In The 1960s, This Bookstore Was The Place For Black Culture In Kansas City, Kansas
On the northeast corner of 5th and Quindaro Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas, sits a vacant and weathered building where 45 years ago, a black-owned bookstore became a clearinghouse for black literature, history and music as well as a vibrant gathering place to discuss the culture and politics of the day.
The bookstore was called The Hub and was co-founded in 1965 by two couples, Chester and Lillie Owens and James and Dorothy McField. Lillie passed away in 2017.
“This (was) the '60s. America was going through an awakening,” James McField said in a visit with the three co-founders at the McFields' home last month. “We wanted to find a way to put information out there so people could get the information if they wanted it.”
This "awakening" referred to a new awareness among African Americans that there was a wealth of black literature, music and art ignored by public school curricula and hard to find in white-owned bookstores. It was also about the emergence of a post-Civil Rights black nationalism that looked to its roots in Africa for cultural and political identity.
In dozens of American cities – places like Oakland, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. – bookstores became places for black people to learn about their history and cultural heritage. They became more than places to buy books.
"(They were places) where black people could organize and gather outside the reach of the general kind of public sphere which was often very exclusionary to black people,” says Mark Lamont Hill, professor of media studies at Temple University. “You could develop oppositional politics, new identities or get new information.”
The Hub became such a place. Black people and progressive white people would travel from around the region to come and discuss new ideas and have informal "rap" sessions, some of them around coffee and tea, says Dorothy McField. She says the name “hub” suggested a place where activity radiated in all directions throughout the community.
“5th and Quindaro,” she says, “was the hub of the north end of KCK.”
The bookstore was one among many businesses in the vicinity. The McFields remember Alice Baily Funeral Home on the southeast corner and Cundiff Drugstore across the street, as well as private residences.
The idea for the bookstore came out of an informal conversation among friends about ways they could enhance their community. It was already a thriving commercial strip, but Chester Owens and James McField had another idea. They proposed a bookstore.
“And they all laughed at us,” McField says. "‘Where you going to put it?’ they wondered. '5th and Quindaro!' And they laughed louder.”
They opened the store anyway.
The Hub became central to the neighborhood, a homey place for all kinds of people to hang out. They served tea and gourmet foods. They sold dashikis and other African fashion along with handmade jewelry.
They had Lerone Bennett’s “Before the Mayflower,” an 800-page volume of the history of African Americans that the McFields and Owens say should be required reading in all American History classes.
Also available, "The Man Who Cried I Am" by the prolific writer John Williams and volumes of J.A. Rogers, the historian, journalist and author who spent much of his career debunking myths of the inferiority of black people.
There were recordings of jazz musicians, black nationalists and leaders from Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver to Martin Luther King, Jr. Famous black leaders and writers like Ron Dellums, Alex Haley and Chinua Achebe came through for informal discussions and conversation. Young people who’d left or been kicked out of school were also regulars there.
Chester Owens says the store was much more than a business.
“(It was about) the young people who would sit down on the floor of The Hub and read the books," says Owens. “(Profit) had nothing to do with it.”
The demise of black-owned bookstores
The active role The Hub played in the community, as well as the "radical" writers and activists who stopped through, put The Hub in the crosshairs of the F.B.I.
In the late 1960s, J. Edgar Hoover extended his '50s era anti-communist, counter-intelligence initiative known as Cointelpro to surveil black bookstores around the country, including The Hub.
“He had decided that black bookstores were the basis for subversives,” says Dorothy McField.
There are questions about the impact of the government spying on the fate of these stores. Their numbers declined precipitously in cities around the country in the mid 1970s. The Hub closed in 1975.
Joshua Clark Davis writes in The Atlantic that it’s worth wondering if the pressure from the government “undermined the viability of these black-owned businesses, creating undue stress for owners already struggling to make ends meet and scaring away customers who wanted to avoid any encounters with law-enforcement.”
Professor Hill of Temple University says market competition from big national book chains in the 1970s and ‘80s was probably the onset of the demise. The McFields agree.
"The Hub closed in 1975 when the national chain bookstores began to carry African American and other cultural materials," Dorothy McField says.
In the front room of the McField’s studio, a small house adjacent to their home, they've laid out some of the books The Hub sold. Paintings, sculptures and photographs blanket the walls and tabletops. Nothing is for sale but the McFields say they like to invite folks in to talk about literature, art and ideas.
The McFields and Chester Owens are enjoying retirement these days.
Owens is writing his own account of black history in Kansas City. And the McFields are enjoying the people who come in and browse, to look around and have a conversation. Many people do, she says, just like they did at The Hub.
She's gratified by those who remind her of the bookstore's legacy.
“The numbers of young people who come up to us every now and then and call us 'Mr. and Mrs. Hub' because they remember growing up being exposed to literature that they had never heard of,” she says.
This story is part of a special series about Quindaro Boulevard and surrounding neighborhoods in northeast Kansas City, Kansas. It’s the culmination of several months of reporting in a community engagement project called Here to Listen, which has taken KCUR to communities throughout our listening area.