Kansas City native Eloise Graves’ father insisted that his daughter only marry a man from Arkansas.

This is the last in a series of three articles examining the lives of Eastern Jackson County black couples in honor of February as Black History Month.

Kansas City native Eloise Graves’ father insisted that his daughter only marry a man from Arkansas.

Her parents had grown up in Arkansas, but she was a Kansas City girl. Where was she going to meet a man that would earn her father’s blessing?

As fate would have it, Eloise met an Arkansas boy at Hallmark Cards “who thought he was Mr. Clean and Mr. Cool,” she said.

Carson Ross strolled the hallways of Hallmark Cards and winked at Miss Graves, his future wife. He was living the good life as a young black professional, wearing a suit and tie to work each day.

His walk started in Arkansas, where he passed white schools on his way to black schools. Barely out of his teenage years, he walked in Vietnam as he served the U.S. Army. With his three daughters and Eloise, Carson Ross walked into Blue Springs when the city’s population hovered at 7,000 residents and built his home.

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Carson Ross grew up in Warren, Ark., and never attended a day of school through 12th grade with a white student. Textbooks and curricula were hand-me-downs, Carson said, and after-school sporting opportunities were subpar compared to the white schools.

“We had to walk right past white schools to get to black schools,” he said. “We also grew up where the black community had gravel roads and the white community had paved roads, so there was a real inequality and segregation that was pretty profound.”

He still received a good education despite inequities, Carson said, because his teachers remained dedicated, and discipline problems weren’t an issue.

“They did not spare the rod; they used a paddle,” he said. “They weren’t abusive, but they used a paddle to make their points, and I think we’re better off as a result of it.”

Carson lived in his own culture and didn’t give thought to one day attending an integrated school. In Kansas City, Eloise Graves attended Booker T. Washington Elementary School and Lincoln Junior Senior High School, both of which were segregated. Eloise praised her teachers at both schools.

“They were very strict, and we had to learn everything verbatim just about,” Eloise, 60, said.

Carson saw his working-class parents experience turmoil because of their race. His father would have to say, “Yes, sir,” to white children Carson’s age, addressing the children as “Mister.” He held an animosity toward white people growing up.  

“I knew it was wrong,” Carson said. “I’ve always been one of those who is pretty strong-willed. I’ve never taken a back seat to anybody, although I grew up in segregated times.”

He followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers who had worked for a local pharmacist’s family.

The family also employed a black woman who cleaned the house, and traditionally, the black workers entered a white person’s house through a back door.

“Not Carson,” he said. “I went through the front door. I’ve always been kind of defiant – I would go drink out of a white-only fountain. I would go in a white-only bathroom, and if they made an issue out of it, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m not supposed to be able to read. How do I know the difference?’”

Ten and 12 years his senior, Carson’s brothers never earned a college education. His parents wanted desperately for Carson to earn a degree, but Carson’s point of reference for success was a military uniform with a pocket full of money.

White-collar role models were absent in Carson’s hometown – he was inundated with working class black people. Most of the black men were laborers, he said. 

His parents insisted Carson attend college. He graduated high school in 1964 at age 17 and enrolled at the historically black Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, which is now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“P-A-R-T-Y” was his major, Carson said, scraping by with average grades. After his sophomore year of college, he moved to Kansas City in hopes of earning his own money to pay for an education. (Years later, he earned his bachelor of science degree in business administration with an emphasis in industrial relations at Rockhurst University.)

On Aug. 9, 1966, Hallmark Cards hired Carson Ross as a less-than-glamourous stock handler. The pay wasn’t much, he said, but he earned a higher hourly wage than his father had in 40 years as a laborer.

It was his first experience with integration. As he stayed in the job, Carson started asking questions of his co-workers. His supervisor, a white woman, had zero college experience. Carson wanted to know how he could move up the food chain at Hallmark Cards.

All he received were excuses on why it wouldn’t happen.

Meanwhile, Carson turned 18 years old and was reclassified for the military draft because he had dropped out of college. In May 1967, Carson Ross was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Six months later, he was in Vietnam.

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He went in as a private E2 and came back as a sergeant E5. The U.S. Army encouraged Carson to make a career of the military, but he returned to Hallmark in 1969 and stayed there until 2005.

Now, he had an administrative position in manufacturing control. Carson wore a suit and tie to work, among the few black people at Hallmark to do so, he said.

In a long hallway with female workers sitting at a desk and inspecting graphic arts film, Carson Ross strutted along with his cool walk. “I thought I was God’s gift to the world,” he said. “Best thing since sliced bread.”

“Hi!” Eloise Graves called out to the young man, “all loud like a country girl.”

“I gave her my patent wink and kept on stepping,” Carson said.

He offered Eloise a ride one day as she stood in the rain at the bus stop. Eloise declined his offer, and he offered some choice words in return.

Eventually, the connection was made. Carson and Eloise married on June 27, 1970, and had three daughters – Rechele, Carla and Diana. As Rechele approached kindergarten, her parents wanted her to attend a good school system.

And so began Carson Ross’ relationship with Blue Springs in 1973.

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Carson had $28,000 in GI Bill funding. He remembers few black people residing in Blue Springs in the early 1970s as the city was perched for its growth spurt. With just 6,700 residents in 1970, Blue Springs grew to more than 25,000 residents by 1980.

The Kingsridge subdivision provided prime land for Carson and Eloise to build a 1,400-square-foot home.

“Nobody’s going to stop me from moving to Blue Springs,” Carson said of his attitude after fighting for the United States in the Vietnam War.

Because the Ross family was the first to move into the cul-de-sac, Carson greeted his new, mostly white neighbors and played basketball with the children.

Eloise had since quit Hallmark Cards so she could stay at home with the couple’s children.

She sewed clothes as an odd job, and after her youngest daughter was born, she sold membership cards for buyer clubs door-to-door.

One day in 1976, Eloise Ross knocked on Blue Springs Mayor Dale Baumgardner’s door. She had no occupational license.

 Baumgardner asked Eloise to visit City Hall the following day. In the days before Blue Springs had a city administrator-form of government, Baumgardner offered her a job as the city of Blue Springs’ first black employee.

As a water billing clerk, she withheld from Baumgardner and Carson the ridicule she received because of her race.

“I would’ve gone down there and raised some hell,” Carson said. “She treated hatred with kindness.”

Three years later, Carson Ross’ political career began with the encouragement of Baumgardner, who served as Jackson County executive following his mayoral term. Baumgardner died in a car accident in 2005.

Following four terms as a Blue Springs alderman, one year as mayor pro-tem and 14 years in the Missouri House of Representatives, Carson Ross was elected as the first black mayor of Blue Springs in 2008.

There was a time when Carson didn’t want to serve as mayor, he said, but he asked himself if Blue Springs had remained the community he had come to love. The answer, Carson said, was “no.”

That very word, “no,” is one that Carson, 63, said isn’t in his vocabulary, especially with initiatives like the Missouri Innovation Park in Blue Springs. He believes Blue Springs residents elected him based on the content of his character, not on his race.

“You can have success if you put your mind to it,” he said. “I remind people when I give speeches that I’m living Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s dream to judge people on the content of their character. If I can do it, surely that’s an encouragement for black kids today.”