The Neck was the heart of Independence’s Black community, until the city demolished it
The Neck neighborhood was in the center of historic Independence and housed the biggest Black community in the city. When the Harry S. Truman Library was built to honor the president, urban renewal policies he put in place destroyed the neighborhood.
When Nancy Copridge Harris thinks about her childhood home, the first memories are happy ones. Copridge Harris grew up with her parents and seven siblings at 512 W. Nettleton Ave. in Independence, Missouri.
Cherry, peach and pear trees dotted the neighborhood. On any given day, she’d find neighbors walking through each other's yards to visit, sharing food from their gardens or pies and wine they’d made from the fruit trees. There were weekly fish fries. If a neighbor needed something, all they had to do was walk to another house and ask.
“It was just like a village,” Copridge Harris said. “We cared for each other. If somebody got sick, somebody was there to help you. We had midwives and nurses and doctors and everybody in our neighborhood to come to our rescue because we couldn't go nowhere else.”
Copridge Harris grew up in a neighborhood called The Neck, which was situated right off the historic Independence Square, directly east of the historic McCoy neighborhood — generally bound by U.S. 24 Highway to the north, Spring Street to the east, McCoy Street on the west and College Street to the south. It was the largest Black neighborhood that developed in the city after the Civil War.
But by 1969, the entire neighborhood was gone. Today, it’s the site of McCoy Park, a vast green space that connects the Truman Library to the Square.
The story of The Neck mirrors that of hundreds of Black neighborhoods that were wiped out in an attempt by federal and local governments to reinvent American cities. Former residents of the neighborhood, now in their 70s, are worried their stories will be forgotten, and are fighting for a place in the history of a city that prides itself on remembering its past.
A historic neighborhood neglected by the city
The Neck was settled in the early 1800s near the city’s square, and populated largely by formerly enslaved people. By the mid-1900s, it was integrated and filled with working-class white people and Black residents who made up the majority of the neighborhood.
A tightly-knit community, it was a place where kids played freely in the streets until dark and collected crawdads in the creek that ran through it.
Alongside all of that, though, was evidence of Independence’s decades of neglect.
In the late 1930s the neighborhood was redlined and deemed “hazardous.”
Property lines were drawn so that it was almost impossible to build large homes in the area. Multigenerational households were forced into small, cramped houses or scattered across several homes.
The Home Owners' Loan Corporationdescribed it as “an old spotty and run down section … Between McCoy and Spring, Highway 24 to College, are negroes. The southeast section of the area between College and Maple also houses negroes … As a whole a poor fourth-grade area.”
Independence did not provide sewage or running water to the majority of the homes in the neighborhood, so people were using outhouses well into the 1960s. Most of the streets were not paved or curbed and didn’t have storm drainage.
Just a few blocks from the neighborhood, the Independence Sanitarium and Hospital, the only hospital in the city at the time, did not allow Black people to be treated — no matter the seriousness of the condition. Instead, Neck residents often had to carpool or take a bus to General Hospital No. 2 in Kansas City, almost 10 miles away.
“We had to go to Kansas City for everything,” said Carolyn Young, who lived on 422 W. Mill St. “They had two hospitals over there. General Hospital No. 1 was for the whites, General Hospital No. 2 was for the Blacks.”
The city also allowed local businesses to dump waste in the neighborhood. Nancy Copridge Harris and her sister, Roxanne Copridge Robinson, said their brother was once outside near the water heater when chemicals from the dump made the heater explode in his face. He ran almost to U.S. 24 Highway before someone was able to help him.
“He almost died because of these dumps,” Copridge Harris said. “And (the city) allowed (the businesses) to do that. We couldn't do anything or say anything. And it caused rodents and stuff to invade our house because they had a smorgasbord. They just really used us.”
Still, the residents of The Neck found joy within the boundaries of their neighborhood. Alversia Brown Pettigrew lived in a three-generation household at 500 W. Nettleton St., and detailed much of her time growing up in her book, “Memories of a Neck Child.”
Pettigrew said the neighbors had a good time together. She remembered many of the children playing and catching crawdads in a creek that used to run through the neighborhood. They called it “The Branch.”
“I'd go over and play with a friend of mine,” Pettigrew said. “At the edge of their yard, it was just like Niagara Falls there — it was just flowing water. They all had little bridges they made to go across to come over to the backyards on Nettleton. We didn't have any swimming pool. That's all we had access to.”
Even that memory has a bit of tarnish: Though they didn’t know it at the time, residents later learned that the city’s sewage ran into the creek.
Today, The Branch is covered by tennis courts, a splash park, and Bess Truman Parkway, the road that runs through the remains of the neighborhood.
A presidential library opens and a neighborhood is wiped away
The beginning of the end of The Neck came with the opening of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum — still Independence’s most popular attraction — in 1957. The library’s location just north of The Neck was chosen because of its proximity to Truman’s home, which was a few blocks south of the neighborhood.
The prime location of the Neck, visible from the museum’s front porch, was ultimately its downfall.
Under the federal urban renewal program, Independence’s Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority determined the area was blighted and began making plans for its demolition under the Northwest Parkway project.
“The Truman Library was the cause of it,” Copridge Harris said. “Truman used to walk down in our neighborhood just about every other morning and, I guess, watch them as they were building his library. And while he was walking and enjoying his glory over at the library, we were suffering trying to figure out where we going to live and how we were going to pay for it if we got something.”
Historian Jon Taylor says cities like Independence used the urban renewal program — which was established under the Housing Act signed into law by President Truman in 1949 — to raze “blighted” or “slum” neighborhoods under the guise of improved housing.
Ultimately, urban renewal programs across the country displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and destroyed neighborhoods.
In his book “A President, a Church, and Trails West,” Taylor writes that city and Truman Library leaders “supported the Northwest Parkway project because it would improve the 'attractiveness' of the area. If tourists were to travel from the library to the square they had two choices. Either they could go through the 'eyesore' known as the Neck or they could detour around the area. Clearly, the Northwest Parkway project was designed to enhance the city’s number one tourist attraction — the Truman Library.”
Truman himself had previously opposed urban renewal plans nearby, including at the Independence Square, saying the new office and retail buildings rendered his hometown unrecognizable.
But he gave a full-throated endorsement to the Northwest Parkway project in a letter to the Independence City Council in 1963.
“Since this plan involves the improvement of the area adjacent to the Harry S. Truman Library, I hope that it can be accomplished as soon as possible,” Truman wrote.
City leaders had differing ideas on what it should be made into. There was a proposal to turn it into a location for the American Numismatic Association Museum, and another to build a branch of Graceland College on the site. L. F. P. Curry, Independence’s mayor at the time, wanted to turn the area into a pioneer village.
Hare and Hare also had close ties to J.C. Nichols, the main architect of racial covenants that segregated Kansas City and which were copied nationwide. The firm helped plan the Country Club District, one of the Kansas City’s most visible examples of Nichols’ planned racial divide.
The location, according to the firm, was perfect for a park because it was “in full view of visitors, enhancing the overall impression of the city.”
Taylor said there was little, if any, talk of including the residents of The Neck in the plan.
“They essentially said these people and their past really didn't matter, 'we want to develop another attraction for this space to compliment the library and the square.’ And that's pretty telling,” Taylor said. “It told me that these people were in the way of this kind of economic development.”
Residents resist urban renewal efforts
Residents of The Neck were determined to fight back against the demolition of their neighborhood.
Many of the families there owned their homes — wealth that had been passed down for generations. While they were told they would be compensated for the value of their houses, most of the residents said they did not get fairly compensated.
Virginia Jacobs grew up and raised her children in The Neck. In 1964, she started a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality to help the people in her community fight for jobs and equitable housing.
According to Jacobs’ son, Walter Jacobs, Virginia led a march on the Independence Square to protest the plan to displace the neighborhood. In 1965, she petitioned the city “to set aside an equal amount of land in the area of the displaced families’ choice for the purpose of building low-cost homes.” C.O.R.E. also called for the removal of the urban renewal director and vowed they would not allow anyone to appraise their property, negotiate with the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority or move unless forced to.
In 1966, C.O.R.E. sent out a petition signed by 23 residents from The Neck accusing the urban renewal board of offering less than the true value of their homes and discriminating against the Black residents.
The federal government, meanwhile, praised the board for its actions. According to a newspaper article from the same year, the regional directors of HUD sent a letter to the Independence urban renewal board in response to the petition complimenting them on their “record of accomplishment.”
In a letter to fellow civil rights activist Lela Shanks, Virginia said she and other residents were protesting the urban renewal project because they had not been offered a new place to move.
“We are aware that our land, not our home, is what they want,” she wrote. “We will not stand back and be robbed of our land and put out of doors with nothing.”
On the Fourth of July in 1966, she and a hundred other demonstrators protested during Truman’s speech at his namesake library.
The residents of The Neck held on as long as they could.
Bulldozing a neighborhood, scattering a community
In the end, the city bulldozed every house in The Neck — some of which had stood since the late 1800s — and built the park right on top of it. In total, about 179 families were displaced.
A few residents managed to find new homes in Independence, but many struggled. The city was still segregated, and most white homeowners refused to sell to the prospective Black buyers.
“To me the biggest issue is, even if they could decide to go somewhere else, because of redlining, they could not,” Taylor said. “They would have to go to predominantly Black neighborhoods somewhere in the area because of redlining.”
Copridge Harris says trying to find a new place to live was chaotic and confusing.
“They wanted us all to move to Kansas City — they wanted us to move completely out of Independence,” Copridge Harris said. “People didn't know where they were going to live and how they were going to survive because the monies that they were offered for their homes wasn't even enough to make a down payment on a house. And they lived there for all their lives and put all their heart and soul into their houses to get nothing out of it. There was no choice — you had no choice.”
In a letter sent to The Kansas City Star and the Independence Examiner, Clarence Copridge, Nancy and Roxanne’s father, described the nearly impossible feat of finding someone in Independence to sell to a Black family.
The Copridge family had found a house in Independence they believed would be sold to them. But after they toured it, a white neighbor who held the note on the house refused.
“I don’t want to move from where I am now because I don’t really want to go in debt. But I know sooner or later, I will be forced to move,” Copridge wrote in the letter. “I have a son in the Marines in South Vietnam giving himself for this land of ours. I am a citizen of the U.S.A. … and a tax payer of Independence, so I want to know the reason, or reasons why another American in my hometown where I was born and raised would refuse to sell me a house for my family. We are going to have to move somewhere and I don’t plan to move out of Independence to Kansas City or any place else. Independence is my home and has been for 41 years.”
Eventually, the Copridges did find a home in Independence, but they had to go into debt to purchase it. The Copridge family was only offered about $4,000 for their home. The Jacobs, meanwhile, were given about $7,000 for their five lots across from the library.
The average cost of a home in 1965 was nearly $21,500. The disparity sent most of the residents into debt or settling for sub-par homes.
“These houses were always passed down — heir houses,” Copridge Robinson, said. “And it was too much. How are they going to start all over at their age and this and that, and relocate?”
Despite the circumstances, some families prospered. Brown Pettigrew’s husband, Lorenza, built a house on Delaware Street in 1966. Just one block west of The Neck, the area housed many of Independence’s elite, including President Truman.
When Lorenza was a boy, people yelled slurs and other racist remarks at him while he rode his homemade cart down the hill from Delaware Street into The Neck.
“He was told 'You N-word, get back down there where you belong' — that's exactly what they said,” Brown Pettigrew said. “So he vowed that one day he was going to live on Delaware.”
Years later, Brown Pettigrew says President Truman once stopped in front of her husband's house when he was outside. “And he called him by name and held out his hand. He told him, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood. I'm proud to have you for a neighbor.’”
The Pettigrews later learned that Truman had signed a petition trying to prevent them from moving onto his block.
Carolyn Young also managed to stay in Independence. She now lives on Spring Street, facing the park and her old neighborhood. The splash area that has become a popular destination for families with young children was built where her house once stood.
“My mother and my sister and my sister's children moved up right there, where I live at now,” Young said. “And then I stayed there, and then I'm still here.”
For all of his mother’s organizing, Walter Jacobs was not able to stay in Independence. He was fighting in Vietnam during most of the city’s urban renewal dealings in The Neck. When he came back, demolition had already finished.
“I come back and everything was gone,” Walter Jacobs said. “It looked like a bomb had hit it. I was going to build a house, but it was all gone. Everything was gone.”
He tried to buy a house in another part of Independence, but was unable to due to segregation and housing costs. Jacobs ended up moving to Kansas City in 1969, and did not return to McCoy Park, the present-day location of The Neck, until he spoke to KCUR for this story.
“It's something that's deep-rooted inside you and embedded in you,” he said. “At one time I wanted to move back to Independence because that's all I knew, was Independence. But I was treated so bad out here, I said I'd never come back.”
Brown Pettigrew originally moved with her aunt, Louise Irvin, to 1218 N. Spring St., near The Neck. Irivin died just four months after they were forced to move — Brown Pettigrew believes she died from the stress of being uprooted.
A call for reparations
Today, the boundaries of The Neck neighborhood are defined by the expanse of McCoy Park. The area is filled with tennis courts, a splash park, gazebos and a pioneer-themed playground.
Some reports indicate that debris from The Neck was found in 2013, when the city moved land to build the playground.
The park is named after William McCoy, the first mayor of Independence. The parkway that currently winds through the area and connects the Truman Library to the square is named after Bess Truman. Nods to Independence’s history can be seen all around the area.
But the only reminder of the historic neighborhood that once stood there are two historical markers — one included on Independence’s African American history walking trail — that contain a brief history of The Neck.
“Truman got this (park) and Bess Truman's drive,” Copridge Harris said. “Nothing about us other than the marker. It should have been something about us here. This property belonged to us.”
Walter Jacobs believes Independence owes him and the others affected by urban renewal reparations for the loss of wealth and the trauma their displacement caused.
“Why didn’t they try to build new houses for Black people if they were so bad?” Jacobs said. “Why did they build a park?”
Copridge Harris said the neighborhood’s destruction wasn’t that long ago. She wants people to know that she and her neighbors are still here, fighting for the memory of The Neck.
“Let those people that came and conquered know that we still survived,” she said. “We survived because we all trust in God that he would bring us through. I think all of us that's here today can testify that we had good parents and they cared about us, and they made sure that we got an education and had food to eat and a place to stay, even though (the city) tried to take it away from us.”
Before Brown Pettigrew published her book about The Neck, she gave a speech about the neighborhood in 1996 at a Black history program. She had been asked to speak about living in a neighborhood in which she was once forbidden to walk. She presented a poem that night, describing how urban renewal destroyed The Neck.
“Urban Renewal raised its angry hand / Moving and splitting Black families all over the land,” Pettigrew wrote. “We all had to move out of The Neck like a flashing spark. / Independence had to make way for the ‘much-needed’ McCoy Park. / Certainly, the prices offered some were quite meager; / But there was no choice, for the city was eager. / Then, the bulldozers rushed in, piling The Neck in a heap. / Some folk shouted for joy… others would sit and weep. / An ‘All American City’ was the plot of this story, / Leaving many Neck families deep in debt and full of worry.”