How to convey the powerful emotions of slavery, freedom and contemporary racial tension in America?
Maybe start with a trumpet. Maybe add a cello. And an upright bass.
Combine them with the passion that a Kansas City, Kan., man has for getting people to think about those issues.
What you get are soul-stirring sounds, especially as they resonate above the ruins of old Quindaro, a historically significant site used by slaves to escape to freedom in Kansas.
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For the last few years, America Patton — that’s his given name — has been blowing his horn at the Kansas City, Kan., site in preparation for an album of instrumental music that he hopes will help Americans break through their cultural divides. It is a mission made more important, he believes, with the spotlight now on police violence against African-Americans.
“I want to be a voice of hope,” Patton said. “We don’t have to remain divided. We don’t have to go about it in a violent way. There is another alternative. I feel one way to do it is to tell what has happened in our history through music in a way that can get people to say, ‘OK, this is the main point.’ There is still an enduring struggle. We need to come together and realize we’re all in this together.”
Patton grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and lives not far from the Quindaro ruins, which he became aware of in adulthood. His mother-in-law’s grandmother once lived near where a gazebo was dedicated on Juneteenth in 2008.
Patton takes advantage of the acoustics there a few times a week to practice his trumpet. He is usually alone, as there are seldom visitors to this dead-end lane a few blocks north of 27th Street and Quindaro Boulevard. The spot on a bluff overlooks the Missouri River, with Platte County in the distance. An untold number of slaves made their way to freedom across that river.
“Quindaro was only in existence for a few years during territorial Kansas,” said Diane Mutti Burke, an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of a book about slavery in Missouri. “It was a site of the underground railroad.”
A statue of abolitionist John Brown stands close by the gazebo, near the ruins of Western University, the first African-American university west of the Mississippi.
“It’s kind of sad that a lot of people don’t travel to this area,” Patton said. “It’s something that needs to be brought back to life. It’s an area that needs to be, I feel, not just something that’s quiet. It needs to be exposed to a greater audience.”
Patton hopes his musical project can accomplish that.
The former football player at Harmon High School was inspired by a coach to go to college, where he studied music and history. He later taught social studies at Washington High School, where he introduced a minority studies program. A deeply religious man, Patton believes all of that was meant to be.
The plan is to produce an album of about a dozen songs, many composed by Patton himself. He practiced two of them on a recent afternoon at the gazebo. On “Spiritual Warfare” he was accompanied by Rachel Fuentes, a cellist from Kansas City who has joined Patton’s project.
As he explained it, his brash trumpet represents conflict while her soothing and droning cello represents harmony.
“I’m getting paid a little bit but I’m also pretty excited about the project,” Fuentes said. “It’s not just a job.”
Also attending rehearsal that day was Kansas City musician Dominique Sanders, who adds his upright bass to another original composition.
Sanders thinks Patton is onto something by aspiring to express grand concepts like struggle, freedom and equality through music.
“That’s, like, the main way,” Sanders said. “That’s one thing everybody in the world appreciates. It’s one of the best platforms.”
Patton is financing the album project himself. He has a GoFundMe page. He said about 10 percent of the project has been completed, with recordings so far made at Chapman Recording & Mastering studio in Lenexa. He hopes to have a finished product before his 34th birthday on May 27. He envisions it being sold online and through Christian and secular music outlets.
“This historical musical project is a story about pain, triumph, victory, sorrow, spiritual conflict and the will to unite under horrific and oppressive conditions,” Patton wrote, describing his ambition. “I want this project to be a testimony of hope, unity and love.”
Patton has sought musical advice from Leon A. Brady, a retired band director at Sumner High School and youth jazz teacher.
“I’m very interested in what he is doing,” Brady said of Patton’s project. “From what I can tell, it’s an excellent program.”
The future of the Quindaro site is uncertain. KCUR reports that an African Methodist Episcopal church wants to develop it but there are skeptics. Jesse Hope III, who kept a small museum near the Quindaro site going, died July 6.
History professor Burke said the story of slavery and the underground railroad on the Missouri-Kansas border is complex, not easily reduced to generalities. But she said there is nothing wrong with trying to convey the essence through music.
“This is always the question with art,” she said. “It’s meant to try to be emotionally powerful. I think any effort to hook people, to get them interested in this story is important. It’s important to understand our past so we can understand our present, really.”