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Celebrating Black History Month in Kansas City

Lucy's Cabin
Mid America Black Archives display
Lynching victims ashes
Posted at 11:21 AM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 14:02:06-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — February is Black History Month, and 41 Action News is highlighting the importance of Black culture and history in the Kansas City area.

The roots of Black History Month in the U.S.

Each February, Black History Month celebrates Black people's achievements and their role in U.S. history.

The month of recognition first began as “Negro History Week” in 1926, which was celebrated the second week of February.

The efforts started after scholars, including Carter G. Woodson, realized Black people were underrepresented in American literature.

Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915.

The newly founded group was dedicated to researching and promoting the achievements of Black Americans and people of African descent.

Eleven years later, the group held the first-ever Negro History Week. It chose the second week of February so it fell in line with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

The efforts picked up momentum nationwide, sparking local celebrations, establishments of history clubs, performances and lectures.

Years later, cities around the U.S. began recognizing Negro History Week. Some colleges and universities even started to adapt a whole month.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, then-President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month in 1976.

Black History Month in the Kansas City area

In the Kansas City area, Black History Month is rooted in the many movements and efforts started by the Black community — a history which is documented in Kansas City, Missouri, by the Black Archives of Mid-America.

“We are the repository for Black history for Kansas City and the Midwest,” James Watts, ombudsman with the archives, said. “We keep artifacts and history of the Black community and then we show it and offer it to our community in a first class and fine taste.”

Watts said the archives chronicle dark times in the city’s history, “starting from a slave cabin to the history of Black people that were murdered by lynching, all the way up to the present.”

However, the progress made in the Black community isn’t lost in the dark times.

Instead, the archives focus on progress so the community can continue to move forward.

Watts highlighted two trailblazers in Kansas City: Emanuel Cleaver II and Bernard Powell (and there are countless more to discover at the archives).

Cleaver II, who now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives for Missouri, was the first Black mayor in Kansas City.

Through his efforts, Cleaver set the foundation for people like former Mayor Sly James and current Mayor Quinton Lucas, Watts said.

Powell was a passionate activist for the Civil Rights Movement and brought activism to Kansas City.

Powell joined the NAACP when he was 13 and even marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1968, Powell worked with others to form the Social Action Committee of 20 (SAC-20).

The group worked to teach leadership and job training skills to Black youth.

Watts said he encourages Kansas Citians to visit the archives to learn more about Black history in Kansas City.

After the social justice movements of 2020, doing so can help the community move forward in the right direction, Watts said.

“We would encourage the people that were involved in Black Lives Matter, or whoever has any questions about their social consciousness, come visit the new Black archives and you might learn some things that will help you resolve some of the issues of Black Lives Matter,” Watts said.