Published October 11th, 2021 at 12:37 PM
Phil Dixon was buzzing as he pulled into the parking lot of Heathwood Park. Today he’s lauded as the founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, but this little plot of land was where he first fell in love with the sport over 50 years ago.
Heathwood Park sits in the North End of Kansas City, Kansas, next to a neighborhood called Rattlebone Hollow. That’s where Dixon grew up.
“I think of all those people who came out of here and made significant contributions to society, you know, it makes me proud,” Dixon said. “I’m proud to have come from there.”
When you search the history of Rattlebone Hollow, the name is typically no more than a footnote. Either that, or it’s painted as a crime-infested corner of the community.
The record of Rattlebone, the real Rattlebone, lives primarily in the memories of its members, many of whom have long since moved away or died.
Maybe that’s why a curiousKC follower asked us to see what we could find about the North End neighborhood that produced a famous boxer, at least two millionaires, and a man who barely missed becoming the first Black astronaut.
In March 1879, a steamboat arrived in Wyandotte County carrying upwards of 200 migrant African Americans from the South.
Soon after there was another boat. Then another. And another.
Hundreds of Exodusters arrived in Wyandotte within two weeks, and the refugees kept coming by the thousands. Many of the formerly enslaved people arrived with nothing but the clothes on their back and the promise of freedom in Kansas ringing in their heads.
Hidden in this familiar story of the exodus to Quindaro, there is often one sentence pointing to the small Exoduster settlement called Rattlebone Hollow that formed along Jersey Creek.
Around the turn of the 20th century there was a smattering of newspaper mentions of Rattlebone. One story described a fire bomb burning down two Black businesses because they were outside of the fire station’s jurisdiction. Another newspaper column encouraged folks in favor of interracial marriage to visit Rattlebone Hollow, presumably to dissuade themselves.
Then, virtual radio silence for decades.
The name was back in the papers in the 1970s and ‘80s surrounding a toxic landfill that was dropped in the middle of the neighborhood.
But the surviving residents of Rattlebone will have you know that outsiders don’t know the half of what went on in the North End.
When Ed Dwight picked up the phone in his Denver art studio, he was ready to end the conversation before it began. At the mention of Rattlebone Hollow, though, he paused.
It seems like Dwight has lived a thousand lives, from being the first African American to enter the Air Force astronaut training program to becoming a renowned sculptor in Denver. But he got his start on a modest farm in Wyandotte.
Dwight’s father, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs, moved to Rattlebone Hollow around 1905 because one of the packing houses in the Fairfax area was hiring. When he arrived there were just a few houses off of the bluffs.
“We didn’t buy anything from town for years on end,” Dwight recalled. “We killed and ate anything with wings.”
Like a lot of the folks in the area, his family got their start as homesteaders. Most Exodusters came to Kansas with little or no money, but they were armed to the teeth with farming knowledge.
“The whole bottom of the hill was a giant farm,” Dwight said. “We had apple trees and pear trees.”
As time went on, the neighborhood started to blossom. By the 1940s it was an entirely self-sufficient Black community. Many of the people who grew up there said they would go weeks without even seeing a white person (and if they did, that person was usually very lost).
Acclaimed track coach Albert (Al) Hobson detailed his experience growing up in Rattlebone Hollow at that time in his book “The North End, As Quiet As It’s Kept.” He described the area as a small village, and the denizens knew that they weren’t welcome elsewhere.
The book’s subtitle comes from the fact that the North End was segregated as KCK’s Black district. There weren’t many newcomers and people didn’t often leave. The very existence of the neighborhood felt kept quiet.
The neighborhood was avoided and its people written off by outsiders. But on the inside there was a bustling community of businesses, churches, schools, police, restaurants and doctors.
It was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody.
In his book, Hobson recalled when the first family in the neighborhood purchased a television. In the evenings they would turn the 12-inch round screen towards the window so that everyone could gather outside in chairs to watch one of the three available channels.
He described Rattlebone as a place where people understood hardship and helped each other when they could.
Though the neighborhood was more or less a safe haven, many of the people in it moved through life with a high level of caution – particularly if they had to leave the North End for any reason.
“Because most of our parents were from the South, those horrors were still very much instilled in them,” Hobson said.
Many parents still clearly remembered the lynchings and draggings in their southern hometowns. If Hobson so much as looked at a white girl, his aunt would thump him on the head so hard that a welt would grow immediately.
Hobson left Rattlebone Hollow at age 17, but has since returned to his roots in Wyandotte.
Part of what made Rattlebone Hollow unique was how many Black folks owned their own land. This is why it was all the more painful each time the U.S. government seized their land through eminent domain for various reasons.
During World War II, the U.S. military was building B-25 bombers in the Fairfax Industrial District. They wanted employees to be able to live close by, so land was taken from families in the North End to build 103 housing units. They still stand today on Manorcrest Drive in the historic Parkwood district.
What also still stands today is the fence that was built in the 1940s between Rattlebone Hollow and the white Parkwood neighborhood to keep the communities separated.
Dixon pointed the fence out in slight disbelief that so much of it was still there. As a child he knew to never cross that border while he was out playing with his friends.
Many women in Rattlebone Hollow also worked as domestic workers for the white families in Parkwood. In the mornings and evenings they could be seen walking between the neighborhoods.
Cruising through the Parkwood neighborhood, Dixon noted the once-segregated Parkwood Swimming Pool as well as the segregated cemetery. The cemetery sits on a hill, and the Black folks were buried on the low end because that’s the area that would flood when it rained.
If the flooding was bad enough, the ground under the caskets would wash away and the caskets would fall over a nearby cliff (nicknamed Devil’s Cliff) and break open.
Though the scars of racism are etched into Rattlebone Hollow, Dixon still looks back on his upbringing with fondness.
He is grateful for being reared in an all-Black environment where no one told him that he was inferior.
“We thought we could conquer the world,” Dixon chuckled.
In 1972, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, marched into the Rattlebone Hollow and started breaking ground for a landfill. The landfill was to be filled for a few years, covered, then a park was to be built on top – a plan that the Environmental Protection Agency was excited to pioneer.
It didn’t take long for the locals to oppose the landfill, noting that facilities like factories and toxic waste sites tend to be placed in Black neighborhoods.
Despite the protests, the landfill was dug in Rattlebone Hollow. A few years later, the landfill started to seep toxic waste into the local water table.
A project that was supposed to bring revitalization ended up polluting the neighborhood. Two years after opening, the landfill was closed and John Garland Park was built on top of it as planned. Most locals didn’t dare to go near the area.
The park officially closed in the 1990s and the county went back to the drawing board. The EPA addressed the toxic leaks, and John Garland Park recently reopened amid ongoing skepticism from the community.
Sometime in the 1980s Rattlebone Hollow stopped being Rattlebone Hollow.
The name started to fade away as those who knew it died off. Now the neighborhood has been absorbed into the community consciousness as simply part of the North End, and many of the houses have been torn down. Lively streets that were once home for dozens of families are blocked off and overgrown.
“It was Black people living together in pretty much harmony,” Dixon said about Rattlebone in its peak.
Though the neighborhood now is a shadow of its former self, one thing is clear: Rattlebone Hollow was more than a footnote.
It was a place where the formerly enslaved found freedom and dreamed of creating a better life for future generations. It was a neighborhood where people helped each other through hard times and made something out of nothing.
“It’s a small history, but these are people that people had written off, and that was a big mistake,” Dixon said. “There were athletes, there were politicians, there was a little bit of everything. And there were good people who probably will never get mentioned but made significant contributions to this city in ways that ordinary people do.”
Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.