February 11, 2021
Many people know that one of my favorite quotes from Harry S Truman is: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Truman’s words put a burden on all of us. There is an obligation for all of us to search for the things we don’t know and to learn about the people and events that occurred before. Sadly, even someone like me, who enjoys learning about history, can be shocked to learn previously unknown stories. Each February, Black History Month provides another great reason to “discover” something new.
I’m sure you’ve seen the movie Glory about the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the American Civil War. Did you know that the first time that African American soldiers engaged in combat during the Civil War was in the Battle of Island Mound in Bates County, just south of Kansas City? Many believe that the valor of the First Kansas Colored Infantry (as they were known) in 1862 encouraged Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Many people have heard of the Buffalo Soldiers. At the very least, you might know about the monument at Ft. Leavenworth or the catchy song by Bob Marley. Do you know the story of Buffalo Soldier William Cathay? Cathay was born enslaved in Independence, Missouri, and enlisted in the 38th Infantry in St. Louis, later serving in New Mexico Territory and ultimately receiving an honorable discharge in 1868. What makes this story even more incredible is that William Cathay was actually Cathay Williams, a woman and the only documented female Buffalo Soldier.
Many people know about the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision that originated in Topeka, Kansas. Did you know that 16 years before, Lloyd Gaines battled the University of Missouri in a similar challenge to segregated schools? Gaines wanted to attend MU’s law school. His case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that Gaines be allowed to enroll or that Missouri must establish a separate law school just for him. Gaines never made it to law school, but his enrollment was one of the first desegregation efforts in the United States.
These are just a few stories that I recently read in Kansas City Black History: The African American Story of History and Culture in Our Community. In a normal year, MCPL would be helping our friends at the Black Archives and LINC distribute printed copies of this work. Since we cannot share as many physical copies during the pandemic, I encourage you to read it online. I know you’ll enjoy it and learn something new as I did.
Steven V. Potter
MCPL Director and CEO