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Part of the Bigger Picture: When Local History Mirrors the National Discourse

Part of the Bigger Picture: When Local History Mirrors the National Discourse

By: Jennifer Reed, Executive Director, Cass County Historical Society

Dividing time up into historical contexts is the bedrock of the American education system – pilgrims, Revolutionary War, Civil War, Westward Expansion, and so on. Many of those events happened at specific places, some spread across a region, but few touched every area of the nation at the local level. Sure, the effects of an event like the Revolutionary War reverberated across the land even if battles were primarily relegated to the New England area. An event like the Great Depression, however, is a good example of an event starting in one spot and then over time touching every community in the country.

Recently, in preparation for an exhibit on the history of schools in Cass County, it became clear to me that there was a historical connection in our very own community to one such larger national event – The Great Migration, the movement of large populations of African-Americans from southern and rural areas into the large, industrialized cities. While some would logically assume The Great Migration would have occurred immediately after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era, that was not the case. The timeframe that most historians agree on for The Great Migration is 1916-1970. Within that fifty-four-year window, there were two main waves of migrations. The first wave is primarily attributed to World War I and the need for unskilled labor to support the war industry manufacturing. World War II, for the same reason, is looked at as the starting point of the second wave.

Little scholarly research has been done on African-American communities in Cass County. Dr. James R. Shortridge, Professor at the University of Kansas, has written a manuscript about the African-American community in Pleasant Hill, his boyhood home. Other than that body of research, there are just brief mentions of ‘Blacks’, ‘Negros’, or ‘Colored,’ as writers of that time referred to African-Americans, in other local history books and newspapers. The match that lit my interest was a newspaper article about the Harrisonville School District being the one of the first districts in the country to implement desegregation as mandated in the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.[i] The ruling was handed down on May 17, 1954. The Harrisonville School Board, comprised of six white men, voted unanimously on July 26, 1954 to desegregate the school district. Up to that point the district had operated Harrisonville Elementary School, Harrisonville High School, and Prince Whipple School, a one-room schoolhouse for the two dozen African-American children in grades 1-8. If a Prince Whipple graduate wanted to continue their education, they had to either secure a boarding room during the week in Kansas City near R.T. Coles High School or endure the nearly 80-mile round trip bus ride every day. Desegregation of the district meant black families would have more educational opportunities in their own community for their children, thereby strengthening their ties to the community.

The Brown v. Board of Education ruling came too late for the African school in Belton, which closed in 1909 due to lack of students. It also came too late for Pleasant Hill, which had a thriving African-American community post-Civil War that steadily decreased with sharp drops in numbers in the late 1910s and again in the early 1940s, coinciding with two waves of The Great Migration. The Douglass School closed when the Pleasant Hill School District finally accepted the court ruling in 1955. The school only had five students.

Several factors played roles in why Cass County went from having an African-American population percentage of 10.3% in 1860 to only 4.6% in 2020. In addition to the lack of higher education opportunities for African-American children in Cass County, by the late 1920s there was also a lack of living wage jobs due to large factories moving out of the county. This caused a domino effect. With less product to be moved, there was a reduction in the number of active railways, and railroad jobs became harder to secure. African-Americans, both men and women, who worked in service industries such as cafes, laundries, and hotels also suffered a job shortage, especially during the Great Depression. Around this time the Jazz District at 18th and Vine in Kansas City was making its mark on the music and social scene around the world. Then came World War II, the final blow to struggling African-American communities in Cass County. The story in many African-American homes was similar to that of White homes – fathers, sons, brothers signed up to fight, and wives, mothers, sisters were left to keep the family going. Many African-American women, accustomed to working outside of the home as maids, laundresses, and housekeepers, traded in those lower-wage jobs for higher paying opportunities in war manufacturing facilities. There were African-American Rosie the Riveters too, known as Black Rosies (to learn more about Black Rosies click on this link https://www.history.com/news/black-rosie-the-riveters-wwii-homefront-great-migration ). Of course, this necessitated moving closer to those plants, nearly always located in the industrial areas of large cities.

Several generations of descendants of formerly-enslaved people living in Cass County made their homes here. They raised their children here. Some farmed the land. Others owned trade businesses such as a smithy or builder. Still others started service-based businesses like delivery drivers and tailors. When young men and women were sent to the city to continue their education, the world opened up to them. They formed connections away from their families in a city that promised more than the little rural communities in Cass County could offer. One by one, younger African-Americans and their young families moved north to Kansas City. The sparse population of African-Americans that remained were older folks who had made Cass County their home and had no interest in relocating to the big city. Eventually time took its toll on this population.

Currently the northern part of Cass County, particularly Belton and Raymore, have seen a slow but steady growth in African-American populations. Most of these are new residents with no connection to previous residents. They are now building their own stories and history as contributors to the social, political, and economic fabric of Cass County in the twenty-first century.

Diuguid, Lewis W., The Kansas City Star; Wednesday, May 18, 1994