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Telling a fuller story

Mike Genet
Hiram Young, who was brought to Missouri as a slave and later bought his freedom, prospered in Independence in the years just before the Civll War, making wagons and yokes for settlers heading west. He also was a strong advocate of education for Black children. The Jackson County Historical Society tells his story but also acknowledges that much more of the Black experience in Jackson County needs to be explored and told.

Consider it a self call to action.

As protests have continued around the country this month, Caitlin Eckard and Savannah Lore realized the Jackson County Historical Society could tell a more complete and honest picture of local history.

In a statement posted last week, the Historical Society said it “acknowledges the long, damaging history of racism in Jackson County” and aims to better diversify its collections, archives and programming.

“By and large, most of our history we show is white,” said Eckard, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We looked into our collection, and the communities of people of color were severely lacking.”

Eckard and Lore, the chief archivist and educator, have outlined two immediate initiatives.

The first is to research and share stories that will better educate the community about the county’s Black history by researching and sharing stories through programs, social media content and exhibits. Second, they want to collect items and oral histories about people of color and their stories in Jackson County. To that end, they’re planning to partner with the Midwest Genealogy Center to collect oral histories.

“We want to share more stories,” Eckard said, and they believe they’ll find and develop more stories to share with this shifted focus.

Before the pandemic, the Historical Society had planned a display collection of 1920s fashions in their exhibit space behind the 1859 Jail on the Independence Square. Instead, Eckard and Lore decided to pivot to a display of 1920s culture, including the explosion of jazz, Negro League baseball and the Kansas City Call newspaper, which was founded in 1919. Eckard also wants to build on partnerships with such groups as Mutual Musicians in the 18th and Vine District.

Eckard said the area’s history with the trails can show more diversity because of the French, Native American and Black people who came to Independence from both directions, whether for travel or trade.

“Independence was fairly multicultural in the mid-19th century,” Eckhard.

The Native American story can also be told more, she said, particularly with the trail of forcibly displaced persons who passed through Independence toward their new settlement.

The Historical Society’s displays are not devoid of Black history. The story of Hiram Young is well documented. He was a former slave who moved to Independence in 1850, bought freedom for himself and his wife, and made a modest fortune making wagons and yolks for westward-bound travelers for a decade before moving to Leavenworth, Kansas to avoid Civil War hostilities. A city park is named after him, and the former school building bearing his name is owned by Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity. When Lore compiled a display list of women housed at the 1859 Jail, she noted the large number of Black women among them.

While it’s important to portray a better picture of the past, Eckard said it’s also vital to honestly document today’s events as citizens push for racial and social justice.

“In 50 years, what’s happening today will be studied,” she said.