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The Black Archives of Mid-America (BAMA) was established as a community museum and archive in 1974. BAMA closed in 2006 due to financial problems, but a community fundraising drive and support from the Kaufmann foundation allowed it to not only re-open, but also expand into its present location in the old Parade Park Maintenance Building. BAMA's permanent exhibit, "With My Eyes No Longer Blind" is named in honor of a Langston Hughes poem, "I Look at the World." The exhibit traces the story of African Americans in Kansas City and the surrounding region. BAMA is also a research facility for historians and genealogists.

  • The Black Archives of Mid-America reopened in 2012 in the restored Parade Park Maintenance Building.
  • BAMA was located in this historic firehouse from 1976 to 2006. The firehouse, built in 1931 by the Works Progress Administration, housed the first Black fire company in Kansas City.
  • Delia Gillis, "Kansas City: Black America Series"
  • Sherry Schirmer, "A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960"
  • The famous choreographer Alvin Ailey left his papers to the archive after his death in 1989.
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that's in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
—Langston Hughes, "I Look at the World"

Horace Peterson III was prescient. In 1974, he established the Black Archives of Mid-America to preserve papers and artifacts pertaining to African American history and culture in Kansas City. Peterson did not live in a milieu conducive to such preservation efforts, and indeed, got his start by keeping the materials he gathered in the trunk of his car. [1] The end of formal segregation allowed Black city-dwellers to leave the 18th & Vine area. Business and venues associated with the pre-war jazz age shuttered. Redevelopment projects razed many historic buildings to clear space for industry and parking lots. It wasn't until the 1990s that there was a concerted push in the other direction, toward the preservation and restoration of the landscape associated with the first half of the twentieth century and the remarkable artistic and cultural legacies it left.

Peterson opened the archives in the old YMCA building on Paseo (the street was later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, though in 2019, some city residents launched a campaign to reverse the renaming). The next year, he began the first of the archives' research projects: a collection of oral histories with African American individuals, including civil rights activist Mamie Hughes and Representative James McKinley Neal.

Two years after their founding, in 1976, the archives moved into the old firehouse building at 2033 Vine, previously home to the first Black fire company in Kansas City. [2] This would remain the archives' home until 2006. But Peterson's death in 1992 foreshadowed difficult times for the archives. Money was tight. The power was shut off and Jackson County sued the archives for failure to pay taxes. [3] Ultimately, the archives had to close to researchers, and the collections housed in the building, including documents about the all-Black army regiments known as the "Buffalo Soldiers," a slave cabin brought from Trenton, Missouri, and an original document freeing Missouri's slaves, were at serious risk of deterioration.

In 2006, BAMA lost its status as a non-profit, as well as the annual subsidy provided to it by the city. [4] It took more than half a decade of hard work from a new board, chaired by Barbara Peterson (Horace Peterson's widow), as well as significant philanthropic gifts, to move the archives to their current location in the historic Parade Park Maintenance Building. In 2012, the archives opened in the new space, showcasing the permanent exhibit "With My Eyes No Longer Blind," so titled after a line from the Langston Hughes poem "I Look at the World."

Yet the archives' financial troubles have not ceased, even as historians uncover powerful stories in their collections. In the Alvin Ailey papers, for instance, scholars recently discovered compelling evidence of the influence of Brazilian musical and dance traditions on the choreographer and his "search for collective identity through and in dance." [5] The collections' strength lies in their ability to trace such connections between far-flung places and rich local history, which has made them foundational sources for digital scholarship projects like The Pendergast Years.

  1. McClain, Cara. “Timeline: A Look Back at 40 Years of Kansas City’s Black Archive.” Accessed February 13, 2020.
  2. "History and Founder of the Black Archives," Black Archives of America. Accessed February 13, 2020.
  3. Smith, Deann. "Striving to save pieces of past - More than 150 people gather in KC in a bid to get the troubled Black Archives back on track." Kansas City Star (Kansas City, MO) August 18th 2006.
  4. McClain, Cara. “Timeline: A Look Back at 40 Years of Kansas City’s Black Archive.” Accessed February 13, 2020.
  5. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Francesca Negro, "Solano Trinidade's Gift to Alvin Ailey: New Evidence from the Black Archives of Mid-America," Journal of Black Studies and Research 49, no. 3: 6.


Image Sources(Click to expand)

Black Archives of Mid-America

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress.