Wednesday, February 10, 2010

90 Years Ago This Weekend at The Paseo YMCA

More than once in my many talks with the Executive Director of the Black Economic Union (BEU), back when I chaired the Jazz Commission in the late 1980s, I opined that the 18th and Vine Festival should also honor the Negro Leagues. The BEU organized the festival back then. I argued that the Negro Leagues were as integral to the area’s history as jazz, that the two were tightly intertwined, and that a festival celebrating the district but including only jazz was excluding half the story. He agreed, but a Negro Leagues element never was added to the festival.

I stepped aside as Jazz Commission chairman in 1989. Buck O’Neil and others started the Negro Leagues Museum in 1990.

The Paseo YMCA building is one of the most important pieces of Negro Leagues – and Kansas City – history. It’s where the charter creating the Negro National League was signed during meetings February 13 and 14, 1920, 90 years ago this weekend. The Negro Leagues, of course, did not just showcase some of history’s greatest athletes, but fed the integration of baseball. And the integration of baseball is cited as a key step towards the acceptance of integration in America.

To think, the Negro Leagues started in that old red brick building on Paseo, a building which has sat empty and untended far too long.

Which is why I was encouraged to read in last Saturday’s Kansas City Star (here) that barbecue baron Ollie Gates is spearheading the effort to raise money to rehab the building and turn it into the long-planned but unfunded Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. It’s a project that Buck started. Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of KC Royals founder Ewing Kauffman, has pledged $1 million. But, according to the article, it’s going to take at least $16 million more than that. Ollie Gates is not assuming an easy or enviable task, not by trying to raise that kind of money in this kind of economy. But thank goodness that someone has taken the lead, and that it’s someone of his stature.

I’ve long maintained that the Paseo YMCA is one of the three most historically significant buildings in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The other two are the Mutual Musicians Foundation, like the YMCA in the 18th and Vine district, and Harry Truman’s home in Independence. Unlike the Paseo YMCA, those others can boast designations as National Historic Landmarks, defined on the government’s web site (here) as “nationally significant historic places … [that possess] exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”

What could be a more nationally significant historic place, or a place with more exceptional value to our heritage, than one where there was laid so important a cornerstone on the path to equality? That old red brick building on Paseo deserves to be recognized as the landmark it became 90 years ago this weekend.

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