During the early 1900s, the intersection at 27th Street and Cleveland Avenue was quite busy, bustling with cars and trucks. Even a Kansas City streetcar line crossed this intersection.
But children attending the nearby Greenwood Elementary School didn’t worry about safety. They could use one of the city’s first underground pedestrian walkways, commonly referred to as "The Tunnel." Four passageways, one from each corner of the intersection, met in the middle underneath the street.
Greenwood Elementary was built in the early 1900s and “The Tunnel” was built about the same time. The school was was named for James M. Greenwood, who laid the foundation for the Kansas City school system. By 1928, it was the largest grade school in Kansas City.
When my family moved into the neighborhood, Greenwood School was segregated. However, after the landmark 1954 school desegregation case, my brother, Robert L. Silk, and I were among the first black students to attend Greenwood School, which would change from 100 percent white students to almost all black.
I recall finally going down in the tunnel when I started first grade, and I was so excited! I remember that the lower portion of each wall was painted in different pastel color (red, yellow, blue, or green). Also, lines were painted on floors that corresponded with the colors on each wall. Later I learned that the colors helped the smaller children know which direction to take.
There were lights attached to the ceilings, but they were very dim. Depending on the time of day, shadows would dance on the walls and floors as I walked, which made the underground passages a little eerie. I would hold my brother’s hand tightly as we passed through.
I saw parents standing at one entrance, and they would watch and wave at their children when they emerged from the other side.
When I started third grade and my brother moved on to junior high, I had to tackle “The Tunnel” on my own. I started walking with some neighbor kids. We would enter and rush as fast as we could, racing to be the first to reach the other side. I would wave to my friends on another corner as they went on their way.
Fifth-grade students at the school volunteered to help direct the younger kids. They wore crossing safety belts with a specific color that matched a color on the wall and the lines on the floor. Those belts let the children know which direction they should go.
During the late 1950s, I participated in drills where “The Tunnel” served as both a tornado shelter and a fallout shelter for civil defense (because of nuclear bomb threats from the Soviet Union).
In the early 1960s, incidents of violence in “The Tunnel” were being reported, so students were no longer allowed to use it outside the normal school commute. Gates, with locks, were added at each entrance. If students stayed late for after-school activities and the gates were locked, they had to cross the intersection at street level.
Late in the 1980s, “The Tunnel” was permanently closed. The gates stayed locked and fencing was added to cover the top of each entrance, to prevent vagrants and animals from making homes in the underground passageway.
Greenwood Elementary School closed in 1997, a victim of budget cuts and declining enrollment. However, the memories of “The Tunnel” will live on in the hearts and minds of the students and faculty members who once walked proudly through the halls of the stately Greenwood Elementary School.