Forest Park and the “Negro Fair”

(originally published 6/6/19)

Though the 1950s and 60s were clearly two decades where significant efforts resulted in changes in civil rights, those efforts had been going on for decades before then. In researching the stories behind the amusement parks featured in the last post, I came across a series of newspaper accounts about one of them, Forest Park, the site of a much earlier confrontation around segregation, with direct ties to a familiar name in Kansas City’s early civil rights efforts.

The room inside the Children’s Memorial Lutheran Church was no doubt hot and stuffy that early evening in late August 1912, and made more so than the two hundred who’d gathered for the meeting, and even more so given the collective fever the attendees shared. Mostly residents, but some commercial property owners as well, were gathered to see what might be done to prevent what the Kansas City Star characterized as “the Negro invasion” they faced in less than a week.

The clock started ticking the week before when word got out that Forest Park intended to lease the park to the Jackson County Negro Association when the park closed for the season the last weekend in August. Once closed, the Jackson County Negro Association (JCNA) would have exclusive use of the park for their “Negro Fair,” the association’s annual convention from August 29 through September 9.

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Forest Park, in operation only 9 years at this time, was very much a fixture in the neighborhood. In fact, Forest Park, at Independence and Hardesty, was only about one block east of the church on Independence Avenue. No doubt many of those in attendance that night had passed right by the park on their way, passed by it on a daily basis, and for better or worse, felt some ownership as one does with parts of one’s neighborhood.

This meeting was already the second on the subject. The first, held the week before, had resulted in the formation of a community committee to address the matter. Those who attended this night’s meeting had come determined to take definitive steps. Yet, like most communities facing what they believe to be a crisis, the group took the shotgun approach over the targeted. According to the August 25, 1912 Kansas City Star,

Excited speeches were made. One man suggested that “the hat be passed” and a collection taken to employ a lawyer. Another man “moved” that the committee should visit the Autumn Leaf Club [saying] the people would get a good idea then of the class of negroes that would attend. His motion was lost.

In the end, the only action the committee could agree upon was to adopt a resolution “decrying the action of J.H. Koffler, manager of the park, assuring residents of that section of the city that they would be protected from any rash acts of the negroes and also making it clear that “the resolution was not intended to wound the feelings of the law-abiding negroes.”

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From John Koffler’s point-of-view, his arrangement with the JCNA seems to have been purely business. Unlike its contemporaries, Forest Park hadn’t been built for the purposes of selling lots or encouraging trolley ridership. It was, from the beginning, an amusement park for its own sake, started by a man named Hopkins who had a similar park in St. Louis. At some point after the 1903 opening, Koffler was brought in as park manager. He would have shared Hopkins’ view of the park as a profit generator in and of itself. So, when the subject of the Negro Fair became controversial, Koffler responded in a straightforward manner as quoted by the Kansas City Star on August 20.

Forest Park has not and will not be leased to negroes. The report that it was to become a negro resort originated in the agreement I made with the Jackson County Negro Association to permit negroes to hold a celebration here from August 29 to September 9 and to give them the usual privileges of the park in that time. I have a lease on the park until January 1, 1913. The estate that owns the park has nothing to say about it. I have an agreement with the Jackson County Negro Association to admit them to the park, but there is no sub-lease and will be none to negroes.

To Koffler’s mind, this was indisputable. He saw a distinction between “renting” the park to the JCNA during off-season days, and the more formal contractual relationship that a lease was considered to be. Further, he claimed that by virtue of the lease he had with the property owner to operate a park there, only he and not the property owner, made all decisions about the use of the park.

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The distinction around the contractual character of the agreement – lease versus something lesser – was important to the Jackson County Negro Association, and they shared their perspective on the matter in the same Kansas City Star article that had quoted Koffler. A representative of the JCNA is quoted as saying,

If we are released from our bond we will be only too willing to find some other location for our meeting… I was given to understand…that we had signed a bond and that the park intended to hold us to that because they could make more money from us.

The point of contention from the JCNA perspective was its position as leverage in this fight between the park and the community. The bond they had given was to protect the park from losses should the fair be cancelled. The park would argue in court – if it came to that – that the bond should be paid to them if the courts prevented the fair from happening. The JCNA claimed the bond made the agreement a lease, and that lease would be upheld in court. The organization would, however, be willing to go somewhere else if the bond was returned. That would have pleased the neighborhood, but upset the park. The JCNA wasn’t concerned they would lose the bond if they weren’t at fault, so they believed they would be whole no matter the final decisions were. It’s doubtful that this leveraged position was part of their original thinking, but it’s certain that the JCNA played the hand they were dealt expertly.

The JCNA was led by the best and brightest of that generation’s black leadership. And the representative of the JCNA in this particular case was Leon H. Jordan, father of Leon M. Jordan, a boy at the time who would grow up to be one of the five founders of Freedom, Inc., the city’s oldest and most active African-American political organization. The Jordan family was well established in the city. As his son would be after him, Leon H. Jordan’s father had been a successful business and political leader in post-Civil War northwest Missouri. Now was Leon’s turn. He had served as the first black U.S. Deputy Marshall in the federal Western District of Missouri. He went on to be an important activist at the state level gainst Missouri Jim Crow laws. He would serve in the Army during the Spanish-American war, and return a captain. But in the late summer of 1912, he was working with the organizations advocating for Kansas City’s black citizenry.

Leon H. Jordan was also the manager and license holder of The Autumn Leaf Club, the same place that one of the concerned citizens had warned would give residents a look at what Forest Park might become. The Autumn Leaf Club was one many private social clubs throughout the city, not just for the black community, but for every ethnic and minority group in the city. Based on newspaper accounts, The Autumn Leaf Club had a reputation for being the unsavory place that had been suggested. Jordan had purchased the club in 1897, and its early years had been plagued with formal charges and innuendo concerning illegal gambling, serving liquor without a license, harboring a robbery gang, election fraud and lascivious entertainments (one raid yielded the arrest of a female cross dresser.) Except for the charges relating to the operation of the club, none of this directly implicated Jordan, nor was Jordan the only guiding force for the JCNA. But for the white citizens around Forest Park, the correlation seemed simple and certain.

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The whole matter was obviously destined for court, but the first action was taken by Koffler who had somehow forgotten that his license to operate the park expired with its closure at the end of the season. Initially he had not renewed it because, ironically, the park had already announced it would permanently close at the end of the season no matter when that turned out to be. The property owner intended not to renew the lease, because of plans to develop it as a residential subdivision.

Normally, the renewal would have been done upon request, but the backlash about the Negro Fair caused the city to drag its heels. By August 28, Koffler had requested a writ of mandamus, an order coming from a court that compels a governmental office to perform its duties. The next day, Koffler’s writ came before a panel of judges who ruled that under the law the court had an unquestionable duty to compel the city to issue the license. However, the judges were unabashedly honest about their preference to stop the fair from happening, and so offered an end-run approach for the city. They suggested (not an official recommendation of the court, mind you) that the city appeal the decision, which would take weeks to be heard by the higher court. The city took the court’s advice, and appealed.

Fully confident that the license would eventually be granted, and fully aware of the contract he had to fulfill for the Jackson County Negro Association, the association’s Negro Fair began as planned. And each night that the Fair went on, Koffler was fined $100 for operating without a license. John Koffler took faith in the ultimate reinstatement of the license, but he made the mistake of forgetting how much more time the city had to squander than he did. An arrest warrant was issued, and the fines piled up to $500 before the judge postponed tthe judgements pending the city’s appeal.

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From here, the story fades for some weeks, well beyond what would have been the final day of the fair. So from these newspaper accounts, it isn’t known if the fair had a full run, nor how the neighborhood ultimately reacted. The only evidence is the lack of information – I found no reports of any incidents involving the neighborhood and the fair-goers. The property owner did eventually develop the property, and it remains to this day a lovely example of Kansas City bungalows concentrated in just a few blocks.

So far, I’ve found no other mention of the Jackson County Negro Association, though I’m sure its history is larger than what’s told here. Leon H. Jordan’s own history and future have already been covered in early paragraphs, but there is one more piece of the story that belongs to him. On the same day the court had ruled in favor of Koffler while simultaneously advising the city to appeal, Leon Jordan had his own news to share. The Star reports that, pending how well attended the Negro Fair was, Jordan planned to purchase all the amusement equipment from Forest Park, with the intention of building “an amusement park for negroes [north of the river] as the Armour-Swift-Burlington tract is developed into a city.” Again, I have not yet followed the research enough to know if any of that came true. One source does claim that the equipment, originally purchased for about $200,000, was sold by Koffler for $5,000, on October 4, 1912.

As for Koffler, on October 18, 1912, the Kansas City Star reported that he had been fined $250, again for operating the park without a license. By then, the fair was long over and the park had been dismantled for two weeks. It makes no mention of the other fines, or of any payments. The judge did leave Koffler with an admonition about defying the law “and public sentiment.”

Koffler’s name surface in the Star one other time, on September 13, 1912 when, just as his professional woes were winding down, his personal life fell apart.

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