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Independence honors its largest Black neighborhood more than 50 years after razing it

A group of people stand facing the camera. On the ground in front of them is a granite plaque.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Former residents of The Neck and their descendants stand in front of a granite marker listing the names of the families displaced by urban renewal. Independence dedicated two new granite markers to honor what was once its largest Black neighborhood.

The Neck was the largest Black neighborhood in Independence, but was demolished in the 1960s as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts. The city dedicated granite markers honoring the former neighborhood as part of its efforts to right the past.

Amid intermittent showers Saturday, Independence city leaders and neighborhood advocates unveiled granite markers in McCoy Park honoring the Black neighborhood that used to sit on the land.

The plaques outline the former boundaries of The Neck— one of the city's largest and oldest Black neighborhoods — and the last names of the families who lived there.

The Neck was settled in the late 1800s, mostly by formerly enslaved people. By the 1900s it was the heart of Independence’s Black community. But in the 1960s, shortly after the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum was built, the city razed the neighborhood after decades of neglect.

The markers are one way the city is recognizing its hand in destroying the neighborhood.

Alversia Brown Pettigrew grew up in The Neck in a three-generation home. She detailed her time in the neighborhood in her book, “Memories of a Neck Child.” She hopes the new granite markers are not the end of Independence’s work to rectify the damage done to families.

“It's overwhelming and it's heartwarming to see,” Pettigrew said. “Some people say we've come a long way, but we've got a long ways to go. Independence as a city, they do have some areas to expand and improve. I was born here in this city and I'm 79 years old. I've seen the ups and the downs, the successes and failures.”

A granite plaque shows street names and says "The Neck Neighborhood - 1877-1966"
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
More than 50 years after Independence destroyed The Neck using urban renewal policies, city leaders and neighborhood advocates dedicated granite markers honoring the neighborhood. The markers sit in McCoy Park, which covers the former boundaries of The Neck.

Pettigrew was instrumental in getting two historical markers about The Neck placed in McCoy Park more than a decade ago. Independence has included some information about The Neck in a series of oral history videos released two years ago and included it on the city’s African American History Walking Trail.

Along with the granite markers, Independence planted an oak tree in honor of Virginia Jacobs, a civil rights leader who led marches on the square and at the Truman Library to protest the demolition of The Neck.

The city also recently planted lilac trees in McCoy Park, which Pettigrew said were favorite features of the gardens that used to thrive in the neighborhood.

Independence At-Large City Councilmember Bridget McCandless helped secure grant funding from the Health Forward Foundation to pay for the markers. She said the new fixtures are important to “memorialize and honor” the families that lived in the neighborhood and were forced to move out, resulting in some leaving Independence altogether.

“I think it's the next step in keeping histories like this alive,” McCandless said. “The City of Independence certainly had a role in designating this area as blighted and in the demolition. It's easy to forget those things happened and that there are real human consequences to that. We're delighted to be able to take the next step in making sure that we understand our shared history as a city.”

A woman with a cane bends over to point to a name listed on a granite marker.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Independence displaced more than 150 families from The Neck without proper compensation for their homes. The city built McCoy Park on top of the ruins of what was formerly its biggest Black neighborhood. A new granite marker lists the last names of some of the displaced families.

Nancy Copridge Harris was born and raised with her seven siblings in The Neck and led attendees in a chorus of “Amens” after the markers were dedicated. Her son had nightmares about the demolition of their family home for years.

“I just hope the memory of the Neck will just live on and on because this was really the heart of the Black community,” Harris said. “Conscience is a thing. I know that (Independence) is trying to make restitution for what happened. They did us wrong.”

During the urban renewal period in the late 1960s, the city bulldozed every house in The Neck, some of which dated to the 1800s. Many of the families who lived there were offered far less than the value of their homes.

After demolition, the city created a connector between the Truman Library and Independence Square. The park was built shortly afterward.

Some reports indicate that remnants of The Neck were found in 2013 when the city built a new playground.

McCoy Park is named after the first mayor of Independence, and the parkway that winds through the area and connects the Truman Library to the square is named after Bess Truman.

Pettigrew wants Bess Truman Parkway, where the markers sit right off of the road, renamed in honor of The Neck. She and other residents hope the markers aren’t the end of Independence’s efforts to honor the neighborhood it demolished.

“Reparation is a hard thing to do,” Pettigrew said. “There’s some that’s going to say this is wonderful and some that will say this is not enough.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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