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Kevin's Chronicles of KC: Clay County African American Walking Tour

Garrison School .png
Posted at 9:46 PM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-27 23:30:38-04

LIBERTY, MO — Going back to biblical times, a red door on a building symbolized protection.

Inside the old Garrison School in Liberty, Missouri, a certain group of children were protected from the ills of society. Dr. Cecelia Robinson is the protector of their story.

“A people who have no knowledge of their history is like a tree with no roots," Robinson said.

Planted across Clay County are the contributions made by African Americans.

As 41 Action News anchor Kevin Holmes quenched his thirst to learn more, he came across a monument that stands right outside the county courthouse. It’s a water fountain.

Dr. Robinson read an inscription on the monument to Holmes.

“It says, come drink. All who thirst for freedom. The water fountain will no longer separate us as a people," Robinson read.

Many people in the Kansas City area are not aware that slaves were bought, sold, and traded at that very spot outside the courthouse. And there was a lot of activity.

In 1850, nearly 30% of the population in Clay County were slaves. Many of whom put their blood, sweat and tears into building Liberty and Clay County.

“We, W-E helped build this city into what it is,” Robinson said.

After Emancipation, some of the newly freedman stayed in Liberty and Clay County, where they built businesses, churches and schools.

The Garrison School was once the only school in Liberty for Black kids. A mural has been drawn on the outside. It depicts what once was and reminds us that the road has at times been anything but smooth.

“It was a stony road, literally and figuratively,” Dr. Robinson said. “Going to a second-class school, using second class books and not even having a gymnasium. Not even having a cafeteria.”

As the city gets set to celebrate 200 years next year, it’s important to note there are still many African American families living in Clay County that are descendants of the slaves who helped build Liberty.

Shelton Ponder is one of those descendants.

“Liberty to me is the basis for a better society,” he said. “Because we became part of it.”

Ponder’s great grandfather was a teamster and a freedman who fought in the Civil War.

Ponder’s story, and that of his parents all reside inside the Garrison School, which is now a museum.

Ponder was once a student there. A dress hanging in the museum once belonged to his grandmother.

Inside the building are countless stories of triumph. Stories of Black servicemen and Black entrepreneurs.

According to Robinson, the first African American barber in the old west is originally from Clay County, Missouri.

Ponder says visiting the museum and subsequent walking tour is a must if you’re ever in Clay County.

“People walk around talking about they have a degree in history. You can bring them here, and they’re lost," he said.

The fountain and the school are part of a greater self-guided walking tour. To learn more and map out your visit, click here.

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Kevin's Chronicles of KC is a year-long series looking at the history of Kansas City. You can read more about the project and other stories at kshb.com/chronicles.