A University is Born

University of Kansas City administration building, circa 1930s
University of Kansas City administration building, circa 1930s
Walter S. Dickey, owner of the mansion that would become the UKC administration building
Walter S. Dickey, owner of the mansion that would become the UKC administration building

During a bright autumn day on October 1, 1933, nearly 2,000 people gathered in the shade of trees along the south side of Brush Creek to officially celebrate the opening of the University of Kansas City. Inspired speeches by Chairman of the Board Ernest E. Howard and Dr. Burris Jenkins, a prominent local minister, declared the founders' intention that the university should serve as an institution of opportunity for Kansas Citians who could not travel far away to attend college. The following day, on October 2, classes began with 264 students and 17 instructors.

Local business leaders had long envisioned a university that would add to Kansas City's existing assets. Various technical, medical, and trade schools had existed in Kansas City since the late 19th century, but the city lacked its own comprehensive four-year university. Undaunted by the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent economic depression, a group of business leaders and philanthropists obtained a charter for the University of Kansas City (UKC) and began a fundraising campaign.

In truth, the UKC Board of Trustees required assistance from an earlier movement that in 1925 had sought to establish a Methodist university on farmland at the intersection of 75th and State Line. The proposed Methodist university would have been known as "Lincoln and Lee University," a name which acknowledged leaders from both sides of the Civil War in an attempt to sooth divisions between the northern and southern branches of Kansas City's Methodist churches.

The leaders who advanced the Lincoln and Lee movement the furthest were Ernest H. Newcomb, an experienced high school and college administrator, Kate B. Hewitt, a local philanthropist, and Bishop E. L. Waldorf, a Methodist minister. Kate Hewitt donated her farmland for the university, while Newcomb and Waldorf organized fundraising drives, sought church support, and even ordered architectural drawings to be made. These efforts failed, however, and Newcomb turned to promoting the need for a private university more generally.

Newcomb eventually allied with the UKC Board of Trustees. He helped bring Lincoln and Lee supporters behind the non-sectarian UKC cause, and the two groups combined their assets. At this point, another philanthropist entered the fray. William Volker, owner of a flourishing home furnishings business named William Volker & Co., had quietly donated his time and money to numerous public projects since 1910. He played a critical role in the creation of Kansas City's Board of Public Welfare, Liberty Memorial, and Research Hospital. To help the UKC movement, Volker acquired 40 acres of land in Kansas City's Rockhill district and donated it to the university. He then donated money for the purchase of the Walter S. Dickey mansion at the site. The Dickey mansion served as UKC's Administration Building and was shortly joined by a science building in 1935, and a library in 1936.

Nearly double the projected number of students began classes on October 2, 1933. In all, 264 entered the first freshman class. UKC expanded greatly in subsequent years and merged with many of the existing professional schools. These schools included the Kansas City School of Law, the Kansas City-Western Dental College, the Kansas City College of Pharmacy, and the Conservatory of Music. On July 25, 1963, UKC finally succumbed to longstanding financial difficulties and ceased to be a private university. It instead joined the University of Missouri System, which already had campuses in Columbia, Rolla, and St. Louis.

Renamed the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), the university continues to offer high-quality undergraduate and graduate education in a variety of disciplines.

 

Read full biographical sketches of early benefactors or alumni of UKC, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images of the University of Kansas City that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books, articles, and films about the University of Kansas City, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching the University of Kansas City using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Visit the University Archives of the University of Missouri-Kansas City for further archival material.

 

References:

Paola Banchero, "UMKC Celebrating Double Anniversary," The Kansas City Star, September 30, 1993.

Daniel Coleman, Biography of Ernest H. Newcomb (1886-1979), founder of the University of Kansas City, Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library, 2008.

Henry C. Haskell, Jr. & Richard B. Fowler, City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950 (Kansas City, MO: Frank Glenn Publishing, 1950), 131, 135-136.

Sherry Lamb Schirmer, At the River's Bend: An Illustrated History of Kansas City: Independence and Jackson County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982), 163.

"History," UMKC website.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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