”
African American culture was regarded by most whites as suitable only for parody and patronizing humor. Newspapers frequently advertised books of “African humor,” such as “Burdett’s Negro Dialect Recitations and Humorous Readings,” containing “negro dialect stories […] full of the richest African humor,” none of it written by African Americans. So-called “Darktown minstrels shows” were staged by amateur groups, including one reported on in the Times where hilarity ensued when the supply of black paint gave out before all the faces of the performers were blackened. Burnt cork had to be used instead: “it would never do,” the stage manager declared, “to show the Darktown minstrels in white faces.”
The Star ran a story on an upcoming performance by the Barlow Brothers’ minstrels at the Gillis, which included “a black face song and dance by six members of the company.” While the reviewer had only praise for white performers in blackface, a reporter in the same issue covering a cake walk performance by Joseph “Doc” Brown, a skilled dancer, has little to say about Brown’s physical abilities, noticing instead his clothing: “He wore his walking shoes in this contest. They were once made to order – for another man. […] He wore a Prince Albert coat with two buttons shy.” Brown, born a slave in Arrow Rock, Missouri, would later be commemorated in Charles Johnson’s ragtime “Doc Brown’s Cake Walk.”
Similarly, joyful celebrations of African American smelter workers on payday in Argentine were suppressed by police: “they carried them too far,” the Times sniffed; “Great throngs of colored people came over from Kansas City, Mo, but had to return. The disgraceful dances are things of the past in Argentine.” African American culture was most acceptable when it appeared to imitate white culture, as for example in a “creditable” street parade mounted by nearly 2000 colored Masons and Knights Templar of Missouri during a meeting in Kansas City. The parade “called out applause from white and black alike along a very long line of march,” the Times reported: “All the drill evolutions were skillfully performed in every detail, and the forming and reforming of the line in Masonic symbols was a unique and interesting spectacle that aroused praise and enthusiasm among all the spectators.” The paper estimated that nearly 8,000 picnickers joined marchers at a city park after the parade.
It was a surprise, then, for the Times’ culture critic, writing as “Jaggers,” when a foreigner, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, suggested that African American music, or what he called “negro melodies,” would come to form “the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. […] These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil," said Dvorak. "They are American. I would like to trace out the individual authorship of the negro melodies,” said Dvorak, “for it would throw a great deal of light upon the question I am most deeply interested in at present,” this at a time when Dvorak was completing his “New World Symphony.” It would premiere in New York at the end of the year.
Jaggers responded at first that “negro melody” was but one of “numberless little sprouts which are growing up naturally from the soil of this nation.” In a later article, however, he conceded that the “first unmistakably American music will come from the negro and the Indian [...]. It would not be a miracle if some intensely musical negro […] dug up and hurled into the faces of the people more unique music than has been produced since Liszt and Wagner died.”
Perhaps it helped that in the interval a spate of articles about Dvorak's views on African American music had appeared in New York papers. Jaggers, whoever he was, might have been astonished to discover how right he would turn out to be.
February 17, 2016