On a Civil Rights Trail, Essential Sites and Indelible Detours

On a Civil Rights Trail, Essential Sites and Indelible Detours

Traveling a few miles south from Independence, I watched the landscape change from suburban sprawl to gritty urban streets as I arrived in Kansas City, where I met up with Erik Keith Stafford, a local history expert and tour guide. Kansas City, a trail suggestion for those visiting Independence, tells a familiar history of urban riots following King’s 1968 assassination, when citizens were gunned down by police, local businesses burned and National Guard troops swept in. Mr. Stafford and I talked about the city’s history of racial unrest as we hung out around 18th and Vine, the renowned mecca of black politics and entertainment in the city. We sat in the dimly lit Musicians Local 627 — the so-called Colored Musicians Union and social hub — surrounded by photos of such jazz greats as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and, of course, Charlie “Bird” Parker, the saxophonist and Kansas City native. Mr. Stafford riffed on how, back in the 1920s, K.C. earned its nickname, Paris of the Plains. During Prohibition, Mr. Stafford explained, the city’s political boss Tom Pendergast turned a blind eye to the sale of booze, which gave rise to hundreds of nightclubs and bars that attracted the country’s best jazz musicians. “New Orleans may have created jazz, but Kansas City is where it was perfected,” he said.

As we strolled the neighborhood, past a colorful mural of the founders of the Kansas City-born Negro League — the African-American baseball teams that played between the 1920s and 1940s — I took note of the rich history packed into a few city blocks, pausing at The Call building, headquarters of the famous black newspaper founded in 1919 and still operating. Its newsroom was home to one of my heroes, Lucile Bluford, who worked as a reporter and editor covering civil rights issues.

Bluford won national attention in the 1930s when she was accepted into the University of Missouri’s journalism program but upon her arrival was rejected by university officials who cited “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws. Officials recommended that she apply to Lincoln University, an all-black institution that did not offer a graduate journalism program. Over the next few years, the persistent Bluford was denied Missouri admission 11 times. She triumphed in 1941 when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Mizzou must open its doors to Bluford if Lincoln didn’t establish comparable journalism studies. But by then, the university had shut down all its graduate programs because of financial pressures caused by World War II, and ultimately Bluford was never able to attend Mizzou. In 1989, a half-century after Bluford’s first rejection, the university granted her an honorary doctoral degree in humanities.

The United States Civil Rights Trail is heavy with tales of blacks struggling to gain access to an adequate education, but the theme crescendos in Topeka, Kan., a designated trail site, where Oliver Brown, the father of a black schoolgirl, challenged the nation’s “separate but equal” doctrine and changed the course of history.

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