Pioneering businessman still feeds a Kansas City neighborhood

Leon’s Thriftway may be the oldest black-owned grocery store in the country

Leon Stapleton, 90, opened his grocery store following the 1968 Kansas City riots. With hard work, old-fashioned customer service and dedication to helping others, Leon’s Thriftway remains open today.
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Leon Stapleton, 90, opened his grocery store following the 1968 Kansas City riots. With hard work, old-fashioned customer service and dedication to helping others, Leon’s Thriftway remains open today.

A shopper at Leon’s Thriftway leaned close to a sack of potatoes.

Sure could use some, holiday weekend and all. But the woman had come on a bus and used a cane.

Too much lugging on a hot day.

But Leashell Jackson left with those potatoes. Riding in style. A fine pickup with air conditioning, and she doesn’t even have that in her house.

Driving was “Mr. Leon” himself. He’s 90 and still comes to work every day to the old store at 4400 E. 39th St. Last fall, he almost closed the place down.

But that didn’t happen because Leon Stapleton, who fought off racism, poverty and competition from big, fancy supermarkets to become the owner of what might be the country’s oldest black-owned grocery store, gave in to a neighborhood.

People depend on this place. The store can be busy when the parking lot is mostly empty because many shoppers walk or ride the bus. That’s why they come the next day too. Or even later the same day.

They don’t buy more than they can carry.

Many of them — or their mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother — worked there at some point. Generations of families have shopped there.

That’s why everyone smiles when they see Mr. Leon, who got the place after a Molotov cocktail crashed through the window during the 1968 riots when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Nobody wanted it after that.

And nearly half a century later, Leon’s Thriftway stands as a crisp green oasis in Kansas City’s food desert. When times are lean, shoppers might get a little credit or even a free bag of groceries if Stapleton knows you, and he knows pretty much everybody who comes through the door.

Loyal customers, he says. Just not enough of them.

“I was ready to quit last fall, but nobody wanted me to,” Stapleton said. “I thought it was time. You know what those big new stores look like now.

“This place is a peanut stand.”

Adeina Thomas doesn’t see it that way. She’s 41 and says she’s been shopping there for 41 years.

“I was coming in here when I was in my mama’s belly,” she said. “Mr. Leon watched me grow up. And he got on me when I acted bad.

“To this day, he talks to me like I’m one of his kids.”

All seven of Stapleton’s children worked there. Some still do. Same for 23 grandchildren, including Stevan August, who runs the liquor department.

“I’m pretty sure when you go into one of the big grocery chains, they don’t give you a ride home if it’s raining,” he said. “Happens all the time here. That’s the way my grandfather has run this place all these years, and that’s why it’s still here.”

Not that working for Grandpa is easy.

“Oh no, he’s old school,” August said quickly. “He’s fun. But he don’t play.”

Quick story: When August worked there in high school, he helped himself to some deodorant. Cleanly, he thought.

The next day, his grandfather bought something and made sure the boy saw him pay for it. Then he walked over to his grandson and told him that was the second time he’d purchased the item.

“If I can pay for something twice, you can pay once.”

A Monday morning in 1946.

Leon Stapleton put on a suit and hat for his first day of work at a Safeway grocery store. He didn’t particularly want the job. He’d just came home from the war and had a little Army money.

He wanted to take it easy, do some gambling and chase girls.

Well, yeah.

But this preacher — his preacher — convinced him to take the job. Seems talks had been ongoing to get the big grocery store chains around Kansas City to hire black employees.

Stapleton, who grew up in New Franklin, Mo., was a little nervous when he showed up that first day at the Safeway at 11th Street and Troost. And not just because he’d obviously overdressed.

His new boss had lined up the 18 other employees to meet him. Only two would shake his hand. Some put their hands behind their backs.

Stapleton got paid 80 cents an hour for working in the produce section.

“I got called every name you could think of,” Stapleton said. “At first. But then they were liking me and inviting me to their houses.

“Guess they figured out I was human.”

When African-Americans started moving south of 27th Street, Safeway switched him to a store in that direction. He endured the slurs again. Only this time, he gave back all he got.

“I got to be like Richard Pryor,” he said with a laugh.

He hadn’t known it at first, but his hiring at Safeway was followed by those for others at Kroger, A&P and Milgram stores, which sort of makes Stapleton a Jackie Robinson of grocery desegregration in Kansas City.

Over the years, he learned all aspects of the grocery business — and his family grew. By 1968, he and his wife, Willosia, had seven children, and he had been made manager at a new store at 12th Street and Brooklyn.

In April of that year, the King assassination brought riots to cities across the country, including Kansas City. Stapleton knew his store lay in the path. He got a chaise lounge and sat in front of the store that night. The rioters came.

“They looked at me and left it alone,” Stapleton said. “They went on. I heard one of them say something about Mr. Leon.”

The store that would eventually be his did not fare so well. Its windows were crashed. A Molotov cocktail set a fire inside. People came to Stapleton and asked how he would like to be the first black man to own a chain supermarket in Kansas City.

“I don’t have any money,” he answered.

“We’ll get you an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan,” they told him.

He went home and talked to Willosia.

“Well,” she told him, “you’ve been gambling all your life. I’m with you.”

He smiled when he shared that part of the story. He’d shot a lot of craps in the Army. Willosia died at age 80 in 2009. They’d been married 63 years.

“I couldn’t get a better answer than that.”

Rain fell a recent day as Johnie Stephens parked his pickup in front of Leon’s Thriftway in the Seven Oaks Shopping Center.

He could drive to one of the fancy supermarkets with a deli, a salad bar, a floral shop and dry cleaners. He shook his head. No, he doesn’t need those things. He’s been shopping at Leon’s for 35 years.

“I’m here damned near every day,” Stephens said. “You know how some people own a business and think they’re above you? Not Leon. He’s earthly.”

Inside the store that morning, a half dozen or so family members were already at work, including oldest daughter Debra Lee, 63, who worked 40 years in the meat department before retiring but still comes in to help.

The whole family has tried to keep the store running, she said, “and I guess maybe that’s all we know how to do.”

Granddaughter Tiffany Stapleton said the store is the first job for everyone in the family, for most while still in grade school. Some went on to college.

“We could all go somewhere else, but this is about family and about legacy,” she said.

Another granddaughter, Michelle Mitchell, nodded.

“He’s my grandpa, my mentor and my hero,” she said.

Mike Luster, 71, is not family, but he’s worked at the store 31 years. He said people don’t know about all the summer jobs for college students and sponsoring of ball teams that Stapleton has provided.

He calls his boss “Mr. Leon” even though he’s been told that’s not necessary.

“My father wasn’t around much growing up,” Luster said. “I’d see him (Stapleton) here with his kids all the time. He’ll always be Mr. Leon to me.”

Gary Shelly stocked the bread aisle. As coincidence has it, his bread route includes the store of his youth. Very little shoplifting at this store, he said.

“When you feed the neighborhood, you get respect,” Shelly said.

Longtime employee Raymond Criswell told how regulars last fall mounted a petition drive to keep the store open. One woman, he remembered, let loose an earful when she heard it might close.

“I didn’t know an old lady could talk so dirty,” Criswell said with a chuckle.

As usual, Stapleton arrived about 10 a.m. He makes rounds, checks produce and greets customers before leaving to play golf.

In 2005, he received the Carl R. Johnson Humanitarian Award for his work in desegregating the local grocery industry, but he’d much rather talk about the hole-in-one he made five years later on the No. 2 hole at Minor Park.

Golf is his passion now. The store is in good hands and business is better. He’s glad not to deal with much of the day-to-day stuff.

Particularly staffing. Not long ago, he had a problem with young employees missing shifts, so he hired older women.

“That was worse,” he said. “They were giving away liquor to their friends.”

He’s a spry gentleman. But he’s also 90. He knows he can’t go forever. He also knows that family members say they want to keep the store going. Maybe, maybe not.

But that’s all down the road. For now, he’s still working and giving folks like Leashell Jackson rides home when they buy more than they can lug home.

The day this past week as they rode on 39th Street, she talked about Jesus, her car breaking down and what’s wrong with kids today. He drove and nodded and said “uh-huh” a lot.

At the woman’s house, he carried groceries to the door.

“I gotta go, baby,” he told her.

“Don’t tell me chivalry is dead,” Jackson said from the porch. “It’s alive and well at Leon’s Thriftway.”

Then the man a neighborhood knows as Mr. Leon headed back to his store.

Back to the people who need him.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182