The Black Archives of Mid-America to Open on 18th & Vine

Library Life
Black Archives facade
The Black Archives of Mid-America will open in June.

There’s a new joint down on 18th & Vine, and it’s not a jazz club. But that doesn’t mean that when it opens in June 2012, the Black Archives of Mid-America won’t get off to a swinging start.

With an upbeat blend of live programs, rich historic collections, and eye-catching exhibits – not to mention its recently renovated headquarters – the Black Archives will let Kansas Citians interact with a vision that has been decades in the making.

In its gorgeous, Silver LEED-rated home in the historic Parade Park Maintenance Building at 1722 E. 17th Terrace, the Black Archives will combine preservation with education and fun. Historians will visit to conduct research, and kids will come for the programs.

It’s a model not so different from a modern public library.

That’s no coincidence, either. The Kansas City Public Library has been helping to shape the Black Archives’ growth for decades.

The Library’s relationship with the Black Archives goes back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when founder Horace Peterson was housing his collection of regional African-American historic documents, artifacts, and memorabilia in a former firehouse at 2033 Vine St.

Alvin Ailey
One of many Alvin Ailey photos
from the Black Archives

The collection includes a vast sampling of the local African-American community’s history: thousands of photos, sports memorabilia, taped interviews, documents on slavery and desegregation, and the papers of famous choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey, as well as Kansas City Call founder Chester Arthur Franklin.

It’s a collection of unique value to the community – a fact that Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner recognizes. Now the Library’s Deputy Director, Buckner took an interest in the Archives in the early ‘90s while working as a PC technician in ITS.

“The Black Archives is an important institution – not just in Kansas City, but throughout the Midwest,” Kositany-Buckner says. “It has the same mission as the Library, it serves the same community, and we should collaborate with the Archives in saving that community’s history.”

That collaboration, though ultimately successful, has had its ups and downs.

Following Peterson’s death in 1992, the Library helped the Black Archives persevere by cataloging its collection and establishing the Archives’ website. In 1998, the Library and the Archives obtained a grant to digitize 35,000 items in the collection.

Despite these high points, money troubles beset the Archives in the early 2000s, however, nearly leading to its closure.

After the Archives neglected to pay property taxes for several years, Jackson County sued, then the City Council eliminated the Archives’ $100,000 a year subsidy. Finally, the Secretary of State’s office dissolved the Archives as a nonprofit corporation.

In 2006, the building on Vine St. was closed.

The community wasn’t going to stand by and let the Archives disappear, however.

Black Archives interior
Click for a photo gallery of the Black Archives.

Harnessing public outcry, City Council members Carol Coe and Sharon Sanders Brooks alerted then-Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who intervened and established a new board of directors.

On that new board was Library Director Crosby Kemper III, who secured a $1 million grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to support renovation of the Archives’ new home in the Parade Park building, which is owned by the Kansas City Parks & Recreation department.

The Library also brought in $120,000 with help from noted historian John Hope Franklin, who visited the Library in 2007 to discuss his autobiography and raise funds for programming, exhibits, and to hire an archiving librarian for the Archives.

These were all essential steps in ensuring the Archives’ future – and cementing its relationship with the Library.

“For institutions like us and the Black Archives to survive, it’s crucial to collaborate and form strategic alliances,” Kositany-Buckner says. “We are informational resources, but we’re also trying to preserve history and serve the community.”

In the summer of 2010, the collection was moved to the new building, with help from the Library’s Facilities team under Operations Manager Jerry Houchins. Soon thereafter, a staff was put into place.

Doretha Williams
Doretha Williams is BAMA's new director.

Doretha Williams, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Kansas, is serving as director, reporting to the Black Archives board. Overseeing the collection is Missouri Valley Special Collections Manager Eli Paul. Working on site is Jon Zwillenberg, Black Archives collection librarian.

When the Black Archives opens on Juneteenth weekend, visitors will be greeted not only by a beautiful building and friendly staff, but also by a brand-new exhibit.

Titled after a Langston Hughes poem, “With My Eyes No Longer Blind” will trace the story of African Americans in Kansas City from the days of Lewis and Clark to the mayorship of Emanuel Cleaver II. The exhibit was developed by Kositany-Buckner and Public Affairs Director Henry Fortunato, with design work by Eisterhold Associates.

There’s more coming, too. An exhibit based on the Archives’ Alvin Ailey collection is currently in the works. Additionally, the Archives was also recently awarded $8,000 to conduct a two-day teaching workshop.

All in all, it’s nothing short of a rebirth.

“It’s a wonderful moment in the community to have the Black Archives up and running again,” Kositany-Buckner says.

About the Author

Jason Harper is the web content developer and social media manager at the Kansas City Public Library.
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