A story of Tom Pendergast: “This was back in the ’30s. These kids were freezing. They slept in their coats. They had no coal. The mom went to ask Pendergast for help, and right away a truck pulled up with a huge load of coal. Every night, ever after, before they ate dinner, this woman would include in the prayer, ‘And God bless Tom Pendergast.'” Ah, the good old days of family values and small government! The storyteller and I rolled our eyes.
For the last six years, I’ve taught at a local history program, here in Kansas City, focusing on 18th and Vine. A teacher should show interest and enthusiasm, but mine had worn out. So I focused on gangsters this time.
The awkward thing about teaching kids history is that so much of Kansas City’s greatness was fueled by lawlessness and vice. A lot of people got beat up and shot near election day under Pendergast, and a lot of musicians had jobs and swapped ideas. It’s also awkward that many of the inheritors of the legacy of the civil rights struggle are wistful about segregation’s charms. “Everyone got along then. There wasn’t all this crime.” Well. It depends on how you define “crime.” Just as slippery a term as “gangster.”
In, say, 1923, heroin was legal, but alcohol wasn’t. My Nebraska great-grandfathers closed down his tavern and sold liquor out of his barn instead. Criminal? Betting “on the numbers” and shooting craps in the subterranean Subway Club on 18th Street was illegal, while today our state governments use the very same games to pay for critical basic services like schools.
The best part of this year was being taken on a walking tour of the area by a local expert. I had never done that before. The hotel next to the famous Musician’s union was one of the last whorehouses in Kansas City, he said. There’s still a battered sign that says, “Clean rooms. By the month, week, or hour.”
He once took a group of Japanese tourists to the spot, and two women ran out with razors in their hands. “Who’s the instigator?! Who’s going to jail?!” a third, maybe the madam, yelled. Our eighth grade students were hot. It was 95 degrees, heavy humidity. Thank goodness we were talking about prostitutes.
We heard some stories about the guys who ran numbers. Maybe they picked up the mafia’s cut from the clubs?
We knocked on the door of the musician’s union, the Mutual Musician’s Foundation. I’ve been in there with students for the last six years. Sometimes we have a musician play for us and let the kids play along. Sometimes they tell stories about how they learned to play instruments. The union and the black newspaper, The Call, are the only two institutions still vital after all these years. In the last couple of years, though, there has been a lot of fighting and turnover at the Foundation.
Someone opened the door a crack, we asked to come in, explained about the kids, and the answer came back, “No.” She slammed the door.
Maybe there were gangsters in there, maybe criminals. Nah. I think they were just rather negligent in keeping history open to everyone, and welcoming people to our city’s greatest treasure.