We are in Independence, MO, a suburb of Kansas City, and we plan to visit the Truman House, the WW I Museum, and two interesting museums in downtown Kansas City: the Museum of Jazz and the Museum of the Negro Baseball Leagues.
We want to get to the Truman House early, as their tours only accommodate eight patrons at a time, and are only run hourly. So, we show up at the National Park Service office in downtown Independence at 8:15, easily obtaining the first tickets for the 9:00 visit. As it turns out, we are the only ones in the 9:00 group. The house itself is as Bess Truman left it upon her death (Harry died in 1972, Bess in 1982). It is approximately 6000 square feet in floor space, and was built by Bess’s grandfather between 1867 and 1885. It has two floors, is set on the corner of Truman Ave. and N. Delaware St., in what at the time of Harry and Bess’s occupation was the better part of town. It was occupied by Harry and Bess from the time of their marriage in 1919 until Bess’s death, after which it was bequeathed to the U.S., being overseen by the US Park Service.
Our guide is James, a park ranger, who is extremely knowledgeable of the house’s history, Harry’s and Bess’s biographies, and all things related to the house. He does an excellent job of guiding us, starting on the back porch and taking us into the kitchen and first floor living rooms, telling us about each one as we went through. We discuss Harry’s legacy, and the historical changes in the popular opinion regarding his presidency.
From there, we go over to the WW I memorial. I had not heard of this memorial until we started to investigate what to see and do in the Kansas City area. Since I have done a lot of reading about WWI, I am really anxious to see what they have to offer. As this is a memorial as well as a museum, there is much more to it than just a collection of artifacts artfully arranged. The memorial includes a tall tower that provides a full 360 degrees of spectacular views of Kansas City from the top, after a multi-story elevator ride and two-floor stair climb to get to the observation deck.
At the base of the tower is the Memory Hall, entirely devoted to the display of a WWI timeline / compendium, developed in 1919-1920 to tour Europe. It circulated for awhile, and eventually made its way to become part of the WWI Liberty Memorial Museum built in Kansas City from 1920 to 1926. The main part of the museum is downstairs under the tower and the ground level rooms. The museum starts with a video showing the lead-up to WWI, focusing on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo and the events that surrounded it.
Then it is out into the first hall that includes information and artifacts around the first years of the war. I find I am part of a group led by a history professor of a local college, who is substituting for a buddy who is a docent at the museum. His specialty is WWI, so he does an excellent job talking about each exhibit, not in detail, but rather weaving the story of the war to put the displays into context. Then it is back into a video bringing out the next stage, and then on to the next exhibit hall. This goes on around the exhibit halls, providing quite a detailed pictorial and visual record.
When we approached the Museum, we found a parking space along the street that leads into the Tower, and were immediately accosted by a man driving a golf cart wanting to know if we would like a ride to the Museum. We were hesitant, as we believed ourselves capable of the walk, but he enticed us by telling us this was his job, and as it was early, there were no other potential customers around. So, we agreed, and found that the golf-cart ride was the result of an anonymous benefactor and that the service had started only this week. As luck would have it, there is one at the door to take us back to our car as well, so we availed ourselves of the luxury.
The museum, we agreed, is one of the best museums we have visited. It’s arrangement and presentation emphasizing the story and how each element contributes to that story goes a long way to helping us understand what went on in WWI, and how that has shaped the world since. Our compliments to the curators who put it together and keep it going!
After this, we go to downtown Kansas City to visit the Negro League Museum, and then finish up with the American Jazz Museum, located right next door.
The Negro League Museum is very well done, starting off with a short video summarizing the history of the negro leagues. It starts with the first blacks in major league play, way back in the period right after the Civil War. For political reasons, owners of the professional teams soon decided that they wouldn’t play negro teams any more. They took on occasional negro players at first, but those players had to put up with considerable challenges to continue playing. It wasn’t too long before even those opportunities disappeared. Subsequently, negro teams were formed and barnstormed, playing heavy schedules going from town to town playing whatever teams would challenge them. In the 1890s there were over 60 such teams circulating the US, mostly in the East, mid-west and south, wherever there was a large enough population of blacks to supply the players and the audience for the games.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, a pitcher named “Rube” Foster joined one of these teams. He did very well as a pitcher. Eventually, he came up with his own team. Subsequently, he engineered a meeting amongst the main negro team owners they had been playing against. The result was an organized National Negro League. This was 1921. Two years later, a white guy did a similar thing, coming up with a competition league. Quickly, an agreement was done enabling a “negro world series” to be played between these two leagues. This competition between the leagues went on for many years, although the negro world series did not always get staged for a variety of reasons.
Many legendary players played for the negro teams. The most famous was Leroy “Satchel” Paige, a pitcher who could strike out 9 batters in a row predictably. His career lasted long enough so that he played in the late 1940s for the newly integrated National League / American League. There were other nationally famous black players who played in the negro leagues, “Josh” Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, for example. Then, in the 1940s, the pressure for equal opportunity for black players set the scene for Branch Rickey (of the Dodgers) to sign Jackie Robinson. He was chosen as the one to break the color barrier in white baseball because of his relative maturity (he was 26, engaged to be married, been in the military, and had been a four-sport starter for UCLA, including football where he was one of four black players on the team).
The museum does an excellent job, and is one I would definitely come back to, as there was more information than I could possibly absorb in the couple of hours we spent there. I’m only sorry there are so few pictures of the Negro League games, either stills or motion pictures. To be able to watch Satchel Paige pitch would be a tremendous thing.
The museum next-door is the American Jazz Museum, which I found also quite well done and much fun to visit. There is plenty of information on the history of Jazz, and on the history of some of the more famous players, like saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker, pianist, composer and band leader Duke Ellington, signer Ella Fitzgerald, and trumpeter, singer and entertainer Louis Armstrong. I particularly enjoyed the music library, where they have a number of stands. Each stand has a selection of eight recordings related together (all by the same artist, or same time period). You chose the selection you want to hear, and it is played from a speaker right above your head so it doesn’t disturb others in the room. Very well done. It was a great opportunity to hear some of the most famous recordings of the Jazz greats.
Neither museum allowed pictures, so I can only write about them. If you get to Kansas City, be sure to stop in to see these very well done museums.
After this, we go back to the hotel, and from there walk to the Mongolian BBQ for dinner. There we are seated in the bar area where the baseball game between the NY Yankees and the KC Royals is being shown from several TVs. In the inning we see, the Royals managed to get the bases loaded with no outs, but are only able to push one run across. Sigh! We never do find out who won the game.
Back to the hotel, and we rest for the evening, preparing for the trip tomorrow to St Louis.