A decade after Kansas City spent millions to provide a new home for the struggling Black Archives of Mid-America, the city is again infusing public money to keep the operation afloat.
The latest was a vote Tuesday by the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners to pump another $75,000 in tax dollars into the archives — a precious collection of the African-American experience that includes a slave cabin. The funding was the second half of $150,000 the city is giving to the archives; the first part was granted in November.
The public lifeline comes just months after the last director of operations at the archives quit because he could not count on a timely paycheck. Access to the archives in an old stone building near 18th and Vine streets was also by appointment only.
Now, the organization is keeping regular hours again, opening for free to visitors and scholars.
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On Sunday, scores of people packed an open house to hear the Black Archives’ new executive director speak about the future.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm,” said Carmaletta Williams, a former professor of English and African-American studies at Johnson County Community College. “I think a lot of people thought that the archives was closed down or abandoned or whatever. When I got the call to come in, the first thing we decided we needed to do was to let people know the Black Archives was alive and well. So, I threw a party to get people in the building so they could see and feel that energy and enthusiasm.”
The challenge for Williams and her board will be to sustain that newfound energy and find new sources of income.
“You need momentum,” said Keslie Spottsville, who joined the archives board just over a year ago and is its newest member. “In order to have momentum you need to have a stable base.”
The previous director of operations, Emiel Cleaver, quit in October out of frustration that he and two other employees could not count on getting paid on time.
“We kept coming in to work, probably, because we loved what we did,” Cleaver said. “But it just became enough for me so I had to walk away after three and a half years.”
The Black Archives of Mid-America is a nonprofit organization. Its most recent available tax filing, from 2016, listed income of $110,000 but expenses of $480,000. The archives’ assets were valued at just over $6 million.
A case can be made that the assets — more than 30,000 artifacts and documents — are priceless: an actual slave cabin from Trenton, Mo.; an original document freeing Missouri slaves; letters from George Washington Carver; personal effects of dance creator Alvin Ailey; Buffalo Soldier material; oral histories.
The archives were founded in 1974 by the late Horace Peterson III. It was originally housed in the old YMCA building at 18th Street and the Paseo. The archives later moved to a former fire station at 20th and Vine streets.
The city had subsidized the archives with about $100,000 a year in the 1990s but by 2004, that money had disappeared. Staff was not being paid. Taxes were late and Jackson County sued. By 2006, concern over the fate of the archives drew the attention of then-Attorney General Jay Nixon.
In 2007 the parks department and the city scrambled together $4.6 million to restore an old city maintenance building on 17th Terrace. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation contributed $1 million to finish the interior and the archives moved in. The collection was safe.
The archives spreads over two floors but pays no rent. In addition, the city’s general fund picks up the water and electricity bills, about $40,000 a year.
Still, in recent years the Black Archives has not been able to generate enough revenue to be a visible and vital part of the community.
“There was a lot of turnover,” said Spottsville. “There was a lot of starts and stops. This organization was chasing its tail.”
At Sunday’s open house, Taylor Fields, the chairman of the archives board of directors, emphasized the importance of keeping African-American history alive and accessible.
“We have not done a very good job of passing that history on to young people,” he said. “Our young people need to know that out of those many (years) of oppression emerged many bright and shining stars…. We dare not let our children forget.”
Fields has been talking to the Midwest Geneaology Center in Independence and hopes to offer some family-tree resources at the Black Archives.
In her short time on the job, Williams has already been approved for a $3,000 program partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. The money will help with programs for Black History Month in February. Williams is hopeful of receiving other grants.
She also plans to introduce new exhibits to keep people coming back to the Black Archives.
A fundraising luncheon is planned for Feb. 16. Both Williams and Spottsville know that donations will be key to the archives’ future.
The archives are part of the historic 18th and Vine district, which is also home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. Last year, the city council voted to take more control of the financially struggling jazz museum after a scathing consultant’s report.
While the city provides about half of the nonprofit jazz museum’s funding, newly installed Parks and Recreation Director Terry Rynard said the $150,000 for the Black Archives is not meant to be ongoing. The money has been used for operations, including salaries for Williams and two staffers.
“It’s kind of a boost while they’re reorganizing and getting diverse revenue coming in,” she said. “We have a great interest in the work they do, but more importantly a lot of effort went into that building. We, of course, want them to succeed.”
Spottsville was optimistic at the open house.
“We aim to elevate the mission of the organization this year and expand our voice and reach throughout the community,” she said. “We are positioned for growth with a superstar new executive director. We will elevate and amplify the significance of black history in the region as everyone’s history.”
Black Archives of Mid-America
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday - Friday. Exhibit hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 1722 E. 17th Terrace. 816-221-1600. www.blackarchives.org