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Remembrance of Independence Days Past in Kansas City Celebrations Persisted in Both Good Times and Bad

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Above image credit: This antique postcard depicted the Hannibal Bridge in Kansas City, dedicated during celebrations in July, 1869. The bridge heralded the Gilded Age in Kansas City. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Room, Kansas City Public Library)
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8 minute read

On Independence Day 2020 the pursuit of happiness may seem more like a grim slog in search of fleeting relief.

Kansas Citians have known the feeling before.

Over the years Fourth of July celebrations often have referenced the Declaration of Independence and sometimes included public readings of it. The ritual has served as a communal gut check –  sometimes to contemplate how the document’s promise paled in comparison to the current reality or, more commonly, to command action.

On July 4, 1862, those celebrating liberty in Liberty, Missouri, heard the Declaration read aloud in a city under siege. 

Pro-Union soldiers paraded through town that night, less than a year after other federal forces had been defeated in what’s now known as the Battle of Liberty. 

Yet Independence Day observances proved peaceful.

“Some enjoyed themselves in dancing, others in tete a tete conversation, good humor beaming in every countenance,” reported the Liberty Tribune.

“We sigh for the days gone by.”

A public Kansas City reading of the same document on July 4, 1900, prompted foot-stomping cheers.

The rowdiness was part of the larger celebration of how Kansas City’s Convention Hall, which burned exactly three months before, had been rebuilt in time for the Democratic National Convention, which opened on Independence Day.

“When the first hall crumbled to ruins on the 4th day of April it required a tremendous exercise of faith and civic optimism to conceive of such a feat…” read a July 4 editorial in The Kansas City Star.

“It is the proudest monument of enterprise which Kansas City has ever reared…”

The community’s response to disaster became one of Kansas City’s origin stories, today referred to as “The Kansas City Spirit,” as christened by Norman Rockwell’s Hallmark-commissioned painting of the same name following the 1951 Flood.

Other Independence Days have ranged from stressful to stirring.

1862: The Civil War

On Independence Day a staunch Unionist who in 1846 had led a company of soldiers during the Mexican War read the Declaration of Independence aloud in Liberty.

If that doesn’t sound remarkable, the loyalties of residents of the Clay County seat some 15 miles northeast of Kansas City were divided. But “divided” really doesn’t describe it.

In 1860 election officials had counted zero votes cast in Liberty for Republican Party presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln.

Following the April 1861 firing upon Fort Sumter, Southern sympathizers had gathered at the Liberty courthouse demanding secession. That September members of the pro-Southern Missouri State Guard had defeated federal forces near the Missouri River.

By the following Independence Day the pro-Union Missouri State Militia marched through Liberty.

“We trust ere another national anniversary rolls round, our countrymen will have unitedly resolved to return to and enjoy the pursuits of peace,” the Liberty Tribune suggested.

The next month some of the same pro-Union soldiers who had paraded through Liberty were ambushed west of town. Three of them died.

1869: Hannibal Bridge

The most encouraging Independence Day observance in Kansas City history likely was the July 3 celebration of the just-completed Hannibal Bridge.

The “Orator of the Day,” 88-year-old John McClernand – one-time Illinois congressman and former Union Army officer – compared the significance of the span’s construction to the pontoon bridge completed in 480 B.C. traversing the Hellespont, or Dardanelles, strait and connecting Asia to Europe by Xerxes the Great of Persia. He also invoked the naval expedition from what is now Pakistan to Iraq in 325 B.C. led by Nearchus, an officer in service of Alexander the Great.

If anyone told McClernand to get a grip on the hyperbole, the Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce did not note it.

The first bridge across the Missouri River really was a game-changer, connecting Kansas City to markets in Chicago and beyond. 

“The consequences to flow from this stupendous event open a vast field for contemplation,” McClernand told those gathered in a grove near what is now 10th Street and Troost Avenue.

The bridge would prove the pivot on which Kansas City’s destiny would turn, he said, invoking a draftsman’s tool as metaphor.

“Plant one leg of a compass at the mouth of (the) Kansas and extend the other leg a certain distance,” McClernand said, “and sweep it in a circle, and it will cut or nearly cut the Mississippi River at New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston, the Rio Grande at Albuquerque, Lake Superior at Superior City and Lake Erie at Toledo.”

Kansas City, he added, “will become to the Missouri River what Chicago is to the lakes and St. Louis is to the Mississippi River.”

A barbecue followed the speech and the newspaper noted a phenomenon that continues to occur in Kansas City.

“…the way provisions appeared and disappeared was a source of great wonder to people of delicate appetites,” it reported.

1900: Convention Hall Fire

On July 4, 1900, Kansas City Mayor James Reed welcomed delegates to the Democratic National Convention by invoking their party’s patron, Thomas Jefferson.

“Today you meet upon soil acquired by a Democratic president,” Reed said, reminding them of the Louisiana Purchase.

Kansas City has persisted in celebrating Independence Day in both good times and bad.
The Kansas City Star captured the spirit of the July 4, 1900 opening of the Democratic National Convention in the newly rebuilt Convention Hall in this front page illustration. (Courtesy | The Kansas City Star)

That accompanied a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence. The document’s final passages prompted the flinging of hats, canes and handkerchiefs into the air by delegates, by then standing on their chairs.

The Democrats nominated the populist Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan, who later lost to President William McKinley. 

To the Kansas City Star editorial writer, the real story was Kansas City’s response to the first Convention Hall’s fire that April.

“The narrative of blasted hope and consternation was flashed from ocean to ocean…”  one editorial read. “In one silent and stricken moment the determination was formed to rebuild the hall and to raise it up in time for the convention on the Fourth of July.”

1919: Pandemic

The 805th Pioneer Infantry, one of many Black regiments organized during World War I, included 2,810 men, including 459 from Kansas. 

That’s likely why, on their way to Camp Funston to be discharged, the soldiers stopped in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 3.

A parade route soon formed downtown.

The procession moved up Minnesota Avenue under the welcome flags in good order to Fifth Street,” the Star reported.

Then human patience ceased… Suddenly, a girl darted under the ropes, past the policeman, and handed a soldier an orange.

“No longer could human efforts restrain the joy of welcome. Out under the ropes they poured, girls, boys, mothers, brothers; with fruit and candy they charged the marching column, sweeping the policemen aside…and crowding about the soldiers, they marched the remaining mile to Huron Square.”

Whether any spectators maintained proper social distances, the Star didn’t note.

Since the previous October the Kansas City area had been staggering through that year’s influenza outbreak. From the fall of 1918 through the following spring, an estimated 11,000 cases across the community had left about 2,300 dead.

Many associated the illness with the military. During the fall of 1918 Camp Funston in central Kansas, perhaps the country’s largest military training center, had reported about 1,200 ill. A Kansas City health official had ordered the closing of second-hand stores, as several stocked clothing from the camp.

And yet war-time priorities sometimes seemed to take precedence.

In October Kansas City health officials had forbidden gatherings of more than 20 people, but exempted “Liberty Loan” lunches, part of the war-time fundraising bond campaigns deemed an essential activity.

Rev. Mose Williams
Rev. Mose Williams of Mount Zion Baptist Church. (The Kansas City Sun)

And, upon the armistice in November, thousands of residents had paraded through the downtown districts on both sides of the state line. That fall the head of a Kansas City, Missouri, health board had recommended residents wear gauze masks. 

But by 1919 flu fatigue had set in.

Judging by the position in which some people wear their masks we assume that they think the seat of the influenza germs is in the neck,” the Star had remarked that January.

A third wave of the flu that surfaced in the spring of 1919 didn’t stop hundreds from attending the July 3 reception for the 805th.

“We are proud of our boys and hope that they are proud of us,” announced the Kansas City Sun, a Black weekly newspaper. 

On July 5 the Rev. Mose Williams, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, reminded congregants the Black soldier could boast of “fighting beneath the folds of the Stars and Stripes…coming back limping with the 13th and 14th amendments in his arms.” 

The abolition of slavery and the promise of equal protection under the law, Williams suggested, represented rights earned on the battlefield.

1932: Great Depression

By the early 1930s the Great Depression was settling in across Missouri.

Unemployment in Missouri, which stood at 16% in 1930, more than doubled to 38% two years later. 

In Kansas City the effect would be muted by the Ten-Year Plan, a public works bond program recently approved by voters that put many people back to work.

On July 4 anyone reporting to Swope Park would have encountered extreme normalcy.

 “The ground,” wrote a Kansas City Times reporter, “was littered with wrapping paper, olive bottles, tin cans, frankfurter forks, pop bottles, babies, watermelon rinds, grandma, grandpa, dogs, the debris of firecrackers, pillows, blankets, momma, papa, tennis rackets, nursing bottles, motor car tools, punctured tires and cigarette ends.”

1942: World War II

On Independence Day 10 years later there was enough work for everybody. 

Any defense plant employees enjoying a rare day off deserved their quiet, the Kansas City Times insisted.

Don’t shoot fireworks,” the paper commanded.

“It’s unsafe and illegal in the city and you may disturb the hard-earned rest of some war plant worker. Hunt out the rest of that scrap rubber, scrap metal or scrap paper in your basement.

“Fly the flag.”

The principal Independence Day event was the groundbreaking for the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine plant near Holmes and Bannister Roads. 

The speakers assembled on a small platform before which stood an 18-cylinder 2,000-horsepower engine. U.S. Sen. Harry Truman invoked the Declaration’s signing 166 years before.

“Today again Americans are fighting and dying for the principles which to us are greater than life itself,” he said.

“This war will be won through the efforts of all Americans. There can be no more ‘profits as usual.’ Plants must be operated not five or six days a week but twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week…”

Harry Truman
Harry Truman, then a United States senator, was one of several speakers during groundbreaking ceremonies for the local Pratt & Whitney airplane engine plant in 1942. (Courtesy | Harry S. Truman Library)

One happy result of the discouragement of fireworks was a drastic decrease in burn injuries at area hospitals.

The Star reported one person seeking treatment at General Hospital, where eight years before doctors had treated 275 residents.

1968: Election Year Tumult

A numbing spring and summer followed the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The decision by Kansas City, Missouri, School District officials not to cancel classes for King’s memorial services prompted a cascading series of events that led to several days of civil unrest.

A commission established by Mayor Ilus Davis attempted to identify and address grievances. Others responded in their own fashion. Black and white students organized cleanup efforts in neglected midtown neighborhoods. Others at the University of Missouri-Kansas City began knocking on doors, asking for contributions toward a new scholarship in King’s name.

All that came before the June 6 assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, then a presidential candidate.

On July 3 U.S. District Judge John W. Oliver, addressing new citizens at the federal courthouse, read aloud remarks made by Kennedy during a 1964 Kansas City naturalization ceremony.

“The United States progresses really because of new blood, new ideas, and new initiatives which come to us from all lands, from all people and from all parts of the world,” Kennedy, then serving as U.S. Attorney General, had said.

Independence Day, he added, was an appropriate moment to ponder not only the benefits of citizenship but also its demands.

“The full duty of citizenship means active participation,” Kennedy said.

“It means not permitting the affairs of the general public, the affairs of the country, the affairs of the state, to be left to others.

“It means you have an individual responsibility.”

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.

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