Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Racism in the Kansas City Area: Western Expansion - 1800s

Wow! Yesterday's post prompted some very interesting responses. I hope you'll take a moment to read them over.

Today I'm going to be talking about historical racial relations in the Kansas City area (mostly centered on the Missouri side) from the period of Western Expansion when settlers started living in this area up through the 1800s after the Civil War and the official end of slavery in the US. Just as a warning: You may find some of the images below disturbing. I know I do.

When white settlers began moving into the area, the only other people around were the native tribes and then eventually many migrating tribes as well. Many settlers set up a brisk trade with these Native Americans and this is what first established Kansas City as a trading center. However as more settlers from the east coast and from European countries continued to flood into the area, the Native Americans, as we all know, were forced westward by a combination of coercion and brute force.

After that is was just whitey until the first African-Americans came to the Kansas City area, brought along from the east coast by their owners. Later some freedmen moved to the area, but their opportunities were very limited and they weren't allowed to testify in court or strike a white person - most of whom found these freed slaves "uppity" because of their desire for equality. In fact, Missourians were so against free blacks that they passed legislation in 1820 barring any more of them from coming into the state. This law included as black anyone who was 1/8 black (i.e. had one black grandparent in a family of whites).

Slaves meanwhile were treated as personal property to be bought, taxed or sold the same as any other property. Providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care for slaves was up to the owner and was completely unregulated, often leading to inadequate care (to say the least). Slaves were worked sunrise to sunset, usually with Sunday afternoons off. Slaves were forced to attend the same church as their masters and were sequestered up in the balcony. Slaves were not allowed to marry or be educated and their punishments could include anything up to whipping, mutilation, castration or death.

In 1860, there were 3,944 slaves in Johnson County, mostly living in Westport and Independence. Slave owners lived in constant fear of rebellion and runaway and acted accordingly.

During the Civil War, the Union army allowed black men ages 25-45 to enlist in exchange for their freedom, though they were still payed only $10 a month and received only 1 ration. There were 7 black regiments from Missouri and several other black men and women were also hired by the army as auxillary support staff in the roles of spies, cooks, teamsters, nurses and laundresses. Many black soldiers saw the Civil War as their American Revolution. As the war began to draw to a close, efforts were made to set up education for blacks since slavery was foreseen to be dying out, but met with only limited successes.

Slaves in Missouri were freed on January 11, 1865 and were thrust into the world without money, property or education to try and survive on a system based on competition, literacy and capitalism. Many slaves took this opportunity to search for their lost family members, although some were never reunited. Some fled the state to escape the racial hostility, but others chose to stay and find work wherever they could, often paid no more than room and board. In 1870, over 2/3 of black males were still working as farm hands and most black women worked as domestic help. Some black families chose to live in communities, sharing resources and responsibilities.

Informal codes of behavior now kept black people at the bottom of the social totem pole. They weren't allowed to use street cars and many black schools were constant targets of arson and black teachers were often threatened with bodily harm. They were still not allowed to vote or hold office, though they could now give testimony in court. They were allowed to be educated as long as it was by a black teacher in a black school.

In 1879, a new migration from the southern states brought hundreds of black families to both St. Louis and Kansas City, following a burst of advocacy by the Missouri Equal Rights League, Missouri's first black political movement, worked to gain more rights and supply children with proper education. The tendency of black people to live together in the same areas gave them voting blocs and subsequently influence in city elections. By 1880 there were 8,000 African Americans in Kansas City, mostly living downtown in Church Hill near Charlotte and 10th Street.

The 1890s were frustrating for blacks as they saw the press for equal rights be drown out by economic difficulties. Even worse, this period led to a horrifying number of lynchings, mostly of blacks, in reaction to the overall labor unrest and financial panics. Between 1889 and 1918, 51 blacks were lynched in Missouri out of 2,522 nationally.

And that's where we'll end today, boys and girls. Come back tomorrow for more.

Take Up the Black Man's Burden: Kansas Cities African-American Communities, 1865-1939
Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1763-1865
Missouri's Black Heritage

Related posts:
Racism in the Kansas City Area
Kansas City's REAL First Ladies
How Kansas City is Like Gotham City

Like what you see? Subscribe here or add to Mixx


Mark said...

It is amazing that this is our history. We have come a very long way in a relatively short time. Thanks for sharing this part of American history. May we never repeat it.

Vanessa said...

At the moment I'm reading the "The Hairston's" black and white families and how they differ so much. All of this is covered in the book and totally lines up with the book. "The Hairstons- An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek.
Just like this article it's a great read.

May said...

Thanks, Vanessa! That sounds like a book I should check out!