Three years ago, Kansas City police re-opened one of the most vexing cold cases in local history. It was the 1970 murder of politician and civil rights leader Leon Jordan. The case was re-opened after an investigation by Kansas City Star reporters Mike McGraw and Glenn Rice. McGraw told us what one of the original detectives told him about the 40-year-old case.
“'I can’t remember a case with less info, more blind alleys, more possible motives, and more possible suspects than the Leon Jordan murder,'” said McGraw, quoting detective Lloyd DeGraffenreid.
But in 2011, the case was finally closed – police identified the murderer as James “Doc” Dearborn, a leader in a crime organization called the “black mafia.” It was a complicated story – involving politicians, and both white and black mobsters. Some people who still remember Leon Jordan were concerned that the circumstances of his death may have overshadowed his groundbreaking accomplishments in Kansas City.
Former mayor pro tem, Alvin Brooks, said the older generation remembers Leon Jordan and his legacy here, but younger people say, “yeah, I kinda remember Leon Jordan. Did he get killed or did he kill somebody? Oftentimes, we don’t pass people on to each other the way we should.”
But throughout the re-opening and re-closing of the Jordan murder case, one man has been deep in an investigation of the story of Leon Jordan’s life. Robert Farnsworth, professor emeritus of English at UMKC, recently finished a biography called, Leon Mercer Jordan: The Founder of Freedom Inc. Following in the Footsteps of His Father and Grandfather (published online through UMKC’s LaBudde Special Collections).
Farnsworth moved to Kansas City in 1960 to teach at what was then the University of Kansas City, and he met Jordan soon after. In early 1961, Farnsworth and his wife were asked to hold a meeting at their home for a new chapter of the civil rights group CORE – the Congress of Racial Equality.
“Most of us were white, except for the Jordans and the Blankenships. This field rep wanted us to get organized and elect officers. Since most of us didn’t know each other, there was a lot of fumbling around and someone suggested I become chairman of the group,” said Farnsworth.
“I said I didn’t think that was appropriate since I was relatively new in Kansas City and particularly didn’t know the black community…at that point, Leon rhetorically put his arm around me and said, ‘I’ll introduce you to the black community.’”
The civil rights years that followed were a wild ride. And though Farnsworth said he and Jordan were never personally very close, he credits Leon Jordan with inspiring an interest in what would become his academic specialty – African American literature — which eventually, 50 years later, led Farnsworth back to research the story of Jordan’s life.
“He had grown up in a comfortable house economically. His grandfather…was seen in the black community as a relatively wealthy man. He invested in real estate quickly; he was a barber; he had a good source of income. He had a very large family that were often in the news,” said Farnsworth.
Jordan’s father died when Jordan was only 13 years old. Farnsworth said he thinks losing his father at a young age was traumatic. Jordan ended up switching schools a lot, and joined the army at the age of 15. It was 1919, just after the end of World War I, but he was kicked out soon after, when they discovered his age. Eventually, Leon Jordan graduated from Wilberforce College in Ohio. He worked as a teacher and social worker before finding a job as a police officer.
At that time, Tom Pendergast ran Kansas City, including the police force. Farnsworth said Pendergast supposedly interviewed every police candidate himself.
“When Pendergast fell, the first thing that happened was that the police department came under control of the governor to clean it up,” said Farnsworth. “He appointed a new police chief from the FBI, who brought in a whole different method of organization and investigation. It was very righteous and scientific and that sort of thing.”
Farnsworth said Jordan thrived under the new leadership, and he and his partner were often written up in local newspapers.
“Tom Webster, who was head of the Urban League at that time, frequently wrote letters to the police chief suggesting that either Cliff Warren or Leon Jordan had shown their ability and ought to be given more administrative responsibility for their achievements,” said Farnsworth.
And a promotion soon arrived, but not in Kansas City, not even in the United States. In 1947, the president of the West African country of Liberia called on Jordan to modernize the police force there. He took a leave of absence from the KCPD. It was a challenge both Jordon and his wife embraced.
“As head of the constabulary in Liberia, he had access to President Tubman--dinners together, that sort of thing,” said Farnsworth. “He was in the top echelons of society and he was in with all the diplomatic corps; the French ambassador had given him a medal.”
Leon Jordan had learned to fly before he went to Liberia; he had his own plane there. And Orchid Jordan set up modern fingerprint and photography labs for the police force. But Farnsworth said Jordan never intended to stay there permanently.
“He came back to Kansas City to see what all this would mean in terms of his advancement in the police department. They did promote him to a lieutenancy…but they assigned him to Flora Street station, doing the same thing he had done before, only in charge of black officers, very limited, and there was no way he was going to accept this,” said Farnsworth. “So he resigned, and went back to Liberia. This created a midlife crisis, in a sense. What was he going to do with his life?”
Jordan returned to Kansas City again in 1954. He eventually bought the Green Duck Tavern on Prospect and 26th Street, and sort of apprenticed himself to some local Democratic political leaders. According to Farnsworth, the black vote was notoriously bought or controlled by political leaders. Jordan wanted to change that.
“He and Bruce Watkins decided it was time that the political problem of the black community was its control by white politicians. Not just political control, but…it also included a great deal of economic exploitation, so [Jordan] and Bruce both decided it was time for a black political leadership to be beholden only to the black community and not to white political bosses.
“So they developed a theme: throw the plantation bosses out.”
Watkins and Jordan joined forces with Charles Moore, Fred Curls and Howard Maupin to form Freedom, Incorporated in 1960. Jordan became chair. And in the very next year, the fledgling political group helped elect Bruce Watkins and Earl Thomas as Kansas City’s first African American council members.
In 1964, Jordan, and Harold Holiday, Sr. became the first African American State Representatives from Kansas City. Later that year, Freedom, Inc. took on its first major citywide referendum, a vote on public accommodations, which would end segregation in public facilities and businesses, like restaurants, buses and stores. Farnsworth said this vote was a test for Freedom.
“The public accommodations, this time, had the support of much of the white leadership, both politically, and in church, in social situations. But when it came down to the vote, the only reason the ordinates passed was because the black community was so overwhelmingly in support of it. The white vote was negative, total. And it was a significant tribute to the organization of the black vote. It gave Freedom a kind of authenticity within the black community.
“There’s always been something of a question when you establish a black political party. Is this just another faction? This was…an election in which the community saw the advantages of what they won. It was public and demonstrable. It was not something that lined any one person’s pockets…there was not some sort of pay-off. It was something that I think gave pride to the community and…in that sense, Freedom gained a sense of power and responsibility to represent the black community.”
In research for the biography of Kansas City political leader Leon Jordan, Robert Farnsworth said Jordan was successful, partly because he was able to link what Freedom, Inc. was doing locally to the national civil rights movement.
“He was in some ways pretty imaginative and he knew how to make significant deals, not just in local scene, but he played a key role in the careers of Richard Bolling and of Tom Eagleton, and so in a sense, his influence reached both to the state and the federal government. What he did in both of those instances was ultimately very important for the Civil Rights Movement in general. These were important leaders.
“What I am learning and am a little surprised by is that he was the boss. I’ve often tried to figure out how Freedom worked and what kind of organization they had. I knew some of the people that were involved,” said Farnsworth. “And apparently Leon listened to, and took ideas from different people, but in the end it was Leon who controlled the money and the decisions. He was a political boss. In some ways, I think that’s sad because I don’t think he left a political structure that was institutionalized enough, structured enough, to carry on his work after he left. And I don’t think Freedom has ever been the same. Now, I don’t think that’s the only reason Freedom has never been the same.”
But, Farnsworth said it's clear that Jordan was worried with the future of the organization.
“He was very concerned about being able to pass on authority in Freedom, and he developed young leadership, and he had faith in those. One or two instances, I’m not so sure he chose the right people, but in the last years of his life, he clearly was ready to pass on that leadership. He was growing old. He was ready to retire, ready to hand-on,” said Farnsworth.
“He came into conflict with a whole new generation of young black leaders, the Black Nationalist movement that he questioned, and criticized and then came into conflict with, and tried to relate to, but it was a very uncomfortable mix. It’s clear after awhile, a new generation just likes to shoulder the older one out of the way, and that was beginning to happen in some instances.”
To finish his biography, Professor Farnsworth had to tackle the murder – and one of the last documents he read was the 900-page police file on the case.
“It’s scary some of the things I’ve seen in that file. Scary in terms of the violence of the drug culture that was in the black community at that time and which were, in a way, trying to influence the political organizations, as well. And Leon did have some personal relations with some of the people involved and it’s complicated to try to explain or even understand.”
There were some difficult aspects to the man so many admired. For one thing, he had an eye for beautiful women.
“Orchid tried to control it, tried to limit, in some ways, and then seemed to grow kind of tolerant as long as it didn’t become too obvious and too public. They seemed still to maintain a respect for each other and a concern for each other. Ironically enough, on the night of Leon’s death, Orchid expected him to come home with some ice cream, and that was apparently a ritual…that they shared.”
Orchid Jordan would end up taking over her husband’s seat in the Missouri State Assembly for the next 16 years. They had no children together, which Farnsworth says might be one of the reasons his contributions to Kansas City history have not been remembered the way they should be.