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Kansas Citians' Digital Stories Now Part Of The Library's Collection

“I received the telephone call around three o’clock in the morning. Bernard Powell was dead.”

That's Telester Powell, talking about her husband. Bernard Powell was a well-known Kansas City Civil Rights activist in the 1960s. He joined the NAACP at age 13 and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Powell was on the rise, winning accolades such as Outstanding Man of the Year from the National Junior Chamber of Commerce. He had a dream of becoming Missouri’s first black governor.

Telester Powell’s story is among a dozen digital stories debuting at the Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library on Sunday (the stories are posted here). It’s the first installment of the library’s effort to capture the history of the people in its community.

“We put out a call to the community, to library customers, saying ‘We want to get your digital stories,’” says April Roy, manager of the Bluford Branch. Twelve people showed up on a Saturday in April and spent the whole day brainstorming ideas, focusing their narratives into stories that could be told in just a few minutes, and then recording and editing on the library’s iPads.

In her story, titled “To Bernard,” Telester Powell remembers the night, in 1979, when her husband was shot to death at Papa Doc’s East Side Social Club at 27th and Indiana. He was 32 years old.

“When I got there, they were bringing you out in a body bag. And I just touched it. I can’t believe it’s been 35 years.”

Telester goes on to update Bernard on how their children have grown into adults. And how she believes he would be appalled at how Kansas City “has regressed” over the years. “It would take another person like you to turn the neighborhood around,” she says.

In other stories, Karen Slaughter remembers watching John F. Kennedy’s funeral – and focusing on his daughter Carolyn, “a little girl not much older than me, as she laid her father to rest.”

Joe Louis Mattox recounts his childhood introduction to “good white people,” such as the librarian who got him a library card, and a high sheriff in Caruthersville, Mo., who said he could “whoop his ass” for not getting off the sidewalk when a white person passed by – when word of the sheriff’s observation reached his mother, Mattox got a whipping from her instead.

“We just think it’s really important to preserve those histories for future generations,” Roy says, noting the strong sense of neighborhood pride in the communities surrounding the Bluford Branch at 3050 Prospect.

“People are so proud to be from these neighborhoods, and the kids don’t have any idea of the struggles people faced.” Roy hopes the digital storytelling effort will help pass on that sense of pride.

“People’s stories are part of the fiber of what makes libraries so great,” Roy says. “Not everybody can write and publish a book, but everybody does have a story to tell.”

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 10, library staffers will show the stories, and the people who recorded them will be on hand to talk about the process.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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