African Americans

African Americans in the Kansas City Area

Statue honoring York (Lewis and Clark) and Seaman (Newfoundland dog) on Quality Hill in Kansas City, Missouri
Statue honoring York (Lewis
and Clark) and Seaman
(Newfoundland dog) on Quality
Hill in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Americasroof.

York, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was probably the first black person to set foot in what is now Kansas City. It was June 26, 1804. Although he was William Clark's slave, York served and shared the duties and hazards of the Expedition in full.

As fur traders, explorers, and settlers moved into the area, African Americans were among them. Mostly, however, as slaves. In the late 1850s, many came through seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad, crossing the Missouri River to Quindaro, Kansas, a headquarters for free-state advocates.

Some early notable African Americans include Hiram Young, described as one of the richest men in Jackson County by 1860. Born into slavery, he purchased his freedom in Lafayette County, Missouri. Young moved to Independence in 1850 as a wagon-maker where he helped other slaves earn their freedom. Tom Bass, a slave from Columbia, Missouri, came to Kansas City in 1893. Bass was not only a horse trainer and founder of the American Royal Horse Show, but inventor of the Bass bit. Another black who excelled in the early years of Kansas City was Lafayette Tillman, a soldier, scholar, and one of the first African Americans appointed to the police force.

Information about these and many, many others can be found by searching the Library’s online catalog and the Missouri Valley Special Collections Local History Index, especially the biographies.

The Missouri Valley Room has some important collections that document the African American experience. One of these is the John Ramos Collection, begun in 1926 at the Lincoln Branch Library. Building on this core group of materials, the department continues to add material focusing primarily, but not solely, on African Americans in the Kansas City region. We welcome donations and materials to augment this valuable resource. Call (816.701.3427) or email us at lhistory@kclibrary.org.

African American Resources

John Ramos Collection

Information about the John Ramos Collection in the Missouri Valley Room.

Other Resources in the Missouri Valley Room

A sampling of African American resources in the Missouri Valley Room not found in the Library’s online catalog or the Local History Index.

Resources on the Internet

A guide to African American history websites.