Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Uncovering African-Americans’ Little-Known Past 

12-09-2015 17:35

I have been wonderfully blessed in my 30 years of working to tell important stories in African-American history. I have learned so much and it is this that I would share with you today.

Kansas City`s 18th & Vine

On a warm fall day in 1995 I arrived in Kansas City, Mo., to be interviewed for a job as executive director of the 18th & Vine Authority, the authority established by the city to manage the cultural component of the Historic Jazz District. This district, which was only nine blocks at the time, is described in the National Register as being "significant in the areas of commerce and ethnic heritage for its historical importance as a center for black commerce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The district is also significant in the area of performing arts as the most intact groupings of buildings in Kansas City associated with the growth and development of jazz music in the 1920s and 1930s. The district is composed of 42 buildings and structures…Since 1930 construction has been limited in the district and it retains its early 20th century appearance and character. The period of significance extends from 1886 to 1941."

I asked the taxi driver to take me to 18th & Vine. This moment is unforgettable in my life, for as I strolled down 18th Street, I stood in front of the historic Lincoln Building, which is across from the area of the Jazz District that housed some 200 jazz clubs in Kansas City. The Lincoln Building was the only building still occupied, in use as an African- American business complex. The front of the building faces 18th Street, but the business patrons entered from the back parking lot. The street was so seldom used because the neighborhood had declined as integration afforded people the opportunity to move out of the district. As I stood across from what was once a striving black economic district from 1920 through 1950, I saw that many windows were broken and all of the buildings were boarded up to prevent further vandalism. Despite the effort to revitalize the buildings by the Black Economic Union, which had been ongoing for about 20 years, the district appeared to be almost a ghost town. Suddenly I saw a shadow appear to move in front of the windows. Of course most people would say that it was the light, but I felt it was the spirit of the people who once lived and worked in the buildings.

The African-Americans who had lived in the vicinity of 18th & Vine from the early 1880s were (1) descendants of slaves, (2) part of the westward movement when the state of Kansas was known as the Port of Black Colonization, and (3) musicians in search of economic opportunities after Prohibition closed down places to perform in New Orleans.

The neighborhood was residential in character and because of segregation blacks were only allowed to live between 8th and 25th Streets. Some residents said they could not rent or buy out of the district. The 18th & Vine area was their entire life. Here they lived, shopped, celebrated, worshipped, and did not move out of the district until death.

The neighborhood became alive in the `20s and `30s at the height of the jazz era. It became a bridge community where blacks and whites met to celebrate the music they called Kansas City-style jazz. The African-Americans lived upstairs over the nightclubs and business establishments. The incredible Buck O`Neil, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and former coach, stated that if you were looking for anyone in Kansas City, just stand on 18th & Vine-it was the meeting place.

I never forget the champions of the Vine: the preservationist Jane Flynn and the Jackson County Historical Society; musicians such as Jay McShann, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Joe Turner, and Ella Fitzgerald who kept the district alive with their music; and their descendants who fought constantly with politicians to make sure that the 18th & Vine area became the Historic Jazz District.

Jazz is America`s original classical music. It is African based, but it does not discount its European experience. Jazz is an interpretive music that- like spirituals, the blues, and gospel-arises from our journey in this country. It celebrates all cultures in America and is truly about freedom. The challenge of the 18th & Vine project is to make sure the district reflects that history and gives voice to the music`s roots.

The great lesson of this project was discovering that the Midwest had a rich virgin history. We know far too little in America of this experience and the challenge has been to interpret the story when both businesses and dwellings are gone. But descendants can be found, and the material culture and spirits of the era still remain.

The Motown Story

In 1992 I received an incredible offer to become the director of the Motown Historical Museum. This was an opportunity for me to interpret the history of a black migration family from Georgia that had achieved the American dream.

The Gordy family stayed true to its family values. The folklore is that Pop Gordy had a successful year on his farm in Georgia and had collected around $2,000. He decided that he could not cash his check in this town because he would be killed and robbed. So he boarded a train to Detroit. He probably had heard that Henry Ford was hiring workers at $5 a day. When he got to Detroit he resided with relatives and recognized that the neighborhood needed an African-American store. He returned for his family and began the incredible American journey.

It is his son, Berry Gordy, who founded Motown Records. His empire was 10 neighborhood houses on West Grand Boulevard. My challenge was to work on the Henry Ford Motown exhibition project and to restore the home where Berry started the company in the 1950s to the way it was then.

Back then Detroit was referred to as the Motor Town, later shortened to Motown. Motown Records was conceived in a neighborhood house in the shadow of General Motors. It was in the `60s and `70s that Motown Records became known as the "hit factory."

There was a uniqueness about this city and the Motown Record Company founder. He embraced young neighborhood musicians and untrained voices to make the hits, drawing on the musicians` improvisational skills.

Detroit loves the Motown sound. It is the neighborhood spirit that kept the music so fresh in America`s mind. Motown music is as alive in Detroit today as it was 40 years ago.

The challenge in interpreting Motown was to capture the history of a family business, retaining the family`s original culture, and the beauty of struggle. The lesson was understanding that history has champions and that there are family and town champions.

The Afro-American Museum in Philadelphia

In 1985 I spent time working at the Afro-American Museum in Philadelphia. The Afro- American Museum was an urban museum built by the city to note the contributions of the African-American community. The museum was built two blocks from the Liberty Bell, five blocks from the historic Mother Bethel AME Church, and, by some twist of fate, two blocks from the 18thcentury African-American burial grounds that were discovered later. Philadelphia was one of the original cities in the colony of Pennsylvania, and the African-American community there has a rich colonial heritage. Early research at Temple University`s Charlie Blockson Collections found that 80 families still in Philadelphia are direct descendants of residents who lived there prior to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Working in Philadelphia was a great learning experience because the folk rituals and traditions of African-Americans were practiced openly there. One could experience and record rituals and celebrations associated with the Marcus Garvey movement, the Richard Allen movement, the Migration movement, and the Masonic movement. Never have I witnessed celebration of a historical tradition like in Philadelphia. The challenge is to place value on this expression beyond what is often called entertainment.

My experience in Philadelphia taught me there is always evidence of the past even though it appears to be lost. For example, the 18th-century African-American burial grounds in Philadelphia were just found in 1980. In New York, African-American burial grounds were found in 1990. The grounds were destroyed in the World Trade Center terrorist attack but the early remains still exist at Howard University for testing and documentation.

Early Work in Rhode Island

And now I come to the beginning of this journey. Providence is my home, and my journey began in the `70s. I realized there was a story to be told that most of America was not aware of-that of the Rhode Island Regiment (the Black Regiment) and its role in fighting for this country`s freedom, particularly in the Battle of Bloody Run Brook. I must admit that I was always a little angry to think that when people refer to African-Americans` role in military history, they would talk about the Massachusetts 54th but not the Rhode Island Regiment. So part of my thirst for knowledge was to tell that story and unravel an unknown past.

The entire state of Rhode Island is an enormous public history project. There are 91 historical societies, each a store of knowledge, each willing to share information about the presence of African-Americans in the town`s history or in the state -- things like names, occupations, locations -- and there is a general expression of respect for that history.

The challenge is, how do you get the public to understand this history-of plantations, slavery-and to recognize that learning cannot flourish without acknowledgement of that past? It is sometimes uncomfortable for African- Americans. It`s uncomfortable for the descendents of white slave masters and the native Americans, too, because they all lived at the same time, lived in the same town, and have had the same names for over 200 years.

The Continuum of Past, Present, Future

We are all re-evaluating the freedom that we take for granted. On September 11, 2001, we could not help but wonder if this freedom might be in jeopardy. We must ask if we are succeeding in keeping all the things that matter in telling the story of this new nation-bold with ideas and daring to believe that, as free men and women, we could live together, share different views, and yet be as one in a crisis such as the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

We often have to be reminded of how similar we are. We share a commonality in each of our minds and hearts that cannot be explained. It is simply a part of the journey of life.

In the African world view, the invisible world of spirit, man, and the visible world of nature all exist along a continuum and form an organic reality. The same is true of the relationship between the past, present, and future. In song lyrics based on Birago Diop`s poem "Breaths" we are reminded of this continuum.

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors` breath
When the fire`s voice is heard
Tis the ancestors` breath
In the voice of the waters
Ah…… wsh…...
Ah…… wsh……
Those who have died have never never left

The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth
Those who have died have never never left
The dead have a pact with the Living
They are in the woman`s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home
They are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living.

Publication Date: Winter 2002

#Diversity #ForumJournal #AfricanAmerican

Author(s):Rowena Stewart, D.H.