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Racism in Kansas City: A Short History

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Anti-black racism still infects American society. African Americans are more likely than whites to be killed by police, to be pulled over, arrested, imprisoned, and executed. They are more likely to be turned down for a job or offered a bad home loan than equally qualified whites. The killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, triggered riots. A white terrorist massacred black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina. Eight black churches were burned in the South in ten days. Kansas Citians, like so many others across the nation, wonder, “Could it happen here?” The answer lies in this study of Kansas City’s darkest moments—slavery, the border war, the Civil War, bombings of black homes, lynchings, the segregation of neighborhoods and schools, the civil rights struggle, the Black Panther movement, the 1968 race riot, assassinations in the 1970s, the infamous Missouri v. Jenkins U.S. Supreme Court case, and the racial inequities that still plague Kansas City today. Threaded throughout Racism in Kansas City are stories of those who fought ardently against racist policies...and won. Racism in Kansas City, in the end, offers readers a hopeful with awareness comes understanding, then a willingness to push for positive social change. To contact the author for speaking engagements or to purchase bulk orders at a discount rate, please email chandlerlakebooks@gmail.com.
PRAISE FOR RACISM IN KANSAS CITY “Racism in Kansas A Short History should be mandatory reading beginning with our middle school children and ending with parents and other adults.” - Alvin Brooks, from the Foreword “Now more than ever, we need to have a serious conversation about race. This book is a good place to start.” - Charles E. Coulter, author of Take Up the Black Man’s Kansas City’s African American Communities, 1865-1939 “Racism in Kansas City represents an exhaustive body of research that should be ‘must reading’ for anyone exploring African-American history in Kansas City and the region. Griffin has distilled his results into an often enlightening account of the trials endured by black Kansas Citians.” - Monroe Dodd, Kansas City historian and author “Racism in Kansas A Short History is the most important must read book of 2015!!!” - Tony, blogger at Tony’s Kansas City

274 pages, Paperback

First published September 7, 2015

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About the author

G.S. Griffin

2 books5 followers
G.S. Griffin is an activist writer in Kansas City, cofounder of the Kansas City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, co-founder of a cooperative to support progressive causes and candidates and works in political advocacy at Communities Creating Opportunity.

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5 stars
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38 (34%)
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22 (20%)
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Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews
Profile Image for Dana.
169 reviews2 followers
January 17, 2021
overall a very powerful narrative about the history of black/white race relations in KC. everyone from the KC area should read this, ESPECIALLY people from Johnson County. speaking as someone who grew up in Johnson County, race was barely talked about in my communities, much less the racial history of the very streets we were walking. it's so important to realize that places you see as normal/unremarkable have a history deeply tied to race, and that by living in this community, you are deeply tied to that history.

there's a few parts of this book where I felt like the way the author addressed an issue wasn't QUITE right, but that might just be my liberal arts college ass talking lol. also this is very much an overview of this topic- I wouldn't expect something super in-depth, covering everything. the text itself is only 180 pages.

anyway! this was good introduction to the history of racism in KC, one that we need to be constantly educating ourselves about.
March 25, 2017
First and foremost I would like to say that the time and effort put into this book definitely shows. The research is admirable and sound and it is woven together in a way that paints a clear picture of where Kansas City came from and where we stand to this day.

As someone studying urban planning I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the field to gain perspective and for a look at what you are walking into, not just in Kansas City but any large city in the United States. Griffin does a masterful job as a historian and storyteller and has chosen a writing style that, though at times can seem jarring, ultimately adds to the narrative on deeper levels. In conclusion, if you can read this without getting either sad or furious you aren't paying attention.
23 reviews3 followers
March 6, 2017
This book helped me walk through my own ignorance, gave me a deeper hatred of racism, and changed the way that I drive through Kansas City. I feel informed and helped by this book. I'm sure it was difficult to find credible sources, but there were a few parts that raise more questions than answers for me, which may be a good thing, but overall, it was worth the read!
Profile Image for Karly.
93 reviews5 followers
January 19, 2021
"Progress will continue, as always, with ordinary people working together to eradicate racism and poverty in their communities using all the tools of the past, from petitions and peaceful protests to strikes and civil disobedience."

TLDR: Great short history I recommend to anyone in Missouri/Kansas, but particularly to Kansas Citians

I'm so glad I happened upon this book at the bookstore. It definitely is a short history (200ish pages aside from the lengthy notes). I learned a lot of things for the very first time. I liked the author's analysis and applying historical events to present day (or as this book's publication, 2015) and I wished there was more of that.

I really appreciated how the author described important events through KC history (slavery, enslaved insurrections, the civil war and reconstruction) and what those places look like in modern day Kansas City and Independence, MO so I could really put it into context. For example, I learned that in the early 1900s, Black families in the neighborhood next to where we live now were attacked with firebombs and arsons when they tried to buy houses. I learned that the city park I live next to was the site of a HUGE women's labor strike for better working conditions. It really made the book and the events feel real, in a history book that could be dry reading.
Profile Image for Bonnie Limbird.
131 reviews1 follower
January 28, 2022
This was a tough start. The formatting for the endless litany of statistics was difficult to keep straight and absorb. I would have liked to have seen these in bullet points. Luckily I didn't give up though, because the writing shifted to more storytelling by paragraphs, and I flew through the rest of the book. There was, surprisingly, a lot of new information here, and obviously specific to KC. It's very well researched and documented. Other than a lot of weirdly placed commas and the lack of bullet points (which it regressed back to in the last few pages), it is a very good read. I learned a lot more about the shame of slavery, the people of Kansas City, the era in which my parents grew up (still not an excuse), the history of KC magnet schools (which I remember as a student), the continued denial of racism, and more. I highly recommend this.
771 reviews
September 25, 2022
4+ for content, but it read like an uninteresting school paper. Good information and super important but writing fell a bit flat for me.
Profile Image for Annie Windholz.
82 reviews2 followers
August 13, 2019
If you live in Kansas City, put this book on hold at your local library immediately. It is exactly what I needed to read upon moving back to Kansas City. Frankly, I wish every city had such a book to tell the local history of racism, and highlight how it still persists today.
“History is not defined by the steady march of progress. There are years of progress and years of regress, depending on how many individuals in a community actively promote equality and justice, and oppose subjugation and violence. Things do not necessarily get better as time goes on,” Griffin writes.
I learned the history of Bleeding Kansas more definitely; how Kansas became a swing state with votes doubling the actual population due to folks flooding the state to influence whether it stayed an abolitionist state or became a pro slavery one like Missouri. I also learned more accurately about the redlining that occurred around the 1950s in the city, marking everything east of Troost black, and west of Troost white (still today, the economic hub and downtown Kansas City sits squarely on the white side of the line). I learned about Kansas City’s first black mayor, Emanuel Cleaver, the second black mayor, Sly James who just left office. I learned about the Kansas City Black Panthers chapter inspired by movement out of Oakland, as well as the 1968 riots.
“How can we dismiss [slaveholders such as] Jefferson as a “product of his time” when others were so capable of rejecting oppression based on his very words? Mormons, Quakers, and other abolitionists were products of the same era as slave owners. Jefferson’s personal experience, along with many other influences, led him to choose wealth and tradition over mercy and freedom. Other founders did just the same… And it goes without saying the “product of his time” idea adopts the viewpoint of the oppressor. Black slaves knew slavery was wrong,” Griffin writes.
The book also covers recent racist history including practices of excluding people of color from the Plaza, and Power and Light District. A good tidbit near the end of the book gives statistics that are handy if you ever find yourself speaking with someone who doesn’t believe people of color are treated any differently:
“Researchers write in Pulled Over (2014) that blacks in Kansas City are three times more likely to experience investigatory stops (these are not stops for actual traffic violations), especially in the white suburbs. They are twice as likely to not be told why and five times more likely to be searched, but are less likely to be found with anything illegal and act no more disrespectfully than similarly treated whites.”
Profile Image for Jacob Williams.
466 reviews9 followers
November 17, 2016
An enlightening look at local history that provides helpful context for understanding the present. At <200 pages it doesn't take long to read. Well worth checking out.
Profile Image for Jerry Smith.
761 reviews13 followers
September 12, 2020
Although this book is likely to attract a limited readership due to its narrow geographic focus, the themes that resonate throughout are depressing familiar to anyone who has bothered to look at the history of race in this country. I have lived in KC for 15 years. I live to the South on the city, in Missouri but close to the lily white areas of Leawood and Overland Park. However, I work with the homeless in the city so I frequently travel downtown and through and within many of the areas discussed here.

Naturally, most people who read this will know the city, and the local landmarks herein referenced will mean nothing to those unacquainted with the town. Maybe it is natural for people who call a city home to regard that place through rose tinted spectacles. I get the impression that many residents think of KC as a typical Midwestern city, immune from some of the social ills of larger municipalities more often in the news with regards to race: LA, Detroit, Chicago for example.

However, make no mistake, this is a very racist place. I write this as a sample of the crowd at a recent Chiefs game took it upon themselves to apparently boo a display of pre-game racial unity. This was one of the most segregated towns in the US and continues to this day. Anyone who lives here knows the white advice to "avoid going east of Troost" since that was chosen by the local government to be the black area, and it remains largely so to this day. This book explains all that, it talks about the real estate policies of local racists like JC Nichols whose name is liberally applied to streets and landmarks in the city. So many of the names of parts of KC come from slaveholders: Troost, Jackson, Clay and on and on.

Griffin simply lays out the history and does a good job of setting it in the context of what was going on nationwide. It goes back to the pre-civil way era and it is fascinating to read the accounts of that conflict and Missouri's pretty pivotal role in it. There is a lot of civil war history in KC that is not always apparent to those of us living here. The Country Club Plaza for example, basically the site of the Battle of Westport which was a major Union victory. From there we are educated in the vile history of racism, bigotry, lynching, de jure segregation, apathy and outright hostility from whites to housing, education and any move toward civil rights.

It is a sorry tale and anyone who thinks racism is a thing of the past, or that KC is somehow immune, needs to read this. I am pretty sure that most cities could have a similar book penned about their sordid history with regards to race. It is clear that KC is no shining light of enlightened policy with regards race relations, and that, frankly, continues to this day. It is interesting as one passes through the city, to ponder on the race history of local landmarks and sites. We should know all this and not ignore it - the history is disturbing to say the least.
Profile Image for Ronni Kurtz.
Author 2 books101 followers
September 17, 2017
I'm not sure I've worked through a book that was so hard for me to read. At one point I had to put the book down from feeling overly emotional while being in a public place. This book will and should stir up strong emotions in the reader. I found the breakdown of historic periods to be helpful as well as Griffin's consistent filling in the reader as to the present day location of historic landmarks. As a resident of Kansas City, I'd recommend this work to any who are interested in this vital topic.

The reason the book didn't get five stars is due to a few factors: It felt that the research was a bit less than perfect in some areas and the book seemed to be lacking in credibility. There is a lack of "professionalism" that a book of this historic importance needs. For example: it's written by a young author without many credentials, with a fairly un-known publisher, and one of the recommendations on the book is by the same author who wrote the forward to the work. Moreover, in some points in the work the author cites questionable sources - anything from blog post to online comment streams. However, the author does heavily footnote, so for those who are really interested in this important topic the author has made it possible to follow his research.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this work to all interested.
Profile Image for Karen.
147 reviews7 followers
July 26, 2020
The research is extremely sobering and shameful.. It is organized chronologically which is fine, but this book really needed a better editor to better organize the information. In some places there are whole paragraphs just recounting (horrible) happenings without without connecting to the larger story. Veteran Kansas City activist Alvin Brooks writes the foreword for this book and states it is written by a “young white ‘suburbanite,” and some of the language feels outdated and inappropriate in 2020, only 5 years after publication. In several places, murder with a firearm is described as being “blown away,” and the term “reverse racism” is used without explaining why this is not really a thing. All the same, I think this should be required reading for everyone in the Metro area and is a good frame for further discussion of how we address racism here. The author correctly identifies a certain smugness here that we don’t have the same level of virulent racism here as in other places, and that just isn’t true.
53 reviews
November 30, 2020
A necessary read for anyone in and around the Kansas City area, or anyone who wants to better understand how slavery and racism continue to impact the outcomes of a community for generations. this reads much like a historical account and timeline of Kansas City, Missouri since its establishment to modern-day (2015). Can be dry in parts, like some historical books, but provides a depth of personal accounts and testimonies of Kanas Citians at different points throughout history. I learned much about the "giants" of Kansas City who are often touted as heroes, who were anything but. This book traces the rich history of African American activism, business, culture, and triumph across the Greater Kansas City area, who should actually be credited with building up this city. Though we like to think of Kansas City as the average kind and welcoming midwestern/southern town, The reality of Kansas City is much more grim and dark than most would like to recognize.
Profile Image for Erica Hopwood.
14 reviews
August 9, 2020
A quick read, but certainly not an easy one. This book thought me a lot about slavery and systemic racism that wasn’t a part of any of my history textbooks. I found myself constantly bringing up a maps app to orient myself with locations described. There are also a few specific people and incidents I’ve bookmarked to learn more about later.
It was hard to read the stark truths about my beloved hometown, but much of what I read that covers my time living there rang true to what I saw and knew.

The only reason for the four stars instead of five was the tendency to list facts, figures, dates, instead of telling the story of the city and racism. Reading about a handful of incidents and related stats from a five-year period and then being taken back decades for additional stats about the same types of crimes was jarring in readability only.
Profile Image for Kayla.
30 reviews
January 10, 2021
You can definitely tell Griffin did a lot of research for this book. It's a relatively short read, but there are a lot of facts and data included. This book could stand to have a good edit to included updated verbiage - the term "blacks" is used frequently instead of "Black people" or "Black Americans." The writing is sometimes a little hard to follow considering it is supposed to follow a timeline, but jumps around in time and subject matter quite often. Considering Griffin is white, I do feel it's good that he clarified some historical context with an encouragement for white people to consider their historical perspective, but it is definitely not just a pure historical telling. Overall though, I think every Kansas Citian should read this!
Profile Image for Dan.
104 reviews2 followers
October 7, 2019
It started well with a detailed history of slavery in the area, and the post-Civil War era. It was good to learn about the race riots of 1968. The second half of the book was not as good. Other than detailing the struggles of the school district, it is mostly a laundry list of racist incidents that have hit the local news. The author was not willing to admit that racism has decreased since the 60s, and he said it was only made more subtle. Also, he quotes comments from online articles about the Plaza. Really, the members of the bottom of the barrel of society write those comments, and they are anonymous as well, and in this book, they are presented as evidence of pervasive racism.
494 reviews3 followers
February 5, 2019
I checked this out of the library, stumbling across it while looking for something else. I suspect it is not easily acquired. The author is white, and he knows how to research. The book is just what it says - a short history. He did a good job hitting the main points. A detailed history could span volumes. He and I agree that racism is currently a major issue in our city, and his book clarifies many of the contributing factors. If you don't know how you got to where you are, how do you begin to understand how to proceed? I've lived in Kansas City since 1983 and I learned a lot.
4 reviews
January 28, 2023
This book offers a quick overview of various policies positively and negatively affecting African American populations in Kansas City. Generally, the book is decently written but does have some odd formulations. It definitely offers a good collection of resources for further research and learning. A good start into Kansas City history for amateur city historians.
Profile Image for Blair Broll.
2 reviews9 followers
January 4, 2020
A must read for midwesterners. A great history lesson, and a very clear break down of institutionalized racism.
3 reviews
October 8, 2020
Possibly the most well researched and written book I have read.
Brutally honest and deeply moving.
A must read for anyone, regardless of geography.
Profile Image for Luke Martin.
29 reviews1 follower
December 29, 2020
This was a good and enlightening list of some of the ways race has permeated life in the Kansas City metro, but it leaves something to be desired in the way of narrative.
1 review1 follower
July 26, 2022
Essential reading for any Kansas Citian to understand how our city has become what it is today.
41 reviews1 follower
May 22, 2023
Exceptionally researched and detailed. Realities brought to light we all need to know. A service to humanity.
274 reviews22 followers
March 18, 2017
Full of interesting facts and history. This book was better than I expected. For those outside of Kansas City you should read a book like this about wherever you reside. White supremacy and racism is not just a national truth, it is a local one as well. Kansas Citians for years pretended they were somehow different, this book explodes that myth.
Profile Image for Megan.
258 reviews17 followers
May 10, 2017
The facts and detailed events in this book all show the long history of racial injustice and racial dynamics in Kansas City. As a Kansas City native, this book has been enlightening and educational. A must read for all wanting to have social equality in our society.
July 13, 2016
Good look back and the reality of today.

This is a very informative book. The author tends to drift, but it worth a read for anyone interested in history or the background of Kansas City.
Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews

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