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How One Kansas City Neighborhood Opened Doors, And The Leaders Who Called It Home

Sheraton Estates was the first place in Kansas City, Mo., where African-Americans sought out to build new homes south of 27th Street. The suburban-style subdivision was built in 1957. It was marketed to, and, historically, home to many influential African-American leaders in the city.

The real estate agent who helped found Sheraton Estates, Dewey E. Alexander Jr., says after the elimination of restrictive covenants, all he could find to offer black families looking to purchase homes were old houses where whites had moved out. Lots of times the homes were in major disrepair, or blacks weren’t always welcome in the neighborhood. His dream was to create something new to offer. 

The development started with the construction of 12 luxury model homes. As homes filled up, more and more new ones popped up. Today, there are more than 250 homes in the neighborhood. The network of cul-de-sacs is well landscaped and lined with ranch and split-level homes.

Sheraton Estates has served as a model for other open, non-restricted, subdivisions in the Kansas City area, and still is home to many of Kansas City’s influential black leaders.

Here’s a look at five Kansas Citians who have called Sheraton Estates home:

Credit www.blackmissouri.com
Bruce R. Watkins

Bruce R. Watkins was the first African-American to be elected to Kansas City’s City Council. Watkins ran for mayor of Kansas City in 1979 but lost to Richard L. Berkley. Watkins and friend Leon Jordan created the political club Freedom, Inc. The group advocated for desegregation in Kansas City public facilities and supported black leaders running for local office. 

Julia Hill was an elementary school teacher when she heard that a friend and fellow teacher was denied lunch service at a department store because she was black. This incident led to the formation of the Community Committee for Social Action (CCSA). Hill was vice president and responsible for picketing, and so began her more than 50 years of civil rights activism work. The picketing campaign lasted for a month and led to five stores agreeing to no longer discriminate. Hill’s advocacy work went on from there; she became the first women elected president of a local NAACP chapter, and she was president of the Kansas City school board during the height of its desegregation case. Hill stepped down from the NAACP at 90 years old in 2013.

Credit www.wikipedia.org Phil Wight
Jay McShann at The Edinburgh Jazz Festival, c. 1995

 Jay McShann was a pianist, bandleader, singer and composer and  was a major figure in Kansas City’s jazz scene. Called “Hootie” by his friends, McShann’s big band in the 1930s and 1940s had a reputation for swinging rhythms and boogie-woogie beats that became signature of the Kansas City jazz sound. Some of McShann’s biggest hits include “Hootie Blues” and “Vine Street Boogie.” 

Credit www.mikemooneyham.com
Carey L. Lloyd aka Rufus R. “Freight Train” Jones

Carey L. Lloyd, aka Rufus R. “Freight Train” Jones, was a professional wrestler in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally from South Carolina, he moved to Missouri to wrestle and was part of the St. Louis Wrestling Club and the National Wrestling Alliance. He held an assortment of titles during his career, including the Mid-Atlantic title and the Central States tag team title. He retired from wrestling in 1987 and went on to open Rufus' Ringside Restaurant and Bar in Kansas City, Mo.  

Credit www.umkcalumni.com
Yvonne Wilson

Yvonne Wilson is a Kansas City, Mo., native and a teacher, consultant and principal who served 35 years in the Kansas City School District. She was the first African-American to serve as President of the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals. In 1999, Wilson, a democrat, was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. In 2004 she was elected to the Missouri State Senate and retired in 2010. Wilson is still an active member of the Sheraton Estates Neighborhood Association.

This look at Kansas City's east side is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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