From Ollie W. Gates’ perspective, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. set the groundwork for the greatness that can develop in the next 50 years in Kansas City’s urban core.
But people first have to overcome the past. That includes the exodus of African-Americans from the urban core, escaping segregation. Black people moved, integrating the suburbs seeking better housing, schools, safety and opportunities. The result has been urban blight and a re-segregation. Fleeing the city offered blacks few benefits.
“It causes us to look at the area where we came from as an undesirable area,” said Gates, the president and owner of Gates Bar-B-Q. “I take a little exception to that.”
Gates, a longtime urban resident, graduated from Lincoln High School in 1949 and Lincoln University in 1954 with a bachelor’s in building trade. He served as a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineer from 1954 to 1956. He returned to Kansas City to work at Ol’ Kentuck, a barbecue restaurant his parents, George and Arzelia Gates, started in 1946 at 19th and Vine streets.
Gates remembers that despite the fences bigotry created, Kansas City had more black businesses before the civil rights movement than it does today. Segregation forced blacks to shop, eat and get goods and services mostly in the black community.
Black businesses “were able to be the recipients of black dollars,” said Gates, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century. “You had a captive audience.”
Gates’ restaurants benefited. However, the fences gradually came down with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling ending legal segregation, the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and public accommodation laws. Black businesses suddenly had to compete with everyone else.
Many couldn’t make the transition. Gates’ restaurants did with its appealing product, expanding locations and nationally known “hi, may I help you” service.
“We need to be competitive today,” said Gates, whose company includes barbecue restaurants, Gates products and real estate development company, O.G. Investments. “We’re competing for white and black dollars.”
African-Americans must take advantage of the boost King provided, Gates said.
“That is to say the areas from which we’ve come are as good as other areas in the city,” said Gates, who continues to develop neighborhoods around his urban restaurants. He cited famous black scientist and Missouri native George Washington Carver, saying, “We have to go back and replenish the soil.”
Housing and streets in the black community should be as desirable as Ward Parkway. Incentives have to be added such as a sales-tax free zone for the area Ninth to 29th streets and Troost to Prospect avenues. Businesses there also should get free building permits and be excused from real estate taxes. That would give companies a reason to locate in the black community and compel people to shop there. City, county and state incentives have helped the Plaza, Crown Center, Zona Rosa and downtown. They are long overdue in the black community.
“It influences people to do what you want them to do rather than mandate them to do,” Gates said. “You have to do enough to make people want to come back there.”
Schools and public transportation must be improved along with keeping the urban core clean, beautiful, appealing, comfortable, safe and convenient, said Gates, who counts himself as a beneficiary of King’s work.
“Young people need to pick up the banner and get to stepping,” Gates said of the need for civil rights marches to continue for the next 50 years for progress to be certain. “I just think now can be a great beginning.
“Kansas City is on the threshold of being the best in the world. Kansas City has a lot to offer. We’re just not packaging it correctly.”
Packaging and redirecting resources, energy and priorities to benefit the urban core has to start now for the city to be a showcase for everyone by 2063.