KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City wasn’t built overnight. You can find signs of its history everywhere you look.
As we celebrate Black History Month, we hiked Kansas City’s African American Heritage Trail to discover how three places live beyond the history books.
THE GREEN DUCK LOUNGE
A look at the faded emerald walls and torn tarps show signs of decay, but the building’s history lives on.
For decades, the Green Duck Lounge has served generations of Kansas Citians at east 26th and Prospect Avenue. What happened inside its walls inspired a room named after writer Michelle Tyrene Johnson’s bar.
“I can just look inside and see the green leather of the chairs and wish I could transport myself back in time for half an hour to absorb it all,” she said.
It was bar owner Leon Jordan who helped build Kansas City’s legacy.
Before purchasing the Green Duck in 1955, he joined the Kansas City Police Department and served as Kansas City’s first black police lieutenant. Jordan also spent several years in Liberia reforming a police service in the country.
Jordan then co-founded Freedom Inc., which helps foster the economic and political development of African Americans. He took over the leadership of the state by winning a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives in 1964.
He often talked about politics while tending the bar at the Green Duck.
“He also used it as a political headquarters,” said Emiel Cleaver, who created Legacy of leadership, a film based on the life of Jordan, has explained. “Everyone who wanted to be elected, who needed votes, would come to the Green Duck to try to get his influence to get their campaign.”
Tyrene Johnson shared that the Green Duck provided an open space for leaders to talk about politics without following the norms of the time.
“It’s not about sitting in uncomfortable chairs in a meeting and just talking politics, it’s about talking politics while you’re with people you like and hang out with. have fun,” she said.
Jordan was shot and killed in the early morning of July 15, 1970, after closing the Green Duck for the night. Despite his death, Jordan’s legacy lives on.
“I think Leon Jordan is one of the great leaders, not just in Kansas City, but of his time,” Emiel said.
It’s not just politics that shapes Kansas City. Sometimes all it takes is a few pieces to inspire change.
At KPRS, the music over the years has changed, but its DJs have never turned the dial on their message.
“It’s not about showing off…it’s about taking care of what you’re doing,” Mike Carter explained.
He is the CEO of The Carter Broadcasting Group, the company behind KPRS. The company began in 1950 when Mike’s grandfather, Andrew Carter, opened KPRS on 12th and Walnut, breaking the color barrier with music.
“We’ve just done what we had to do for the past 72 years. And we will continue to do so as long as the Lord gives us breath,” Carter said.
But even after its long-standing legacy, KPRS and other black-owned radio stations continue to face an uphill battle with representation on the radio airwaves.
“Over time, our radio station, black-owned radio stations, are dwindling, just because incomes have gone down, families have died,” Carter said.
Although Carter and his team are sticking to the plan that has brought them decades of success by bringing people together through music and becoming a mainstay of the Kansas City community.
“We’re just proud to be part of this, this history,” Carter said.
KPRS has since moved its office to Colorado Avenue, just off Interstate 49. It still plays music for listeners tuning in today.
THE GEM THEATER
From the music to the stage, we turn to another cultural icon that serves as a hidden gem for the creative minds of Kansas City.
The Gem Theater marquee and neon sign lit up 18th and Vine since its days as a movie theater in 1912. It was one of the few theaters where African Americans could watch a movie in Kansas City until it closed in the 1960s.
“It was ready for the wrecking ball,” said Pat Jordan, president of the Gem Cultural and Education Center.
It was after talking to the Black Economic Union of Greater Kansas City that Jordan stopped the demolition.
“I spoke with [the president] one Saturday afternoon we sat down, and for three hours we talked and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you take care of it?’ I thought for a few minutes, and I said, ‘Okay,'” Jordan recalled.
Jordan’s love of theater propelled her to lead renovation efforts in 1989, until raising the curtain for its reopening as a performance venue in 1997. Those efforts preserved the power behind the Gem.
Rashida Philips, executive director of the American Jazz Museum, shared how she felt on stage.
“Even being in stillness, there’s just something very meditative about it and very powerful. So, I feel this whole story when I stand here,” she said.
Jordan said she believed the sentiment came from the energy of the performers and the audience.
“It’s not just about walls and seats, it’s about human beings,” she explained.
These locations only cover part of the Kansas City African American Heritage Trail.
You can hike the trail yourself or online. You can find a full map showing over a hundred locations on the city website for the trail.