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Arts & Life

Were Slaves Shackled In The Basement Of An Iconic Westport Building? The History Is Murky.

Kelly's exterior 2.jpg
Laura Spencer
/
KCUR 89.3
Kelly's Westport Inn, at the corner of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, is housed in one of Kansas City's oldest buildings.

A reckoning is taking place in Kansas City when it comes to buildings, fountains, street names, and monuments — and uncovering layers of history.

Protests over the killing of George Floyd, systemic racism, and police brutality sparked in late May in Minneapolis and spread across the country.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Mill Creek Park near the Country Club Plaza served as a focal point. But some nights, protests spread in all directions, including into Westport.

On July 4, a rally organized by the KC Community Bail Fund, along with One Struggle KC, Black Rainbow, and Black Kansas City Family, marched from the park to Kelly’s Westport Inn.

At the intersection of Pennsylvania and Westport, a replica Conestoga wagon was covered with red handprints — and set on fire.

One Struggle KC wrote in a Facebook post: “Westport is a site of suffering for Native people and our enslaved Black Ancestors. On this stolen land, our people were jailed (in the basement of what now is Kelly’s Westport Inn), auctioned, and sold.”

Kelly's was also vandalized with broken windows and spray paint during the protest. A change.org petition called for the building to be shut down.

Albert Gallatin Boone, a pro-slavery advocate, who ran Boone's Trading Post in the 1850s, did own slaves. But whether or not he held them, or sold them in Westport, is still up for debate — despite the stories.

Boone's store.jpg
Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
An updated photo of a drawing of the building once known as Boone's General Store.

Stories from the past

For decades, stories have circulated that the brick commercial building that Kelly’s now occupies was a slave market in the 1850s — where people were shackled in the basement and then sold.

In 1929, The Kansas City Star wrote that "the store was said by some to have once been a slave market." A 1954 article looked back at the trading post along the Santa Fe Trail where "slaves in process of transfer were temporarily chained in the basement." And a July 4, 1976 article in The Star conjured up this scene: “Below the wooden floor of the Boone store, one can hear muffled discussion as a buyer looks over the slaves kept below.”

As recently as 2019, Karla Deel, founder of SqueezeBox City, wrote about it, too.

In “Storied & Scandalous Kansas City: A History of Corruption, Mischief and a Whole Lot of Booze,” Deel described how “the slave trade was welcomed and nurtured by proslavery enthusiast A.G. Boone ... Slaves were held in the general store’s basement until they were auctioned off nearby.”

“If that was indeed a place for slave exchange, where people were housed before they were bought or sold, then the controversy is legitimate,” said Black Archives of Mid-America executive director Dr. Carmaletta Williams. “We cannot just ignore that these things happened.”

But the history surrounding enslaved people can be challenging to document and to verify.

Westport 1892.jpg
Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
Westport Inn, circa 1890s.

Early origins

The brick commercial building first opened in 1850 as a store outfitting wagon trains traveling on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.

“So if you were coming down the Missouri, traveling by river, it was easier to get off in Westport," said Jackson County Historical Society executive director Caitlin Eckard, "and that became a hub outfitting people to go west.”

The building, one of the oldest in Kansas City, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An early store owner in the 1850s, Albert Gallatin Boone, was the grandson of Daniel Boone, and described as a “mountain man, trader, Indian agent.”

Boone, who owned the building until 1859, was also a slaveholder.

Alana Smith, president of the Westport Historical Society and 1855 Harris-Kearney House, said that's not surprising. Between 1820 and 1854, she said, the majority of those coming to settle in the area were from the Southern states. Boone’s family moved from Kentucky to Missouri.

Boone was pro-slavery — and also tried to drum up support for the cause in Kansas. According to the census, Smith said, he enslaved between six and eight people.

This is the official statement the Westport Historical Society released:

“The Westport Historical Society can confirm what is undeniable using Primary Documentation Sources: Albert Gallatin Boone, a business owner in Westport in the 1850’s, was a slave owner. There is; however, no Primary Documentation Source or Sources to verify that Slaves were held, for any purpose, in the building that is now known as Kelly’s Westport Inn. All stories are based on unverifiable, unreliable, and unsubstantiated statements from 2nd, 3rd, and 4th party sources.”

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Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
Kelly's Westport Inn, circa 1958.

To the present

Randal Kelly, an Irish immigrant, started working as a bartender at the Westport Inn in 1947. The bar soon became known as Kelly’s and he was brought on as a partner. In 1977, it was officially named Kelly’s Westport Inn. The family has owned the building since 1995.

Kelly’s declined to comment, but the family has done some digging into the building’s history and posted it on Facebook and Instagram.

"Recent protests have focused on the Westport building’s history from the 1800s. We are eager to shine a light on any racial injustices that occurred in or around this building in the course of American history," they wrote. "We acknowledge there are parts of our building's history that are a painful reminder to the Black community, and for that we are deeply sorry. We want to bring them to light and respectfully honor the Black community."

According to Smith, there are a number of “myths” about Kelly’s that have not been confirmed with documentation — such that it was part of the Underground Railroad, and that enslaved people were held in the basement in shackles.

“No, it was never an Underground Railroad. There were no Underground Railroads in Westport,” she said. “And there are no shackles down there, there never were shackles down there. The walls are a very fine sandstone. And if anything had been driven in the wall, it would have come right out.”

There is "historical evidence," she said, in that "there are so many stories that say the same thing that we've kind of over the years accepted that maybe that might've happened." But, she adds, "there's no proof. This is all hearsay, innuendo, speculation."

And, as far as historians can tell, there was no auction site near the building. Smith said again, there's speculation that a few blocks from Kelly's, enslaved people were sold at City Hall, but there are no records to back that up.

"There’s no primary source documentation stating that there was an auction block,” Jackson County Historical Society’s Caitlin Eckard said. “We do know that there was one in Independence and it was on the Courthouse lawn.”

Kellys exterior.jpg
Laura Spencer
A plaque bolted to the exterior of what is now Kelly's Westport Inn has been removed.

At the end of June, Kelly’s covered a plaque dedicated to Albert Boone that hung inside the tavern.

Members of the Black community had requested that they remove it, but, according to the family, the wall had some structural issues, so instead, it now has a permanent covering.

“I think that was a valiant effort to cover it up. At least that says, ‘We’re not honoring it anymore,’” Black Archives of Mid-America’s Carmaletta Williams said. “Of course, it’s still there, we know what’s underneath, but I think it was an effort. But efforts need to be applauded.”

And, an exterior plaque about Boone bolted to the side of the building, dedicated in 1999, has also been removed.

Williams compares these actions to recent efforts to remove J.C. Nichols's name from fountains, and roadways — as a way of bringing issues like systemic racism out into the open.

History, said Eckerd, is always being reexamined and reconsidered. So when it comes to Albert Boone, and whether or not he sold slaves from his trading post in Westport back in the 1850s, more information may still come to light.

“There might be a primary source out there that we haven’t found yet, who knows,” Eckerd said. “Historians, we’re always very hesitant to say that something is very definitive.”

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