The Black Archives of Mid-America Is Open for Preservation

Library Life
Horace Peterson portrait
The spirit of founder Horace Peterson lives on in the newly open Black Archives.

Every great collection has to begin somewhere. For the Black Archives of Mid-America, it was in the trunk of Horace Peterson’s car in 1970s Kansas City.

At least, that’s the story according to Missouri Governer Jay Nixon, who spoke and cut the ribbon at the Archives grand opening ceremony this past Friday.

“Now, the Archives are right where they should be – in the heart of the historic 18th & Vine Jazz District,” the governor told an enthusiastic, elbow-to-elbow crowd inside the Archives’ new home in the restored Parade Park Maintenance Building at 1722 E. 17th Terrace.

As a jazz combo bopped away in the corner, community members enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and mixed with notables such as Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, Archives Director Doretha Williams, board president Barbara Peterson, and council members Melba Curls, Jermaine Reed, and Jim Glover.

Following presentations by Williams, Library Director Crosby Kemper III, and Cleaver, the governor arrived to tie a bow on the evening with an enlivening address that quoted Missouri poet Langston Hughes and connected the grand opening back to its founder.

“In preserving history, Horace Peterson made history,” Nixon said.

And that history is finally accessible to the public.

Through the efforts of community leaders and organizations including the Kansas City Public Library, the Archives’ board, Gov. Nixon, Carol Coe, Sharon Sanders Brooks, the Kauffman Foundation, and others, thousands of rare artifacts, documents, and photos that tell the story of Kansas City’s African-American community will be preserved and displayed in a way that would’ve made Peterson proud.

Indeed, the Archives’ grand opening weekend saw the triumphant culmination of a long period of rebirth for the institution.

View a gallery of photos from the grand opening:

A Long Time Coming…

Just five years ago, in 2006, the Archives (then located in a firehouse at 2033 Vine St.) shut down amid financial problems.  With guidance from Coe and Brooks, the community demanded that local leaders take notice of the potential loss of a tremendous historic resource. Nixon, at the time attorney general, took heed, intervened, and elected a new board.

That new board included Kemper, 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. It was there that Friday night’s celebration took place.

The Library’s relationship with the Archives goes back further than five years, however. It was in the early ‘90s that Library Deputy Director Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner (then a computer tech in IT) took interest in the Archives.

“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,” Buckner told KC Unbound earlier this year.

That collaboration came to fruition this weekend, and more great things are to come.

In addition to the physical collection and archive of materials digitized with help from the Library over the years, the Archives also features a brand-new permanent exhibit: With My Eyes No Longer Blind.

Juxtaposing portraits of African-American community leaders with a KC skyline of buildings that loom large in that community’s history, the exhibit presents a compelling rendering of the human story Peterson (who died in 1992) spent his life preserving.

You can view the exhibit at any upcoming Archives event, or by scheduling an appointment. The Archives’ collection can also be viewed by making an appointment.

About the Author

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