Mention Harlem and immediately, New York — or the Globetrotters basketball team — come to mind. But those who know their Kansas City history recognize the name of a treasure on the banks of the Missouri River.
The community, just east of the Charles Wheeler Airport, has existed for nearly 170 years. Charles Broomfield, a native of Missouri’s Harlem and a former Clay County commissioner, is writing a book about the history of Harlem, inspired by his many years living in the area.
Its name came from early immigrants from northern Europe, he says, as the topography of the area looks like Haarlem, a city outside of Amsterdam in the northwest Netherlands. Along with Broomfield, Mitchell Burch, Art Homer, Lewis Grace and Floyd Jones grew up in Harlem in the 1920s through the early ’50s, and all are eager to share stories of their childhood. All were present when the Native Sons and Daughters of Greater Kansas City dedicated a historic marker honoring Harlem on Nov. 20 in the roundabout at the Wheeler Downtown Airport.
Once a busy landing on the Missouri River, Harlem prospered and had a population of almost 700 at its peak in the late 1800s. Though now in the shadow of Kansas City across the river, Harlem is the older of the two communities. Founded circa 1820, but never incorporated, it was a landing on the river for the steamboats bringing supplies and settlers, and voyagers headed farther west. It was a place that was visited by the famous and the infamous: Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Jesse James, to name a few.
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The future seemed secure in the 1800s, and times were good for Harlem for more than 100 years.
According to a 2013 article in the magazine “Discover Vintage America,” bridges and urban progress helped destroy the town, but nature had a hand in it as well. In 2014, Richard J. Gentile, professor emeritus in the department of geosciences at the University of Missouri- Kansas City, presented “The Rock Ledge That Gave Birth to Kansas City, Missouri,” explaining how the 1833 discovery of a rock ledge on the south side of the river established Westport Landing.
Attorney Mike Burke, who has represented businesses in Harlem, noted the landing was better suited to steamboats. “The channel is on the south side of the river at that point.”
Thought the streets of Harlem are now mostly deserted and business owners say the sounds of police sirens are not uncommon, the community was once prosperous and peaceful.
Today, Harlem has only four houses: two occupied, one an office soon to be demolished and one deserted. Lewis Grace was born in 1924 in one of the two occupied houses on Walnut Street. He fights back tears when recalling his childhood there.
“It was a beautiful town,” Grace said. “There were about 500 people. There was no other place like Harlem to grow up in. Harlem was unique, outstanding; everything a young man would want.”
Today, Harlem has five businesses, a church and a former Holiday Inn that now serves as a low-income housing unit. A levee protects Harlem from the Missouri River on the south and Broadway separates it from the Charles Wheeler Airport on the west. Rail cars pass through, crossing the river on the Hannibal and ASB Bridges.
During its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harlem had three churches, grocery stores, a livery stable, a saloon, a school, a justice court and two hotels. It even had a semi-pro baseball team, said Homer, a retired engineer who now lives in Riverside. Later, two gas stations, automobile repair shops, Jones Iron and Metal and a commercial catering business were established. All but the gas stations have survived.
In the 1860s, one of the two hotels was owned by John and Elizabeth Mimms. In 1865, Jesse James recovered from being “lungshot” during the Civil War at that hotel. He reportedly fell in love in Harlem — and his cousin, Zeralda, who nursed him back to health. He married her in 1874 after a long courtship. Those who live in the city say the wedding took place in a long-gone church in Harlem.
Missouri was divided in its loyalties during the Civil War, but Harlem was staunchly pro-union. In 1861, its citizens published a notice in the “Western Journal of Commerce” that read, “If the citizens of Missouri secede from the Union, the citizens of Harlem will secede from Clay County. We have our own flag now and it is floating on the breeze!”
In 1867, John Campbell filed a plat for 250 lots in Harlem. It was a promising start to a community that never managed to flourish, Broomfield said.
“It’s a mystery as to why Campbell did not incorporate the community,” Broomfield said. “It is interesting to note that several prominent founders of Kansas City owned property in Harlem, not the least of these was the founder of Westport, John McCoy.”
Even the residents seemed confused as to where they lived according to Broomfield.
“Many people in Harlem always thought we lived in North Kansas City. We went to NKC schools; we received our mail through the North Kansas City post office and we shopped in North Kansas City, but we did have a rural route address until 1950.”
In 1950, Harlem was annexed by the settlement that did flourish: Kansas City.
The City of Kansas (which became Kansas City in 1889) was organized in 1853 around the Westport Landing and Westport, four miles to the southwest. There, wagons were outfitted for the long trek across the country.
After the 1837 Platte Purchase created six new Missouri counties, the river became even more important as a “highway” for steamboats conveying supplies and settlers. The lack of bridges, however, created a barrier for travelers until Peter Roy, an early area entrepreneur, connected the Westport Landing to Harlem by ferryboat.
An article published in the Kansas Historical Quarterly in 1933 emphasized the impact the Platte Purchase had on the need for transportation, mainly for those hoping to cross the river.
“…with the opening of this new country there was a spasmodic movement into it from the south side of the river,” the author wrote. Roy took advantage of that need.
The river was no longer a barrier with the construction of the first Hannibal Bridge in 1869.
The first bridge across the Missouri, it provided a means for both rail and passenger traffic to traverse the river more efficiently, though ferries still existed.
The best-known Harlem ferry, The Annie Cade, launched in 1879 and ceased operation in 1912. After a brief life as a fish restaurant, it sank. Fare was a nickel according to a newspaper account quoting a Harlem resident, the late Ulment Donaldson. The ferry carried not only people and supplies, but livestock, which frightened Donaldson so much that the operator of the ferry would let her sit beside him for security.
The second Hannibal Bridge opened in 1917 and is used today by trains.
The ASB Bridge, built in 1911, carried a streetcar line across the river, enabling riders to travel from Swope Park to the site of what is now the North Kansas City Hospital.
By all accounts, church and school were the center of the community.
The Harlem school merged with the Glenwood School district to become the basis of North Kansas City School District in 1913. The late Virgil Bower graduated from William Jewell College and became a teacher and principal at the Morris elementary school in Harlem in 1933. A 1935 photo shows more than 120 students and a faculty of five.
The three-room schoolhouse, which is now just a pile of rubble, held eight grades when Grace attended, but only six when Broomfield, Homer and Burch were students. Bower initiated a hot lunch program when he noticed many students had only cold biscuits to eat.
Bower was a mentor to the majority of the young men in Harlem and beyond through Boy Scouts of America, an organization in which he was actively involved until his death in 1997 at age 89. His troop met at the Harlem Baptist Church, which was founded in 1907 as the Harlem Tabernacle Church. Lewis Grace’s wife, Louise, served at the church in every capacity, from Sunday School teacher to janitor.
“When I married, Lewis, I did not know I would inherit a church,” she said. The Graces continued to support the church until the congregation dwindled to the point the church ceased to operate.
Today the church, one of the few early buildings still standing, provides a gathering place for a Sudanese community, the majority of whom come from south of the river, said Pastor Gabriel Riak, a minister and leader of the United Christian Fellowship. The building, which is still marked “Baptist Church,” is provided rent free, but the Fellowship pays the utilities and does the maintenance.
While many nearby businesses are closed, most in the Kansas City area can identify the area where Harlem still exists by a nearby airport. In 1927 the Kansas City Airport, now the Charles Wheeler Airport, opened across the highway with much fanfare. Charles Lindberg dedicated the airport and Amelia Earhart visited. A Holiday Inn was built in the 1960s for travelers and flight crews. Retired pilots who flew out of the old municipal airport remember going to the Holiday Inn bar to catch up between flights.
TWA’s catering kitchen was in Harlem. When the airport moved to its present location in 1972, Harlem lost businesses like the gas stations and the Holiday Inn. By the mid-1980s, only 12 houses were occupied, said Mary Reichert, who was doing home nursing at that time.
“They were a close knit community,” she said. “The church was still operating and there was a small store.”
Although the river was responsible for Harlem’s existence, bringing settlers and supplies, it also helped bring its near-demise through periodic floods. In 1844, the water rose to the bluffs, but the residents fought for their town and still the population grew. A federal levee was built early in the 20th century, which protected Harlem in 1951 when the houses built on the river side of the levee were washed away, Burch said. His grandfather, Ronnie Burch, lost his houseboat when it broke loose from its moorings.
Burch, now a resident of Riverside, was raised in Harlem. His father and grandfather earned a living as commercial fishermen. Each day his father, Vernon Burch, would release his catch of carp and catfish into a 500 gallon tank of water in downtown Harlem. Customers would then make a selection. Sue Farley, of Platte County, recalls that her father would drive to Harlem to pick out a fish or two for dinner.
In a history of highs and lows, Harlem missed another opportunity to regain its previous stature when riverboat gaming became legal in Missouri. Every community on the river approached or was approached by a gaming company to secure a boat for its community.
At the peak of the competition in the early 1990s, 23 entities were in the race. Luke Daly and partners, including Jones, headed the effort in Harlem. He secured Caesar’s Palace for the gaming and the Sheraton Hotel chain for a hotel. Directly across the river from Kansas City, it provided a prime location, Daly said. Jones bought derelict Harlem houses and leveled them to provide a site. But the dream did not materialize, as only five sites in the metro area were chosen; one has since closed.
“We had (plans for) a mall with retail and food,” Daly said. “It was an opportunity lost.”
Daly cited bad politics as one reason for the failure.
The effort to bring gaming to Harlem was not the only attempt to revive the community. About 15 years ago, Burke said, the revitalization of Harlem was a project for a team of Kansas University architectural students. The panoramic views of Kansas City above the Harlem levee were an asset, students wrote.
Today, Harlem lives in the memories of those who grew up there. Although Broomfield, Homer, Burch, Jones and Grace have not lived in Harlem since the 1950s, they will never forget their time there.
James Withington, a student at Park University in 2005 wrote a paper titled “Harlem, the Hamlet across the River,” and prefaced it with a quote from the late Will Rodgers:
“Everyone has deep in their heart the old town or community where they first went barefooted, got their first licking, traded their first pocket knife, grew up, and finally went away thinking you were too big for that Burg. But that’s where your old heart is.”