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Kansas City's Black Archives finds a new home

Saturday, January 7, 2012 | 5:30 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — A rare collection that details the history of the Kansas City region's black community will go on permanent display in June, completing a recovery from financial and legal problems that had threatened its existence.

The photographs, papers and artifacts of the Black Archives of Mid-America are stored in their new home, a former Kansas City Parks and Recreation building in the 18th and Vine entertainment district. The archives also have a new director, Doretha Williams, a Topeka native who has a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Kansas, The Kansas City Star reported.

The collection is now stored in acid-free boxes, lined up on shelves, in its new home.

Researchers should be able to examine the holdings by summer. The new permanent exhibit is scheduled to open June 16.

It's a big change from five years ago, when the archives' holdings were locked away in its former headquarters, prompting concerns that the collection could deteriorate. State archivists said some of the holdings were threatened by mold and mildew.

The archives founder, Horace Peterson, began assembling the collection in the early 1970s and displayed it in a former firehouse. It includes such items as a vintage comic book biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and a baseball cap on loan from John "Buck" O'Neil, former Kansas City Monarchs star.

After Peterson drowned in 1992, his widow, Barbara, resolved to maintain the collection.

"There was a severe shortage of resources to continue operations," she said. "Those kinds of problems tend to snowball in terms of trying to continue programming and doing what you need to maintain yourself as part of the cultural community."

The archives had other problems, including a lawsuit from Jackson County after the archives did not pay property taxes for several years. Failure to submit audits had caused the Kansas City Council to eliminate the archives' subsidy, which at one point was $100,000 a year. And failure to file annual reports with the state caused the Missouri Secretary of State's office to dissolve the archives as a nonprofit corporation.

By 2006, the former firehouse was closed.

Eventually, Jay Nixon, then the Missouri attorney general, intervened, leading an effort to seat a new board and find a new direction for the collection.

Ground was broken in 2007 at the archives' new home. In 2008, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to the Kansas City Public Library to help complete the renovations. Most of the archives' holdings were moved to the new location in the summer of 2010.


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