What Kansas City's History Can Teach Us About 'Both Sides' When It Comes To Race
Perspective: Will the events of 2020 force Kansas City to reckon with the opposing forces that have defined us from the beginning?
In Case Park, way up high on the bluffs overlooking rivers and highways from downtown Kansas City, a plaque memorializing Levi Harrington was found vandalized on June 14, 2020.
Harrington, a Black man and father of five, described as an honest man by his employers, was lynched in April of 1882. Despite a lack of any evidence linking him to the crime, Harrington was arrested for the killing of a white police officer. A mob of hundreds of angry, white Kansas Citians kidnapped Harrington from police custody. They hung him from the Bluff Street Bridge and shot him. The plaque vandalized earlier this June was installed in 2018 in the place where crowds once stood to watch the man die.
The monument, telling Harrington's story on one side and the story of lynching in America on the other, was ripped from its base and thrown over the park's retaining wall: a painful piece of history briefly acknowledged, then violently chucked to the river.
This spot, on the bluffs, is where Kansas City was founded. It’s a spot that represents the bubbling tensions of our region, both geographical and ideological.
These bluffs, perched high above the water, suggested to European settlers that this would be a good place to start a city, giving newcomers access to trade along the river while also giving them safety from rising waters.
Down below is the confluence of two rivers, the Kansas River, or Kaw, and the Missouri River. From Case Park, which is located in Missouri, you can look out across the water and see Kaw Point on the other side, in Kansas. It looks like a lush green triangle jutting out into the mud-brown water.
From the oppressively muggy Kaw Point Park in the industrial Fairfax District, you can see rivers swirling together from opposite directions. They meet with a gurgle that occasionally escalates into something more chaotic, trapping logs and debris in competing currents that won't let go.
We live in a city where opposing forces come to a head. That's more than coincidence. It's what defines us.
It's in our geography.
It's in our weather; what else is a tornado, that quintessential midwestern storm, but a cold front meeting a warm front and wreaking havoc when the swirling winds touch down?
And most importantly, it's in our history.
Well before the Civil War, the ideological fight over slavery was already being fought here. Again, that's no coincidence. People came here, from afar, specifically to fight that battle. Before Kansas achieved statehood, abolitionists flocked to the state in a concerted effort to ensure that once it entered the Union, it would do so as a free state. That they settled right on the border of Missouri, a slave state, was not an accident. It was where they needed to be to facilitate the Underground Railroad, moving enslaved Americans from bondage to freedom.
The line that used to separate slavery and freedom for actual human beings is now a street: State Line Road.
Now, all it takes to cross State Line is a green light. But a split identity is etched into Kansas City's DNA. You can see it looking at rivers or looking at street maps. You can hear it in our conversations: about education, economics, sports, and street names.
Permeating every one of those conversations is race.
Where cold front meets warm front, we get tornadoes. Where slave state meets free state, we get Kansas City.
The John Wornall House is a historic site that blends into the residential background of Brookside. Signage encourages Kansas Citians to stop and read about the old red brick mansion with green painted shutters, to learn what happened here more than a century ago.
The property originally spanned north to 59th Street and south to 67th. It went east as far as Main Street and west to State Line. This antebellum house belonged to John Wornall, a Missourian by way of Kentucky, who made his fortune in farming.
During the Civil War, on this property, Union soldiers from Kansas, or Jayhawkers, fought Missouri Bushwhackers, rogue defenders of the Confederacy known for violent raids along the border.
A slave owner himself, Wornall tried to maintain what he considered neutrality in the Civil War by not actually fighting for either side. He was repeatedly robbed by Missouri Bushwhackers, and a Kansas cavalry commandeered his home for their headquarters. The two sides faced off on his property in deadly battles.
One night, in 1864, when the artillery fire went quiet, Wornall went outside to take stock of the damage. Finding 31 dead bodies on his land, he gathered them up in a wagon and carted them to what's now Loose Park. There, under the cover of darkness, they were buried, pro- and anti- slavery — "both sides" as we now like to say — together, in an unmarked grave.
The route he traveled in that wagon is now called Wornall Road. It's a major thoroughfare in Kansas City, just like State Line. How many of us think about the stories that haunt the roads we travel daily? And in whose footsteps are we following?
There's a truism about the Civil War, that families were torn apart over their ideological divisions. It was brother against brother, parent against child, all under the same roof, from house to house. There was no such thing as neutral. This part of our history is now refusing to sit politely in dusty books on shelves. Decisions about whether to wear a mask or not, and whether Black lives matter or all lives matter, tug at the seams of friendships and families alike.
But there is one part that feels distinctly 2020. Protests decrying racial injustice have spanned the state line and erupted in all parts of the city. They may have started on the Plaza, contested territory for Black teens in recent memory, but they quickly fanned out to different neighborhoods and into suburbs on both sides in Missouri and Kansas. They've also transcended the urban-rural divide. People have been taking to the streets to assert the intrinsic value of Black life in places like Salina, McPherson and Hays in Kansas. Places like Joplin, Warrensburg and Maryville in Missouri.
While the issues that divide us are variations on the ones that brought early settlers to "both sides" of the state line so long ago, the two sides are not so starkly delineated by geography today. They are everywhere.
In the time that's passed since Levi Harrington's memorial was ripped from its base in Case Park, it's been restored. Visitors have followed, paying their respects by laying flowers at the monument’s base.
Monuments honoring Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, the French and their influence on early Kansas City, all stand nearby, untouched. They represent the stories we hear when we learn Kansas City history in school. Harrington's story is less often mentioned.
A hi-spy viewing machine used to be in the park, allowing visitors to look across the river to the City Market on the East and Kansas City, Kansas, to the West. It's also been ripped from its base. But maybe we can see the whole picture without it, if we look hard enough. Maybe 2020 is our chance to tell a more coherent story of our past, so that history can stop repeating itself.