As the community of Armstrong died, time and a highway scattered those who called it home.
The flood of ’51 struck the first blow. A few years later, the new interstate highway system destroyed most of what was left.
But for the 70-year-old Rev. George Vaughn, Armstrong still exists in memory. The childhood games of marbles and races down a local hill. The kindness of neighbors and the closeness of the community. Year after year, the memories draw him back from his home in Michigan to the tiny area of Kansas City, Kan., where he grew up.
“We took pride in the fact that we were from Armstrong,” Vaughn said.
This weekend, Vaughn will rejoin what remains of the former residents and their families to honor the legacy of Armstrong and the black community of just a few city blocks.
They’ll eat together at a picnic Saturday, and on Sunday they’ll pray at a church service that honors the area that first brought them all together. Vaughn said they’ll also celebrate how different ethnic groups got along in the general area of Armstrong. During this time, they’ll celebrate a place that no longer exists and that, for the most part, no one outside of them remembers.
Decades after they first left, former residents still have warm memories of the community that seemed to have it all, from grocery stores and churches to living room barbershops and friendly neighbors. There were still issues of segregation and racism, but Vaughn said Armstrong helped launch him on his path in life.
“It wasn’t a perfect community, but it was a loving community,” he said.
They recall a time when no one had to lock their doors, day or night, when all the parents looked after one another’s children. Life felt simpler, kinder to them than the days they live in now.
“The community evolved into a great, large family,” said George DeBose, pastor at the Tabernacle Baptist Church that served the Armstrong community and now helps coordinate the two-day celebration of it. “Everyone knew everybody.”
The area was very close to the railroad, and occasionally panhandlers and vagabonds who had hitched a ride on the rails would wander into Armstrong looking for food. Donald Boyd, a former member of the community who helped start the yearly remembrance in 1977, said people made sure the wanderers had food when they came by.
“Everybody was blessed there,” Boyd said. “It was like a stopping point.”
As the years have passed, Boyd still fondly remembers how the children in Armstrong would go to the store for folks, shovel snow in the winter and chop firewood for those who needed it.
But there’s little recorded history about the small community, and what is known is murky at best.
According to the Wyandotte County Historical Museum, the larger area was named after Chief Silas Armstrong of the Wyandot Nation. It became part of Kansas City, Kan., in 1886.
The Armstrong name is associated with the area, but former residents said they weren’t positive where the name of their community came from.
According to a document from the historical society, Union Pacific employed African-Americans and helped start a village of railroad workers near the tracks. Maps of the area show that the black population surged between 1936 and 1947, although Vaughn and other former residents said the community may have stretched back further than records seem to suggest.
Vaughn estimates that a combined short four blocks, or about 40 black families, formed a unique community in the area.
“As time went by, people started doing a little better and fixed the neighborhood up,” said Andrew Henderson, a resident of the community for parts of three decades. “Things were getting a little better.”
It was around that time that the flood of 1951 and interstate highway construction scattered the community’s families across Wyandotte County.
“That’s what broke the neighborhood up,” Henderson said. “People moved out. That was the last of it.”
After the families moved to new areas, Vaughn said many of them ended up living around one another.
“It was almost like Armstrong never died,” Vaughn said.
Former residents who are still alive said it saddens them to think the area where they grew up is becoming lost to history.
A few decades after the remnants of the area had begun to turn into stories and memories, the residents started to get together every year to remember what life was like in Armstrong. Henderson said many former residents have died. Now, the story is told to the younger generations, the children and grandchildren.
“All they know is what we told them,” Henderson said. “It’s fading now.”
It was more than 20 years ago that Vaughn starting coming back for the late summer remembrance. He said the trip gives him “a way of reliving the past and reflecting on the past, and a way of evaluating where you are now from where you’ve been and assessing the next steps for the future.”
When the events celebrating Armstrong started, Boyd remembers about 100 people attending the gathering. He still enjoys seeing old friends and talking about memories. But now, he said the August gathering has grown smaller, with fewer of the old folks still alive.
“There’s a few of us that can still tell the story of what we know,” Boyd said. “Eventually it will go out if we don’t put it down on paper somewhere.”
Boyd said the only thing he could do is remember his past and pass on the story to younger generations.
“As far as I’m concerned, there will never be another Armstrong,” Boyd said.