You might want to believe the popular hit song “I’m Going to Kansas City” contributed in some way to making Kansas City, MO, a drawing card for African Americans. However, by the time that song, with its reference to “those crazy little women,” was written in 1952, 40,000 African

Americans were already thriving in what was one of the most self-sufficient, economically thriving and by all means poppin’ African-American communities in America.

The Beginning  

I was born Sept. 19, 1936, at Wheatley Hospital, at 18th and Forrest in Kansas City Mo. I was born to a single parent and from birth until age 9, and at a Catholic boarding school in Leavenworth. In the summer of 1945, I came back to Kansas City. My mother had met my stepfather, I was about to have a little sister, and we were moving into a new house at 2114 E. 16th St. Life was turning around for me.

That fall, my mother enrolled me in St. Monica’s Catholic School. I was in the 4th grade. I had had just about enough of the nuns at the Guardian Angel boarding home, but attending Catholic school was considered a step up.

They (the nuns) would put you in the coat closet or they would send you to the principal’s office. Mr. Brown had a paddle with some holes in it and he would give you three or four whacks on your behind.

At my next school, I would see a lot of kids who used to go to St. Monica’s, they probably told their parents – just like I did –“If I have to go back to that damn school, I was running.”

This is more like it

For my 5th, 6th and 7th grade years I attend Attucks Elementary at 19th and Woodland. That was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. I recollect being in a school with Black children and Black educators. I really took to it.

I remember my three teachers. I had Ms. Hicks in 5th grade. She was a very good teacher.

My classmates were the kids I grew up around and I didn’t miss the Catholic school kids. That’s when I came out of the cocoon and started living as a little kid.

The kids I grew up around didn’t mess with Catholic school kids. We (Catholic kids) thought we were better and that contributed to what I consider this estrangement, we thought “we were better.” All of the kids in the neighborhood played together but they would kind of drift off, when I came around, but then I was part of the group.

R. T. Coles Junior High and Vocational School

The only way to Lincoln High, the school on the hill, was through R.T. Coles Junior High and Vocational School. It was where all Black children in the Kansas City, Mo., school district came for the 8th Grade.

Up until around 1944 or 45, there wasn’t an 8th grade for Black children. You went from elementary school, and 7th grade to the 9th grade in high school There were 8th grades in other schools, but there wasn’t an 8th grade that Black students could attend.

Prior to that time, for Black kids, if you got through the 7th grade your education was considered complete. That’s why Coles taught you a trade. You were able to leave the 7th grade and find a job to support your family.

Coles was a multifaceted school. It was the one school that had 8th grade. It was also a high school and it was also a vocational school for children and also for adults who had dropped out of school and who could back, enroll in the vocational part of the school and learn a trade.

Mr. Coles was originally from Pittsburg, PA, and moved to Kansas City in 1880. He was an educator and held several positions at the elementary level. At Hampton, He had been a classmate of Booker T. Washington.

He first introduced the idea of the vocational courses at the Garrison Schools. The available vocational training was in carpentry, house painting, cooking, dressmaking, millinery, and blacksmithing. They were trades more open to minorities during that time.

He died in 1930 and when Lincoln opened in 1936, they changed the name of the old Lincoln to R. T. Coles. Even though R. T. Coles was called a junior high, grades 9-12 were also part of its curriculum. So, after the new Lincoln opened, Black students could choose between attending Lincoln or Coles for high school.

Lincoln High

The new Lincoln was the big beautiful edifice on the hill. I always thought, one of these days, I’m going to that school. It was “the” school to go to.

I continued at Coles for the 9th grade, but after that I moved up the hill to Lincoln.

We had some of the best and most professional instructors that I’ve ever known in my life. Every teacher – no, 99% at least, had a master’s degree. And they taught you. We learned. It was one of the greatest experiences.

The teachers knew your families because we all lived in a general area so the people who taught you possibly lived in your neighborhood. It was culturally good.

We did our thing. We had class kings and queens, class presidents, student government. We had everything; everything that you could want in a high school to prepare young kids to go out in the world, we had it.

We had all sports: basketball, football, and track. There were no debate teams.

In sports we played other African-American schools: Sumner in Kansas; R. T. Coles; St. Joseph and Joplin, MO; Lincoln in East St. Louis; and Muskogee and OKC in Oklahoma.

And, oh, did we have a band. We had marching bands and majorettes at the sporting events. They don’t do that anymore. Lincoln games today are not my idea of what a high school game should be.

We also had proms, ROTC Ball, and sock hops

Lincoln was also a two-year junior college. It opened in 1949 and primarily started to bridge the gap from high school to college.

It opened in 1949 and primarily started to bridge the gap from high school to college. 

The Neighborhood

At that time, the boundaries for Kansas City’s Black neighborhood were Independence on the north, 27th on the south, Troost on the west and Mersington on the East.

We did our thing not only in school but out of school and in our entertainment district. We had Parade Park and Paseo, We had 18th Street which was 99% Black-owned from Benton to Troost, and Vine from 18th to 27th – all Black-owned businesses.

All the cabs, all the shops, all the drug stores, all the grocery stores, all the things you needed for a community, we had it. We didn’t care what was west of Troost, we didn’t care what was south of 31st Street, because in this area, we had everything that could sustain a family to the greatest degree.

KC was a place where people from the world came to see 18th and 12th Streets

The cops were Black and we had a Black fire department.

The Monarchs’ stadium was 21st and Brooklyn. I remember it in the early years as the Muehlebach Stadium. The Monarchs would play on Sundays and people would be dressed.

They’d sometimes bring in the Black rodeo. I’d use to sneak in to work as a hustle guy. It was legitimate. You go tell the guy you want to work and you sit in this room and wait and when they need workers, they’d come get kids to do stuff like sweep or whatever the chores were.

A couple of times a year the Municipal Auditorium would bring in Black entertainers – Easter and Thanksgiving. You talk about Black folks dressing.

I remember the Gem Theater in its heyday. I’d spend all day Saturday from the time it opened until it closed watching the same movie – a shoot-em-up. Friday and Saturdays they had serials at the Lincoln Theater on 18th and Lydia. The Lincoln Theater was a little more upper crust. When you became a teenager, you didn’t take your date to the Gem or to the Castle on 12th and Paseo, you took her to the Lincoln, and you would act like you had some sense.

Tribute to Coles

After all the things that went on and we grew up and we all went about our lives, I became involved with the R. T. Coles National Alumni Association. When I came back to Kansas City in 1999 and I started reconnecting with people I had gone to school with, I became aware that they had torn down the building at 19th and Tracy.

It incensed me, but it was a quiet secret I kept to myself.

I often wondered why the Black prominent people didn’t do more to pressure that part of the Black community. It was a hub in the community.

I told one of my class members who went to Coles and he said, why don’t we do something about that? We raised enough money to place a historical memorial marker at the northeast corner of 19th and Tracy.

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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