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Kansas City’s black archives fights for life

An uncertain future faces the Black Archives of Mid-America, Inc., one of the largest collections of black history and artifacts in the Midwest.
Aunt Lucy's cabin of Trinton, Mo.
“Aunt Lucy's Cabin,” built in the 19th century, is one of the exhibits at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Mo. The future of the archives, whose artifacts document the history of black Midwesterners, is uncertain. Orlin Wagner / AP
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One of the more comprehensive collections of African-American historical artifacts in the Midwest has escaped being forever locked behind the closed doors of a defunct firehouse, but it still faces an uncertain future, the victim of governmental bureaucracy, a lack of money, tax problems and administrative missteps.

Supporters of the Black Archives of Mid-America Inc., in Kansas City, Mo., have vowed to put it on an even footing, and a new home is being built for the collection. But state officials and some of the archives’ most ardent backers say money is still a problem.

The archives' troubles mirror the struggles for survival at other African American museums, including the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, Ky.

Horace M. Peterson III, a historian and folklorist, set up the collection in May 1974 on the second floor of the local YMCA.

Peterson gathered a range of artifacts and memorabilia, including oral histories, letters by George Washington Carver, photographs documenting Kansas City's role in jazz history, a faithful reconstruction of a 19th century slave cabin and the robes of a Ku Klux Klansman. Today, the archives contains more than 31,000 items.

Building a reputation
In 1980, the archives opened an exhibition of the Emancipation Proclamation, making Kansas City the third city since 1954 to display the document outside its permanent home at the National Archives in Washington.

Over the years, the archives built its status on an extensive collection of artifacts and documents that tell the story of black Midwesterners' lives in the 19th and 20th centuries, becoming a potential rival to the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

“The archives is deeper than deep as far as African-American history is concerned," said Thabit Murarah, executive director of the collection from 1993 to 1998. "It goes further than just Kansas City. It goes nationally, really.”

Years of challenges
It was when Peterson drowned in March 1992 that the archives’ troubles came to light, and then multiplied.

The city auditor discovered that the organization hadn't paid county real estate taxes for four years. Other mistakes related to legal paperwork followed.

The Kansas City Council suspended an annual subsidy after the archives failed to submit required forms to remain a non-profit. The council cut the funds completely in 2004 because the archives decided years before to have the city create a one-time building fund of about $1 million rather than have the city pay its operational costs, City Manager Wayne Cauthen said.

In January, the secretary of state dissolved the archives as a corporation for the fifth time, for failing to file annual reports.

Visions and realities
According to the state Attorney General's office, the archives also failed to file the federal tax forms needed to continue as a nonprofit organization.

The necessary forms were filed in August, and the archives' nonprofit status was reinstated. But the building that now holds the archives' collection, a firehouse in the 18th & Vine historic district, has been closed for months.

Anthony Arnold, an archives board member for seven years and its current president, said the collection's biggest problem is that its ambitious visions were undercut by financial realities.

Arnold said that when the city's annual subsidy ended, the archives, already run with only two part-time staff members, began to have day-to-day difficulties. “We started using our own money to pay the staff, thinking that soon we'd run across funding. We didn't,” he said.

‘We couldn't do it anymore’
“The staff and the board donated time and money for a period of 18 months after the funding ran out,” Arnold said. “We cut the grass, shoveled the snow — all those things. We also reached in our pockets to defray the cost of lights, phones, until we couldn't do it anymore.”

Finally, he said, the two staff members had to seek work elsewhere and help at the archives when they could. "That's why some of those reports weren’t completed,” Arnold said.

Rescue mode, maybe
The state has stepped in to help find the right leadership for the archives, but the collection still has nagging money problems.

Arnold said drawings had been completed for a 25,000-square-foot center inside a 94-year-old building previously used as a city parks department maintenance facility. “It’s going to take $250,000 in operational money to run the new facility” every year, Arnold said, admitting that he had “no idea” where that money would come from.

Anthony Arnold
Anthony Arnold talks with a reporter at the Black Archives of Mid-America Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2006. The future of the archives, a large collection of photographs, books, family documents and other items that record the history of blacks in the Midwest for the last century, is uncertain. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)Orlin Wagner / AP

Mark McHenry, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the money needed to renovate the parks building, about $3.5 million, would be paid by a capital improvement program created from a half-cent city sales tax.

But McHenry also wants to ensure that a functioning board will keep the new location up and running.

“Before we hand them the keys, we want them to be in a position to open the doors and pay the staff,” McHenry said. “They need to strengthen their board and become a good tenant. One thing boards can do is have access to funds — or to do fundraising. A stronger board is in a better position to hire professional staff. It’s pretty important.”

Arnold agreed, saying a stable board of directors “will give corporate sponsors more of a comfort level with putting their dollars into the rebirth of the Black Archives. I believe Kansas City's business community has a heart big enough to do that.”

‘The future is more optimistic’
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has since announced that Horace Peterson's widow, Barbara Peterson, will lead an advisory committee that will select an interim board of directors.

Richard Coleman, chief architect for the parks and recreation department, said construction designs have been completed and the archives new home should be ready by early 2008.

McHenry remains upbeat about the archives’ prospects. “There's enough passion and interest for this thing to go forward,” he said. “The future is more optimistic now than it was in the recent past. I think we're heading in the right direction.”