Pastime Park: “For the Accomodation of Colored People”

(originally published 2/13/20)

All of my books and most of my research have ties to the history of J.C. Nichols and the development of the Country Club District. But that single subject has sent me in a hundred directions of inquiry having little or nothing to do with Nichols. My interest in this week’s topic started when I read one of Nichols’ many speeches, this one from 1937, “Why I Am in the Real Estate Business.” In it, Nichols is recounting how green he and his college friends/partners were in 1905, when they started their first residential project in the area around 51st and Main.

”[We] began acquiring land south of the city limits, contrary to the expected growth of the city and in a direction in which apparently no one except uninformed newcomers would be foolish enough to erect their first city home.” Underscoring how undesirable the property was, he continues, “Ten acres were purchased…then an adjoining five acres to get rid of an offensive hog feeding lot – next 15 acres, to remove a dairy – 6 acres to remove and old Negro razor park…”

That’s where I stopped when I first read it. I knew about the enterprises he mentioned here and later in the speech – the feed lot, the dairy, a lumber yard, a quarry – but an “old Negro razor park” was completely new to me. I was intrigued.

An example of how rural the area was not only at the time of Pastime Park, but beyond. These shanties occupy the area now known as Crestwood, near 55th & Oak, immediately south and east of the park. Taken in 1919, the property remained undeveloped at least 14 years after the park closed. (Photo courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri)

I poured myself into finding more about the park, but came up with nothing. Then I realized I had ventured way off the path of my original research. I set the subject aside, but it stuck in my mind, and every so often over the last 15 years, I’d hit the search engines, the newspaper archives, anything I could think of. Still bupkis. I didn’t even definitively learn what Nichols meant by “razor,” but I guessed from other mentions in the newspapers of the day, in conjunction with a particular park that was described as a hangout for thuggish behavior, the “razor” term referring to a weapon. Since Nichols referred to the park as “old,” it seems logical that the park was long abandoned by 1905, that Nichols had never seen it in operation, and that he had no personal knowledge of the park’s character. But, regrettably, the fact that Nichols or any white person of the time might associate a “Negro park” with a “razor park” should not be a surprise.

Then, last fall, I had an unexpected opportunity to check out the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, to see what resources are generally available. I stayed a while perusing the stacks, and found a book with copies of articles and advertisements from local black newspapers. Inside, I found an advertisement, a copy of which I’m including here. The image quality was too muddy to make an electronic copy worthwhile, so what you see here is a transcription of the text, and an attempt to layout the advertisement as it was originally.

A reproduction (as near as I could match it) of the Pastime Park advertisement found at the Black Archives of Mid-America.

There it was – not only evidence of the park’s existence, but its name! And the citation in the reference dated it to 1903, not so long before Nichols’ time. Plus, there was a fair amount of detail about Pastime Park’s location, attractions and the character of the park. It was not a “razor” park by a long-shot, but a park that was enticing its patrons the same way all the parks of the day in Kansas City were doing. Come take the trolley out from the dirty city, into the country for a day (or evening) of cool lawns, good food, and family amusement park-type fun.

Pastime Park’s address at 52nd and Oak places it near today’s UMKC Law School, the National Museum of Toys & Miniatures, Central United Methodist Church, and just south of the new Whole Foods grocery store –a very different setting than a small amusement park just outside the city limits.

My attempts to learn more about Pastime Park have only yielded one more advertisement from the St. Joseph Gazette, promoting a day trip from St. Joe to Kansas City to visit the park. I’ve yet to find any image of the park, though I have learned now of another similar park built about a decade later in the Old Northeast, Lincoln Electric Park.

Advertisement in the St. Joseph-Gazette, September 1913. (Image courtesy Newspapers.com)

also learned something about African-American amusement parks and resorts of that era. In my June 12, 2019 post I shared the story of Forest Park and the efforts of the Jackson Country Negro Association to lease the park for a twelve-day “Negro Fair,” the organization’s annual convention. The story of Fairyland’s infamous one-day-a year where the park was open exclusively for black patrons is well documented. Still, a park dedicated to serving the black community was a new idea for me. But it didn’t take much research to find it was more common in larger cities, particularly in the northeast, Great Lakes, and even in some places in the South. Some of those were started in the years well before Plessy v. Ferguson, while others were started on the heels of that 1896 Supreme Court case that defined the legality of “separate but equal.”

A view of the Bay Shore Hotel in Hampton, Virginia. The round building on the right is the carousel. Courtesy the Hampton News.

With that case, the increasing inevitability of segregation gave black entrepreneurs opportunities to establish businesses designed to serve the black community. The Bay Shore Hotel in Hampton, Virginia is a good example of that sort of investment. Started in 1897 by a group of black businessmen, it grew from a four room cottage to a 70 room resort with its own amusement park, fishing pier and dance hall. It lasted until the 1970s when, in the wake of changes from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, integration seemingly rendered the park redundant.

The article about the Bert Williams film identifies him first as a Caribbean-American actor, and later also as a black actor. Yet in the film he appears in blackface. If Williams was “light,” adding blackface may have made certain the audience was not confused. Courtesy The Guardian

The scarcity of information on Pastime Park means there are no pictures of the place to provide the “show” to my “tell.” I’ve had to borrow from similar or representative images. An interesting example is shown here in a still from an unreleased 1913 Biograph Film, “Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Day,” featuring an all-black cast. Bert Williams, the lead actor, appears here with his co-star Odessa Warren Grey on a carousel in an all-black amusement park. A fictive image, admittedly, but one that’s still evocative of the Pastime Park experience.

This 60s era Go-Devil ride (foreground) is a “scrambler” type that thrusts the cars toward the center, then flings them to the edge, all the while rotating. (Photo courtesy West Coast Tours.)

Absent, too, is any firm idea of what type of ride the Go-Devil might have been. As it turns out, go-devil was a term frequently connected to attachments for implements, including a sled for hauling timber, a farm plow, a pipeline scraper, part of the explosive charge for opening an oil well, or a maintenance cart on a rail line. On one hand these are extremely disparate uses, and hard to imagine how they might translate into a midway ride. On the other hand, they’re all highly mechanical and fraught with danger, so perhaps they are the perfect name for a midway ride. I did find one image of a ride called the Go-Devil, seen here in what is likely the early 1960s at a midway somewhere in California. Is it like the one at Pastime Park? Doubtful, but the best I could find to offer.

So, there’s still much to learn about Pastime Park, and my research won’t stop here. It will be put on the shelf for now, but that’s the fun of research. You just never know when another piece of the puzzle drops in your lap. I’ll keep you posted.

(Featured Photo: Since actual photos of the property were not available, I hoped to find an image of a similar park in America. Sadly, few exist, and none that showed people enjoying the park as I imagine they did at Pastime Park. While the top photo is a beautiful image, capturing that sense of family and friends gathered for a picnic in the park, and contemporary with the times, it is not of Pastime Park. It is an unidentified photo found online with no attribution, date or location.)

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