Missouri's First Blacks
The first Black slaves to enter what would later be named Missouri arrived in 1719 as unwilling participants in the new French mining venture. Des Ursins bought five Blacks with him, and although he failed to find the silver mines he sought, he did discover several rich lead deposits. In 1720, Phillippe Fransois Renault was sent from France to direct lead-mining operations. He may have brought with him as many as 500 Black slaves from the French island of Haiti. These were the first permanent Black residents of Missouri. The Company of the West contracted to supply Renault with 25 additional Blacks annually. By 1725, Renault's mines were yielding 1,500 pounds of lead per day.
The French Explorers
The arrival of French explorers and traders radically changed slavery among the Indians. The French wanted to buy Indian slaves, providing tribes such as the Osage and Missouri with guns and ammunition in return for captives. Once one tribe acquired weapons, other groups felt compelled to do the same. Consequently, rather than a by-product of conflict, slavery became its cause. The only way to avoid becoming enslaved was to be stronger than the enemy tribe. Strength was often obtained by capturing slaves and bartering them for weapons. The rise of slave-trading for gain had begun.
The Black men and women who finally gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War were not the first Black freedmen of the state. Although the distinction between free Blacks and slaves was vague, a free Negro class existed through the period of slavery in Missouri. The presence of free Blacks in an all-slave society threatened to undermine the very foundation upon which slavery was built. The continuation of the slave system was based upon the assumption that whites should exercise indisputable control over Blacks. Freedmen, regardless of the theoretical rights and equalities which freedom implied, could not be allowed to subvert that system by acting as if they were as good as whites.
The Versatility of Missouri Slaves
Missouri slaves had a wider range of skills and occupations than slaves in the deep South because of the different type of farming in Missouri. Missouri's land was abundant and fertile, but the cold weather meant a shorter growing season and did not permit the growth of cotton in large quantities. Farmers and their slaves practiced mixed farming. They produced hemp, tobacco, wheat, oats, hay, corn, and other feed trains. Missouri also became well known for its fine cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs, Consequently, the Missouri slave became a multi-talented worker.
Civil War Soldiers
Putting on the uniform of the United States enhanced the Black man's self-esteem and his dignity. It gave him a sense of identity with the struggle for human freedom, and compelled him to look beyond his own experiences. Sergeant Prince Rivers, a Black soldier of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, spoke for Black soldiers everywhere when he summed up what the war meant to him: "A new day." Throughout the former slave trade, Blacks believed a new day dawned. Signs of optimism abounded a new status of freedmen, a new sense of belonging and worth, and new opportunities in education.
The Black Emphasis on Education
As the war drew to a close, many Black and white leaders, aware that slavery was a dying institution, tried to arrange educational opportunities for slaves and free Blacks alike. They viewed education as the single most important key of the black movement into mainstream American society. Black and white educational efforts, on behalf of Blacks, were so large in St. Louis that a Black Board of Education was established. The unofficial board directed four schools with 499 students. By 1865, the system had eight teachers an 600 pupils.
In the spring of 1879, thousands of Southern Blacks passed through St. Louis and Kansas City on their way to Kansas, The Citizens of these two cities had often witnessed the arrival of emigrants traveling west. However, few taxed their resources and patience as did the participants of the Exodus of 1879. Many of the Black emigrants were destitute when they arrived in St. Louis and had no means to continue their journey to Kansas. Within three months, the inhabitants of St. Louis and Kansas City organized relief committees to look after these "Exodusters".
Migration of the Black Population
when the fighting broke out in 1914, European immigration virtually stopped. Southern Blacks began to move north by the thousands to fill the labor gap. Rural Missouri Blacks, hearing of better economic and social opportunities in the cities, moved to St. Louis and Kansas City to work for factories and railroads. Greater numbers of Blacks living in cities meant overcrowded neighborhoods and unsanitary, crime-ridden living conditions. When Black families resorted to moving into white neighborhoods, white families often retaliated with violence.
Blacks and the Depression
The stock market crash of 1929 sent the American economy in a downward plunge from which it would not recover for more than a decade. Millions of Americans, accustomed to relative comfort and security, faced unemployment, handouts and even soup lines. The Great Depression hit Blacks hardest. They were last to be hired and first to be fired. Picketing was rampant as whites now competed for jobs that were once regarded as "nigger" tasks. The trend was reflected even in the state capitol where white elevator operators replaced blacks.
Civil Rights Movement
When the Civil war brought freedom but no justice, countless African American civil rights leaders, clergy, educators, philanthropists, and public servants fought on. Undeterred by the lash of the whip, the lynch mob, of the law of the land, they held America accountable to its promise of "liberty and justice for all". Slowly but surely, common, everyday people vanquished the stumbling blocks of segregation that barred African American from America's courtrooms, hotel rooms, dining rooms, restrooms, emergency rooms, locker rooms, and boardrooms. Each door they pried open led to greater opportunities, not only for African Americans, but for every other disenfranchised group in the land.
Kansas City's Entrepreneurship 1900-1920
Between 1900 and 1920 a small but steady emerging middle class citizenry began the serious work of building itself economically, politically, and socially. This twenty year span of economic growth was characterized by a growing spirit of entrepreneurship.
African Americans opened a variety of business, largely clustered in two areas. One area was on 18th Street along Paseo, Highland, Vine, and Woodland. African American businesses also opened in the area around 12th Street along Woodland and Vine. Some African American professional offices and a few businesses such as the Burton Publishing Company, Southside Pressing Company, and the Ashcraft Barber Shop were located in Kansas City's downtown area. And a few businesses such as the Urbank's Drug Store opened on Independence Avenue near Harrison.
The predominance of African American business in the 18th Street and 12th areas created a new sense of vibrancy and provided residents with the goods, services, and products needed to conduct their daily lives.
Entreprenurial ventures by African Americans in Kansas City paid off for a few. By 1911 operating within the African American community were 85 tailor shops, 75 pool halls, 25 dry cleaners, four undertaking parlors, seven nightclubs, one shoe store, one dry goods store, and a number of restaurants, all of which were owned by African Americans.
By 1915 Kansas City's African American community had six black stores doing an annual business of $60,000 and six undertakers doing an annual business of $100,000. And in 1920 The Colored Chamber of Commerce was formed.
The Watkins, Gates, and Blankenships' are just a few Kansas City African American family businesses that started doing this exciting era and still exist today. The history and growth of these business are highlighted in our traveling exhibits.