From Preservation Issues, Volume 2, Number 1

Black History

by Beverly Fleming
"...we came to the corner of Eighteenth Street and Wham! Everything along that street was all lit up like klieg lights... And everywhere you went, there was at least a piano player and somebody singing, if not a combo or maybe a jam session... we were walking into a scene where the action was greater than anything I've ever heard of." ca 1924-25, William Basie, from Good Morning Blues, the Autobiography of Count Basie.
The "scene" stretched from Troost Avenue east along 18th and Vine Streets, memorialized in the lyrics of a song by jazz great Joe Turner. The nightly performance of live jazz, dance halls and night clubs, located along both 18th and 12th Streets, established Kansas City's reputation as a music mecca during the 1920s and 1930s.
Photo by Philip Thomason. The 18th and Vine Nation Register Historic District in Kansas City consists of a group of buildings associated with Kansas City's jazz history.

Urban renewal project in the 1950s and 1960s destroyed the clubs along 12th Street. Neglect, disinvestment, conversion to industrial use and numerous other alterations contributed to the loss of a number of buildings associated with the city's jazz music history along 18th Street. Despite these losses, the historical significance of the 18th and vine area as the only relatively intact, physical remnant of Kansas City's jazz heritage was officially recognized in September via listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register designation will be celebrated during February, which is Black Heritage Month.

Scholars continue to debate the exact origins of jazz, which evolved in New Orleans at the turn of the century and then spread north throughout the Midwest. its roots are based in the blues and ragtime. Kansas City had its own distinctive style, often produced by large bands of ten to 15 musicians. Bands such as Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, Walter Page's blue Devils, and T. Holden's Twelve Clouds of Joy performed constantly at local dance halls and clubs and toured throughout the Midwest.

In the 1930s, Kansas City possessed 120 night clubs and 40 dance halls; most featured jazz performances. Jazz venues in the 18th and Vine Historic District included the Eblon Theater, Subway Club, El Capitan Club, Sunset Club, and Lincoln Theater. The area also offered support services for musicians through Mutual Musicians Local #627, housed in a building at 1823 Highland Avenue which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982.

The 18th and Vine Historic District is also significant as an historic black neighborhood and a center of black commercial activities. A number of black-owned businesses and the offices of prominent black professionals were located within the district's boundaries. These include the first black-owned automobile dealership in the United States (the Roberts Building, 1826-1830 Vine Street, b. 1923); a building and loan association formed by a group of black investors to serve black residents (the Security,and Investment Association, 1816 Vine Street, b. 1922); the home of the Kansas City Call, a black-owned newspaper founded in 1919 (1715-1723 E. 18th); the offices of the Kansas City Monarchs, a baseball team in the Negro National League; and Dickerson Cleaners, the first dry cleaning establishment owned by a black businessman in Missouri (1814 Vine, b. 1922, severely altered).

Sitting just outside the district's boundaries, Attucks School (1815 Woodland Avenue) and the Paseo YMCA (1824 The Paseo) were also individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the 18th and vine nomination project. The Paseo YMCA, constructed in 1914, was the primary social agency and center serving black citizens in the early 20th century. Attucks School is on a list of 19 schools slated by the Kansas City School District for demolition sometime in the future.

National Register designation for the 18th and Vine area was pursued by the City of Kansas City and the Black Economic Union of Greater Kansas City in order to facilitate the revitalization of the area, which rapidly deteriorated in the 1960s, and to ensure the preservation of a part of Kansas City's black heritage. The Black Economic Union (BEU) is private, not-for-profit, economic development corporation. The BEU possesses Missouri Chapter 353 redevelopment rights for the 18th and Vine Historic District and additional property to the south and east of the district.

Redevelopment proposals include the establishment of a Negro League Baseball Museum and an International Jazz Hall of Fame in the area, the conversion of the historic Gem Theater (1615-1617 E. 18th Street) to a community arts center, the construction of new housing on vacant land, the renovation of existing historic buildings using the federal historic tax credit, and the installation of streetscape amenities.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
Return to the Preservation Issues home page.