Local historian Erik Stafford thinks you could learn everything you need to know about American history by studying black history in Kansas City.
Stafford should know – he’s made a business of running black history tours of Kansas City, which include several Midtown locations.
When they first think about it, most people can’t name of a lot of African American historical sites in Kansas City. But Stafford sees black history everywhere, and thinks Kansas City’s past is among the richest of any city.
“Slavery, cowboys and Indians, the livestock exchange, Tom Pendergast…,” he says, listing some of the historical topics with ties to black culture. “And then you add all the jazz history.”
Stafford credits Midtown’s Penn Valley Community College as the place his fascination with history began. Admitting he was a mediocre student before he hit the Penn Valley campus, Stafford says his instructors there unleashed his intellectual curiosity and opened up possibilities.
“All of those people molded me to follow my passion and to start my own business,” he says.
The budding historian went on to get history degree from Central Missouri State University.
Returning to Kansas City, Stafford taught at the Genesis School. One of his projects there was to teach young people to lead tours of historic sites in Kansas City. That was when he began to understand how many important and interesting stories there were and to see how much people enjoyed learning about them.
“Their minds are blown when they find out how much black history there is in Kansas City,” he says.
Stafford continued his education, earning a master’s degree in business at Webster University, working with the Full Employment Council, publishing poetry, and even running for the Missouri House of Representatives.
But a passion for local history remained, and for the past three or four years he’s been focused on a new business endeavor – conducting tours of historic sites in Kansas City.
Stafford tailors his tours to his audience. Some days, he might be leading a high school reunion around its old school neighborhood. Other days he might he showing out-of-towners the wide range of historic sites across the metro area.
If he were leading a tour of Midtown, he’d talk about the Steptoe neighborhood, an area of the Plaza Westport neighborhood along 43rd Street that was once an African American community. He’d show folks where the famous “hanging tree” stood near there, talk about how people moved around town on the streetcars (one of the few non-segregated areas of African American life), and maybe tell a story about Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway playing at the Pla-Mor ballroom at Linwood and Main.
That’s in addition to other significant historic locations he thinks everyone should know about, including: 12th and Vine; the Paseo; Quality Hill; Case Park; underground railroad sites; the Liberty Memorial; 18th and Vine; Lincoln High School and Battle of Westport locations.
For Stafford, these sites may all be part of black history, but they also tell the whole story of Kansas City.
“I’m showing them the very best of Kansas City,” he says.
Stafford plans to add new tours in 2016 including walking tours of 18th and Vine and downtown and perhaps even a bicycle tour.