Monday, March 19, 2012

Transforming the Paseo YMCA

It was 92 years ago last month. Nobody noticed.

On Friday, February 13th, 1920, a dozen men, some owners of black baseball teams and others prominent black sportswriters, met at the Street Hotel, at the corner of 18th Street and The Paseo, and the Paseo YMCA, on the west side of The Paseo between 18th and 19th Streets. Throughout the day, team owners discussed their goals. Then, throughout the night, Elisha Scott, a black attorney from Topeka (whose sons would later argue for desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education), with the sportswriters, drafted the constitution for the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs, operating the Negro National League, Inc.

On Saturday, February 20th, 1920, in the Paseo YMCA, the team owners adopted that constitution. The Negro Baseball Leagues were established.

The Paseo YMCA, circa 1925
The Negro Leagues were a tightly intertwined part of the culture which also birthed Kansas City jazz. Count Basie discussed attending Kansas City Monarchs games on Sundays “because that’s where everybody was going on a Sunday afternoon.” The Blue Room’s bartender said of the Monarchs, “They were the life of Kansas City in the Negro vicinity.”

I wrote about this two years ago. Much of what follows echoes that post. It warrants updating.

Two years ago, I applauded barbecue baron Ollie Gates’s commitment to raise money to save the Paseo YMCA and rehabilitate it as the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center. The building then faced The Paseo with windows and doors missing or boarded and the fire escape dangling from its side. This building is an integral part of the 18th and Vine Historic District. The legendary Cherry Blossom nightclub stood just a block away. Yet, two years ago, the Paseo YMCA sat dilapidated, another monument to the neglect of history.

Don’t underestimate this building’s significance. The Negro Baseball Leagues showcased some of history’s greatest athletes. But more, they fed the integration of baseball. And the integration of baseball is commonly cited as a key step towards the acceptance of integration in America.

And the charter creating the Negro Baseball Leagues was signed in here, in this red brick building facing The Paseo, on Saturday, February 20th, 1920.

Now look at the building today.

The Paseo YMCA today
New windows and repaired doors seal it from the elements. The fire escape is painted, repaired and re-attached. The exterior is clean. A small park on the south side celebrates Buck O’Neil and the league born inside.

I don’t know what’s left to do inside. Two years ago, The Kansas City Star reported that $17 million was needed to completely rehab the building. Organizers started with a $1 million gift from Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of KC Royals founder Ewing Kauffman. I suspect there’s a long way to go. But the transformation so far is remarkable. You look at the building today and you know it is going to survive.

The Paseo YMCA today, from the south
But that’s not enough. I’ve maintained for decades that the Paseo YMCA is one of the three most historically important buildings in the Kansas City area. The other two are the Mutual Musicians Foundation, also in the 18th and Vine District, and Harry Truman’s home in Independence. Those other two sites have won recognition as National Historic Landmarks. The Paseo YMCA has not.

Among the criteria evaluated for such recognition, according to the federal government (here), is, “The quality of national significance…ascribed to…sites, buildings, structures…that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States….”

And, “That [the sites] are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to…the broad national patterns of United States history….”

And, “That [the sites] represent some great idea or ideal of the American people….”

What could be a site of more national significance, or a place with more value in illustrating our heritage, or a building representing a greater American ideal, than one where there was laid so important a cornerstone on the path to equality?

The rehabilitation that has begun on the Paseo YMCA is stunning. Now start the process of officially recognizing the building as the national landmark it became 92 years ago last month.


Facts and quotes in the first few paragraphs are from The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball by Janet Bruce, University Press of Kansas, 1985.

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