Fred Curls, a pioneer in Kansas City politics and the last surviving member of the group that founded the influential political club Freedom Inc., died Friday. He was 96.
In 1961 and 1962, Curls formed Freedom Inc. with a handful of other influential African-Americans in Kansas City, including Leon Jordan and Bruce R. Watkins.
“After the war years, I knew something was wrong with segregation. I wanted something better for myself and my children,” Curls told The Star in 2009. “When we started Freedom Inc., it was a race for freedoms.”
The group sought to register more African-Americans to vote and end segregation in politics, public accommodations and education.
It succeeded almost immediately. Freedom Inc. negotiated with the Kansas City Council to expand the council to 12 members, part of an effort to open local political offices to minorities. The club spearheaded the passage an anti-discrimination ordinance in 1964.
It recruited African-Americans to run for office, and by the the mid-1960s Kansas City voters began electing them. Freedom Inc. backed Alan Wheat for Congress and helped elect school board members and state legislators.
“African-Americans began to recognize the power of their votes,” Curls said in 2009. “That made all the difference.”
In 1991, voters elected Emanuel Cleaver — a Freedom member — as mayor.
“The silhouette of Fred Curls now joins the always growing shadow of little celebrated Kansas Citians whose work will make a difference for unborn generations,” Cleaver, now a U.S. congressman, wrote Monday in an email.
“Young African-American elected officials may not realize that the very office they hold — or aspire to hold — is, in no small part related to the political pioneering of Fred Curls,” he wrote.
Financial problems have plagued Freedom Inc. in recent years, and supervision of the club has changed hands frequently. Yet politicians still consider the group an important link to the concerns in the minority community.
Curls’ daughter Karen Curls said her father was proud of his work to empower black voters in Kansas City.
“He felt that in order to make change you had to have some type of political mechanism, where you had people who were educated on the issues,” she said Monday.
Fred Curls was a retired appraiser and a real estate broker.
He was the father of seven children. One of them — Phil Curls — was a major fixture of the state legislature before his death in 2007. Phil Curls’ wife, Melba, is now a member of the Kansas City Council.
Shalonn “Kiki” Curls, Fred Curls’ granddaughter, is now a state senator in Missouri. Darwin Curls, Kiki’s father and Fred Curls’ son, served on the Kansas City school board.