Some Kansas Citians know the area between Cleaver II Boulevard and Stadium Drive as a back way to the Truman Sports Complex, one that allows them to avoid traffic on I-70. But for people who lived in the area, the Leeds neighborhood was more than a home — it was a haven.
“I had the best childhood in Leeds. Because I felt safe,” Earline Bentley told host Gina Kaufmann up on KCUR’s Central Standard. “I didn’t know we were poor until we moved out of Leeds!”
Bentley was raised in Leeds alongside her sister, Cheryl Looney, more than seven decades ago.
Related: Earline Bentley and Cheryl Looney talk about growing up in Leeds for StoryCorps In Kansas City.
The community is close-knit, and while small, it has been home to prominent Kansas Citians.
“Leeds has produced some really funny characters as it has produced good people,” said Bentley, mentioning former City Councilman Alvin Brooks and former Missouri Senator Yvonne Wilson.
“And actor Don Cheadle!” Looney chimed in.
Consisting primarily of African-Americans, the neighborhood saw a population boom in the early 20th Century.
“It is a perfect illustration of what historians call a great migration community,” said Gary Kremer, executive director of The State Historical Society of Missouri.
As a historian, what led Kremer to study Leeds was how it stood out from similar neighborhoods.
“Leeds defied every stereotype of a ghetto,” said Kremer. “I remember looking at census figures. Property ownership was in the mid-90 percent, and two-parent households were in the mid-to-upper 90 percent. I mean, these were stable communities.”
While the area is primarily industrialized today, early on, the region had a rural feel despite being within Kansas City limits. That's due to a lack of paved streets and indoor plumbing.
“The first movement was into the inner city, the 18th and Vine corridor. But there were many African-Americans from the rural south who didn’t want to live in the inner city,” Kremer said. “They wanted to replicate their southern lifestyle, have butchering hogs, milk cows, and big gardens. To hunt and fish.”
The neighborhood began to see heavy industrialization during World War II. The opening of a Chevrolet plant across the Blue River and a railroad tie factory helped accelerate that.
“When segregated housing became illegal, many people in Leeds, particularly the upper and middle class, found that because of the prosperity of World War II, they could afford other places outside of Leeds,” Kremer said. “They started moving.”
Listen to the full conversation here.
Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.