By Lysa Allman-Baldwin

In every aspect of the Kansas City landscape, from education to sports, music, medicine, politics, science, technology and others, African American innovation, leadership and entrepreneurial endeavors have left indelible marks.

Following are a few pioneers—past and present—to whom Kansas City owes a deep debt of gratitude for their vision, leadership and entrepreneurial spirit.

Blazing a Trail, Leaving a Legacy


Indeed, “Bird Lives” in heart and mind in Kansas City where Charlie “Yardbird” Parker was born in 1920. The music and legacy of this world renowned saxophonist credited with developing the bop jazz style and for his integral role in helping to shape the city’s distinctive jazz sound, is on display as one of four major exhibits at the American Jazz Museum in the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District. At the back of the museum, visitors will also find the Charlie Parker Monument, a striking 17-foot likeness of his head in the shape of African continent.


Hiram Rhoades Revels was destined for greatness. Born in the 1820s (historical accounts vary on the exact year) he fought at the Battle of Vicksburg and served as a chaplain for the Union Army. And, reportedly at the request of Fredrick Douglas, helped recruit and organize black soldiers during the Civil War. In Missouri, and two other states, Revels was an educator, and in 1865, founded and led St. Paul A.M.E. Church in nearby Independence, MO. Years later, he also became the first African American U.S. Senator in Mississippi, filling the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.


An accomplished writer and speaker, Bluford worked for over five decades, beginning as a reporter and eventually as managing editor of The Kansas City Call newspaper. Among her many accomplishments was garnering public support for the election of Alan Wheat, Kansas City’s first African-American congressman;  social action during the Civil Rights Movement; speaking out on local economic, civic and development issues of concern to KC’s African-American community and seeking improvements and increased access to high quality education for area youth. A true pioneer and stateswoman, The Lucile H. Bluford Branch of The Kansas City Public Library stands in her honor.


An astute business man and visionary, Andrew “Rube” Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920, and set his sights on eventually integrating the teams, not just its players, into baseball’s National and American Leagues. His co-creator in this league which thrived for nearly 40 years was J.L. “Wilkie” Wilkerson, an accomplished pitcher who, although white, became a major influence and one of the most respected personalities in black baseball history. Together, they helped make stars out of players like Jackie Robinson, Judi Johnson, Satchel Paige, Toni Stone, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd and Connie Morgan, several of whom are immortalized in bronze at the city’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located in the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District.


The bronze statue of baseball legend John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil peering through a fence outside of a mock baseball field—The Field of Legends—at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is symbolic of how many black baseball players were denied the opportunity to play in the American and National Leagues. Moreover, it aptly represents how for decades O’Neill was denied entrance into The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, until the year after his death at age 94. Nevertheless, O’Neil not only continued to make significant contributions to the game of baseball for more than eight decades, he was a faithful supporter of many KC causes, and a beloved ambassador and humanitarian for the betterment of its citizens. On Dec. 7, 2006, O’Neil was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.


One can’t speak about barbecue as Kansas City’s calling card without singing the praises of the “Father of Kansas City barbecue,” Henry Perry. Beginning in 1907 when he first left the steamboat galleys on which he worked along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Perry created and became the champion of what is now a world renowned barbecue culture and following. His barbecue style and technique were so popular that they not only enjoyed mass crossover appeal to folks of all races, but became the standard by which countless others followed as a springboard to craft their own flavorful barbecue recipes, sauces and rubs. Among them were brothers Charlie and Arthur Bryant. They took over Perry’s restaurant upon his death in 1940, running it for many years until it was bought by the latter, and is today the iconic Arthur Bryant’s, with locations on both sides of the state line.

A Vision for Today and Generations to Come


Coming home to Kansas City for native son Bobby Watson was much more than a place to get off the road. After a 25-year career performing worldwide with a bevy of legendary jazz artists including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Victor Lewis, Terell Stafford, Max Roach, Art Blakey and for several years with The Jazz Messengers, Watson, a celebrated saxophonist, arranger, composer and educator, is the director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. Watson plays a vital role in nurturing Kansas City’s rich jazz heritage by imparting his wealth of knowledge, experience, and artistic excellence with student performers now fashioning their own high standards of musicianship presence, style, and creativity.


For almost six decades, Alvin Brooks has been a steadfast Kansas City advocate and role model for civil rights activism, public service and urban development. Brooks’ tireless efforts include as a former police officer, councilman and mayor pro-tem, and as a founder, in 1977, of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. The organization’s mission to combat crime and violence in the Kansas City Metropolitan area has made a profound impact towards ensuring strong, safe and secure neighborhoods, and stands as a shining example of Brooks’ love, determination and unrelenting commitment to Kansas City today, and for the generations to follow.


As Vice Chancellor of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the work of Susan B. Wilson extends far beyond implementing and overseeing policies and programs for students, faculty, and staff and community. It is affecting positive change in the lives of thousands of Kansas Citians. Her other roles include as a radio and television contributor, public speaker, National Football League and Kansas City Chiefs consulting psychologist, healthcare administrator, journalist and consultant. Wilson has also held leadership positions in several important area health and behavioral healthcare organizations, is a member of public service organizations Links, Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and has graciously and passionately served on the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission and the State of Missouri’s African American Statewide Mental Health Task Force.


Cleaver is in his fifth term representing Missouri’s Fifth Congressional District, the home district of President Harry Truman. After serving on the City Council for 12 years, he was elected as the city’s first African American mayor in 1991. During his eight-year stint in the office, Cleaver distinguished himself as an economic development activist, attracting major corporations to KC such as TransAmerica, Harley Davidson and Citi Corp. He is also credited for the enhancement of the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District, the beautification of Brush Creek and many other accomplishments.


For many years, Lewis Diuguid has been a champion of Kansas City’s underserved and disenfranchised through steadfast advocacy, journalistic excellence and grace. His professional credits include as an author, public speaker, mentor, and longtime member and current president of the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists. Diuguid has made momentous strides in achieving greater newsroom diversity, which in turn has fostered a broader spectrum of cross-cultural inclusivity and understanding on both sides of the State Line. He is also a regular columnist and on the editorial board of the Kansas City Star, and in 2015, was honored with the Angelo B. Henderson Community Service Award by the National Association of Black Journalists.  


“Build it and they will come” could certainly be a metaphor for the illustrious career of Frank White. In the early 70s, White was among the numerous laborers that helped build Kaufman Stadium. Years later, the stadium was where he became one of the most distinguished second basemen of the Kansas City Royals, and in baseball history. In his 18-year career, White was a two-time Royals Player of the Year, a five-time All-Star, an ALCS MVP in 1980, won eight Gold Gloves and was instrumental in the Royals’ first World Championship in 1985. After retiring, White remained involved in many aspects of the game, later turning his attention to public service. In addition to serving on the Budget, Health & Environment and Public Works Committees, and chairing the Land Use Committee as a County Legislator, in 2016 he was sworn in as a Jackson County Executive.


Since first elected Mayor in 2011, Sly James has been a passionate and commanding leader and coalition builder in Kansas City. Mayor James’ formal education and law degree, combined with his experiences during the Vietnam War as a military police officer, helped shape his desire to ensure that all people, regardless of socio-economic background, enjoy equal opportunities. Under the Mayor’s tutelage, Kansas City’s statewide and national profile in education, economic development, the arts, tourism and as a sports powerhouse, among other areas, has continued to grow, elevating the city to new heights as it moves forward in the 21st Century.


Named among the Lifetime and 100 Most Influential Kansas Citians for 2015 is just one of the many honors bestowed upon Anita L. Russell, a devoted leader and supporter of community involvement and volunteerism. In addition to serving as President of the Kansas City, Missouri Branch of the NAACP, Russell is a member of the organization’s National Board of Directors representing Region IV, her unwavering commitment to the greater Kansas City community includes efforts to involve today’s youth in all aspects of the socioeconomic landscape through education, civil rights activism, and civic service. Standing true to her belief in giving back, Russell’s many honors and recognitions over the years include a Missouri Outstanding Service Social and Civic Group Award, and a Martin Luther King Dream Conference King Woman of the Year Award, just to name a few.