Remembering the military roles of African-Americans in World War I
Longtime local historian and former newspaper columnist Joelouis Mattox was found dead inside his southeast Kansas City home earlier this week.
Mattox spent his life researching, writing and lecturing about the contributions of African-Americans in Kansas City and throughout the region. Since the early 1990s, Mattox was an independent scholar and volunteer at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and State Museum in Kansas City.
“It is a loss and a wonderful loss for the world of history and especially Kansas City history,” said Wilhelmina Stewart, board chairwoman of the Watkins Center. “Mr. Mattox was a fantastic gentleman, and his passing is a shock and a hurting disappointment. He was such a wonderful person.”
Mattox grew up in a three-room house that he shared with his mother in the “colored” section of Caruthersville, Mo. He earned money as a teenager picking cotton. He later attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where he studied history and government, according to a 2015 profile in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Moving to Kansas City, Mattox worked for the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and was the first black member of the Jaycees of Independence, Mattox told the Capital-Journal.
He also was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
Mattox was the keeper of records — a walking history book — filled with details about the African-American involvement in the Civil War and beyond in Missouri and Kansas. He was frequently was called upon to speak to historical groups, public libraries and school children about the Missouri and Kansas African-American historical experience, even lending his knowledge to authors attempting to document the black and Native American role in the story of the Midwest.
“He was a treasure to this community, to Kansas City,” said former Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks. “He served on the Historic Preservation Committee for years. He worked with the Black Archives for years. He was active in the NAACP for years. He did workshops for the Kansas City Public Library.”
Mattox began working at the Watkins Center following a career as a public housing official. He was a freelance writer who specialized in African-American topics. Mattox served on the board of directors of the Historic Kansas City Foundation and was also a historian for the Midwest Afro-American Genealogical Interest Coalition, a volunteer at the Battle of Westport Visitor Center and Museum, and was recognized as a “Living Historian.”
Mattox’s experience as an administrator in public housing led to his support of public schools and the Kansas City school district. At times, he gathered community leaders and thinkers together — often at the southeast library branch — to encourage new ideas to help parents with their children’s education.
“We build libraries for, and because of, people like Joe Louis Mattox,” said R. Crosby Kemper III, executive director of the Kansas City Public Library.
In recent years, Mattox championed and sought to raise awareness about the contributions of African-Americans who fought in World War I, including Wayne Miner of Kansas City, who died on the last day of the war. Mattox was a historian for American Legion Wayne Miner Post 149.
“He had a genial, pleasant and even sometimes joyful personality,” Kemper said. “He was easy to be around, and he was everybody’s friend. He got deeply into the darker parts of our history but always with the point of inspiring us to do better and be better.”
The Star’s Joe Robertson and Mara’ Rose Williams contributed to this report.