History and civics lessons come to life at KC’s federal courthouse

Interesting are the bits of history that lie about us.

Consider these nuggets from a new permanent history and civics exhibit that opened recently at the downtown federal courthouse in Kansas City:

• The first federal judge in Missouri, James Peck appointed in 1822, actually was impeached by the U.S. House in 1830 after holding a politically influential lawyer in contempt. (The Senate acquitted the judge, who returned to his bench in Missouri.)

• Walt Disney filed for bankruptcy in Kansas City federal court before finding his fortune with the mouse in California.

• Employers cannot legally refuse time off for employees called for jury service.

The Bell Room Historical Gallery, which opened in late February, is not just a place for federal trial witnesses to kill an hour while waiting to take the stand upstairs. Court officials said they hope it will become an educational and civic resource for community, school and other groups that want to learn more about Missouri history and the legal institutions that have shaped it.

It could be a summer destination for parents who’d like to edify their offspring while school is out.

Court Executive Ann Thompson said the multimedia experience is designed to give people a working knowledge of history and the law, which differs greatly from how it’s portrayed on television and the movies.

“The whole education part is based on practical everyday examples that people can relate to,” Thompson said.

The court, which now hosts about 1,500 tour-group visitors a year, hopes to boost that figure by adding a new educational component to its program, which now features a presentation, a stroll through the courthouse at 400 E. Ninth St. and a meeting with a federal judge.

The gallery occupies 3,000 square feet on the courtroom’s second floor in a space that also houses a two-ton bronze bell and previously served as a handy reception room.

U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs, who nurtured work on the exhibit for more than a decade, recently described the gallery as the “fourth memorable feature” of the courthouse, joining its skylights, panoramic views of the Northland and sculptures in the central atrium.

The gallery’s account of the court’s early history paints a vivid picture of the challenges facing a young and expansionist country. Property disputes occupied much of a judge’s time. Few American settlers in vast reaches of the Louisiana territory actually had clear title to their land because of the cumbersome registration process imposed by their original Spanish government.

The second judge on the court, Robert W. Wells, was a slaveholder who, nevertheless, opposed secession. Still, he continued to hold court in Jefferson City, even though western Missouri could be considered Union by day and Confederate by night.

Thompson is particularly proud of the jury service portion of the gallery, which answers common questions about jury duty — such as, “What happens if I have an emergency?” She noted that area also is very child-friendly and a good resource for teachers and others, such as Scout leaders, who need an engaging way to make a civics lesson easier to illustrate.

“The jury service component is there to demystify it to some extent,” Thompson said.

Bankruptcy procedure gets some attention, including mention of the cases that have touched thousands of local pocket books over the years, such as Farmland Industries and Interstate Bakeries.

The gallery also touches on issues that are important for young people to understand and for adults to remember: What it means to be an American and what many have endured to come here.

Naturalization ceremonies are some of the most stirring events hosted in the courthouse, which usually pays more attention to conflict than hope. At those ceremonies, the words on the Great Seal of the United States — E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One — come alive.

The gallery explains the steps and process of acquiring U.S. citizenship, and includes a copy of the official oath of allegiance.

But the museum’s final panel puts it in human perspective, telling the story of Holocaust survivors Isak and Anna Federman, who left Europe at the end of World War II, arriving in Kansas City in June 1946.

They married here, raised a family and took the oath of allegiance in the Kansas City federal courthouse in 1951.

In 1989, the couple’s second child, Arthur, took his own oath and became a bankruptcy judge in the same court.

And today, Judge Arthur B. Federman presides over naturalization ceremonies.

There are plenty of lessons there.