New book details life of Kansas City civil rights activist

Friday, December 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — The last day of Leon M. Jordan's life was a mix of ordinary events that exemplified how many interests the civil rights leader and political pioneer constantly kept in play.

His interactions ranged from the politically powerful to the profoundly pedestrian on a day when he spent most of his time at his Green Duck tavern at 25th Street and Prospect Avenue. He expected to wind down later by eating ice cream with his beloved wife, Orchid.

But Jordan, who founded Freedom Inc., an influential black political club, never made it home.

Those details are captured in a new 267-page Jordan biography by Robert M. Farnsworth, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It chronicles the slain civil rights leader's life from birth until he was gunned down outside his tavern just before 1 a.m. on July 15, 1970. The killing remained unsolved for 41 years.

"Leon Mercer Jordan, The Founder of Freedom Inc. Following in the Footsteps of His Father and Grandfather" is an online publication available through the university's LaBudde Special Collections website.

"The entire Kansas City regional community has benefited from the talent that has arisen from Freedom's achievements under Jordan's leadership during the final years of his life," said Farnsworth, who also has written books about black poet Melvin Tolson and journalist Edgar Snow.

This book traces Jordan's family history and upbringing in a sumptuous home at 12th and Vine streets through his days as a respected police officer, his years helping Liberia launch a police force and his return to Kansas City, where he emerged as a respected political stalwart.

The biography project, Farnsworth said, began in 2005 and grew out of his frustration that the critical role Jordan played in Kansas City's political and social fabric was being taken for granted.

"At that time, I felt everybody was forgetting about Leon Jordan," Farnsworth said. "There was a park and there was a post office named after him, but those were backwater things. So I thought, let's see what I can do."

Researching Jordan's life was challenging. Little written material existed. Jordan's FBI file primarily focused on Jordan's unsolved murder. The Jordans did not have children, and there were few surviving relatives to interview.

When researching his books about Melvin Tolson and Edgar Snow, Farnsworth consulted extensive writings by both men. For his book on Jordan, background came from a cache of memorabilia and a family scrapbook that held an extensive collection of photos, mostly from Liberia.

He also found the military record of Jordan's father, who fought in the Spanish-American War, which included an appeal for a war pension that proved valuable for the family. The document provided useful information about the Jordan family as well.

Several years after Orchid Jordan's death, someone discovered boxes of Jordan's memorabilia dumped outside her home. An antiques dealer acquired them before they ended up at the UMKC library, where Farnsworth pored over them.

Richard Tolbert, a former Kansas City Council member and Jordan protege, is pleased that Farnsworth took the time to write the book.

"He has done a great service in helping us preserve the history of who Leon Jordan was and what made him who he was," Tolbert said.

Born May 6, 1905, Jordan attended Lincoln High School and graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio. During his 16-year tenure with the Kansas City Police Department, he became the first African-American to achieve the rank of lieutenant. Granted an extended leave of absence in 1947, he spent eight years in Liberia.

Jordan thought his Liberia success would help him expand his police supervisory role in Kansas City, but that did not occur. So at 47, Jordan made a midlife career decision to enter the political arena.

Strong memories of his father's public recognition and stories of his grandfather helped propel that decision, Farnsworth said.

His grandfather Samuel Jordan fought in the Civil War's Battle of Westport. Jordan's father, Leon H. Jordan, built grain elevators and sewer systems and owned a social and gambling club called the Autumn Leaf. He also fought tirelessly against Missouri's Jim Crow laws, was active in Democratic politics and worked closely with political boss Tom Pendergast.

His grandfather died before Jordan was born. His dad's death when Jordan was 13 took away the security and affluence he had known. He missed much significant fatherly mentoring, and his life became more emotionally complicated, Farnsworth said.

Eight years before his murder, Jordan joined with Bruce Watkins, Leonard Hughes Jr., Fred Curls, Charles Moore, Marion Foote and Howard Maupin to form Freedom Inc., the black political club. Through it, Jordan wrestled political control of the black community from the north end political faction.

Freedom Inc. became a national model for black political engagement.

Jordan later was elected to the Missouri General Assembly and helped organize one of the largest voter registration drives in the city's history, which helped pass the 1964 Kansas City public accommodations ordinance.

However, Farnsworth also reveals Jordan's less-than-admirable side.

Jordan wasn't always faithful to his wife and associated with known criminals such as James "Doc" Dearborn, the leader of a Kansas City group known as the Black Mafia.

That association would lead to Jordan's murder, Kansas City police determined after reopening the case in 2010. Dearborn, they learned, was the most important of several men responsible for Jordan's murder. The police investigation mirrored many of The Star's findings in a series of articles published before and during the investigation.

The circumstances that led to Jordan's death were not as important as how he lived and the political legacy he left behind, Farnsworth said.

"I learned that the bluff yet genial man I knew had a far more complicated history and personality than I ever imagined," he said. "But I also came even more greatly to respect his extraordinary sense of purpose and the ingenuity with which he managed the talents and ambitions of those he worked with to win political liberation and opportunity for his community."

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