Preserving the history of black Kansas City

Feb 3, 2012

The Black Archives of Mid-America recently completed renovations on a new exhibit and archive space and also welcomed a new executive director, Doretha Williams.

Interview conducted by Susan B. Wilson (Kansas City, Mo.)

Williams has a doctorate from the University of Kansas in American Studies and hopes to bring the community back to the archives.

“Everywhere I go someone talks about the Black Archives,” Williams says. “There are people who want the archive to open and provide that site of intellectual enquiry, research and public programming.”

Inside the Archives, you’ll find materials on The Call and Freedom Inc. The archive is also home to historic African American literature, artifacts from the Buffalo Soldiers, records detailing the civil rights movement in Kansas City and much more.

“You have a narrative of African Americans, smaller in population as related to other areas of the country, but African Americans searching for full citizenship,” Williams said.

The Black Archives were started in the 1970s by Horace Peterson.  He collected artifacts, documents and photographs telling the story of African American life in Kansas City. But the collection fell on hard times after Peterson died unexpectedly in 1992.

The archive’s contents were housed at the time in the firehouse at 20th and Vine Streets. The caretakers didn’t pay property taxes for several years, causing Jackson County to sue. Then, failure to submit audits caused the Kansas City City Council to eliminate its subsidy. In another blow, the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office dissolved the archives as a nonprofit because it wasn’t filing annual reports.

The firehouse was finally closed in 2006 with the archives’ contents inside. Many were concerned that the material, most of which is irreplaceable, was threatened by mold and mildew.  But now, Williams says those concerns are behind them. 

The Black Archives hopes to open in its new home, the old Parks and Recreation building at 18th and Vine Streets, in June. Renovating the old Parks building cost over $5 million. Much of this was made possible by funds from the city. It wasn’t complete, though, until the Kauffman Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to the Kansas City Public Library to finish the renovations.

Williams says the library has a longstanding relationship with the archive that goes all the way back to the 70s, with Archive founder Horace Peterson. She says people shouldn’t be worried about the Black Archives losing control of its contents or programming to the library.

“All relationships shift and move and I don’t believe it’s the intention of the library to take over,” Williams says. “And we’re in an economy where folks can’t really take over other people’s stuff, anyways.”  

Williams says she’s busy seeking funding for the archives through grants and planning community events in the coming months. One event she says the archives definitely hopes to be a part of is this year’s Juneteenth celebration, which coincides with the archives public opening June 16.

“It may not be the grandiose one, but we’re going to get there eventually.”