Freed slave Hiram Young built his fortune and legacy in Independence — then got forgotten
Independence, Missouri, was the epicenter of westward expansion in pre-Civil War America. Hiram Young, a formerly enslaved man, became the wealthiest man in the county by building wagons and ox yokes, before almost losing it all.
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A single-story brick schoolhouse with an unassuming name rests atop a gentle hill overlooking Independence, Missouri. Its freshly painted corridor holds a story that’s been slow to reach beyond its doors.
This building is where Alversia Pettigrew learned her ABC’s as a child in the 1950s. But even though she and her classmates passed under the words “Young School” every time they walked through the building’s double doors, she never gave much thought to the name.
“I thought it was a school for young Blacks,” she said. “That’s what I thought ‘young’ meant. Just young school for young kids — young, Black kids.”
After decades of sitting unused, the old school building officially reopened its doors in July as the new home of Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity.
It will offer classes for new homeowners, and something else: A classroom inside Young School will hold materials and exhibits that finally tell the story of Hiram Young, the former slave who founded the school for Black children after the Civil War.
Young's is a story that’s been bottled up for years. Pettigrew said she was well into adulthood before she knew anything about the man.
“You know, it was kind of like a secret, something underlying that we were not told about,” she said.
A freed slave’s fortunate timing
Hiram Young was born into slavery in Tennessee in 1812 and found his way to Springfield, Missouri, with his enslaver. At some point, they moved to Liberty, Missouri, and Young began honing his woodworking skills.
Legend has it that he began whittling ox yokes and pick handles to earn enough money to buy his own freedom, and then his wife’s.
By 1850, Young had settled in Independence as a free man with his wife and young daughter, Amanda Jane.
Then he started building wagons — big, sturdy wagons that could haul 6,000 pounds of freight across the middle of America.
His wagons became so much in demand that Young became the wealthiest person in the county, said Travis Boley, the association manager of the Oregon-California Trails Association.
“Hiram Young was in a very fortunate place at the time, because of Independence, and a few other jumping off towns between here in Omaha,” Boley said. “It was the epicenter of the westward movement and what became the American west.”
Independence, the county seat of Jackson County, had become the starting point for trade on the Santa Fe Trail, as well as trails to new beginnings in Oregon and California.
Wagon makers and outfitters thrived in the town with a population of about 1,500 people. And Young became the best of them, selling wagons that were branded with “Hiram Young and Company,” along with the owner’s initials.
“I mean, this is a guy who was sort of the epicenter of people in the American west,” Boley said. “I have no idea how many wagons or yolks he built over the course of his career, but I know it was well into the thousands.”
The Civil War’s upheaval
But the Civil War was looming. By 1860, Young could see it was time to relocate.
“It's not safe for a Black man, ‘a colored man of means,’ in his own words, to stay in Independence, Missouri,” said Kansas City historian Diane Euston.
Young moved his family and his business to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he met another Hiram — Rev. Hiram Revels. Revels wanted to establish a church in Independence after the war. But he and Young would have to get back on their feet first.
“When he got back to Independence, he's still trying to give back to the community, his community,” Euston said, talking about Young. “But he also finds that he’s lost a ton of property because the Union army pillaged his property and destroyed a lot of it.”
By then, the railroad was replacing wagons as a means of transport, so Young converted his shop to a lumber mill.
But a fire heavily damaged his shop. Insurance wouldn’t cover his costs. And Young was was still trying to recover costs for property losses he’d incurred in the war; he had sued the government for $22,000 in reparations.
Euston said the community came to Young’s aid.
“Even the Kansas City Star wrote about this and were encouraging their readers to invest in Hiram Young,” she said. “So they got together the money to get Hiram Young back in business.”
And then some. Young raised enough funds to build a church for Hiram Revels. It’s been rebuilt twice, but St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church still welcomes a small congregation.
Young also raised enough money to open the first school for Black children in Independence. He named it Frederick Douglass School, after the famed abolitionist.
Travis Boley said Young became one of the go-to people in town.
“There were people then like that,” he said. “They were few and far between. ‘Cause you have to have the means and the time and the want to. And Hiram had all of those.”
Hiram Young’s legacy
Young died in 1882. In what amounted to a show of respect for that era, the city of Independence allowed Young to be buried in the white section of Woodlawn Cemetery.
His lawsuit to collect the $22,000 was rejected by the government in 1907. His family never recovered that money.
Also after his death, Independence renamed Frederick Douglass school as “Young School.” His daughter, who attended Oberlin College in Ohio, returned to teach at the school and, some say, serve as principal.
Young School served students from kindergarten through 8th grade initially because, Pettigrew said, that’s all the education people figured Black children needed.
She recalls her time at the school with fondness.
“It was just like a close knit family. In fact, the auditorium for Young School was used as kind of the Independence community center,” Pettigrew said. “The teachers were just kind of nurturing.”
Young School closed a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that struck down racial segregation in schools.
The school district used it for classes for special needs students for a time, and then for storage. Eventually it shuttered the building.
But now, after many stops and starts, Young School is open again on that gentle hill overlooking Independence.
Pettigrew said she and other Young School alumni were frustrated with the absence of recognition for Young in the school that he built.
“He was not celebrated at all during my years at Young School,” she said.
Independence has made some attempts to recognize Hiram Young. A small park is named after him. And a tiny lane bears his name. Plus, a marker in McCoy Park summarizes Young’s story.
But Young School, more than those other tributes, speaks to the vision of its founder. And so Pettigrew is happy that the school is finally taking its place in Independence history.
She strolls its halls, pointing out the different classrooms, the multipurpose gym, and the little snack room that doubled as a book repository. She even recites a prayer from memory that students would say at lunch.
“It makes me feel that finally Hiram Young speaks,” she said of the school’s reclamation. “And I think it's been a learning lesson to blacks and whites alike.”
This episode of A People's History of Kansas City was reported and produced by Carlos Moreno, with editing by Barb Shelly, Suzanne Hogan and Mackenzie Martin. Sound design and mix by intern Paris Norvell. Additional digital editing by Gabe Rosenberg.