Feb. 20, 1990
Journalism wars of KC’s jazz age
Feud between ‘American’ and ‘Call’ peaked with kidnapping of editor
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
And so it came to pass that Felix H. Payne the gambler was kidnapped, robbed of his money and jewelry, stripped naked and left to wander through a Kansas City warehouse district in subfreezing temperatures.
We know of this episode in the life of the legendary nightclub operator because in January 1929 it made the front page of the Kansas City Call, the respected black community weekly that this year will celebrate its 71st anniversary.
The Call’s detailed reporting of Payne’s ordeal was just another installment in what may have been the city’s most vitriolic newspaper war. During Black History Month, it provides a glimpse into the over-looked role played by black-owned newspapers during the city’s jazz age.
“FELIX PAYNE IS KIDNAPPED” the headline declared. The Call not only reported the details of Payne’s ordeal but also offered what amounted to a business profile of the man.
The Call identified Payne as one of the largest black real estate holders in Kansas City with a fortune estimated to be “at least $200,000 and his income at $25,000 a year.” It made note of his contributions to the NAACP and charities and mentioned his success as an amateur tennis player.
But somehow the Call failed to mention one of Payne’s most visible occupations: newspaper editor.
Why? Possibly because Chester A. Franklin, the Call’s Republican editor would have preferred walking on hot coals to acknowledging his hated Democratic rival, the Kansas City American.
“Felix H. Payne, wealthy Kansas City clubman and sportsman, was kidnapped, ‘taken for a ride’ and robbed of $800 in money and a diamond valued at $2,000 recently,” the Call reported.
Payne was abducted by “racketeers” just as he eased his Packard into the garage behind his home at 26th Street and Woodland Avenue. He was blindfolded, hustled into a waiting car and driven to a warehouse. His kidnappers threatened him and made extortion demands. (The Kansas City Journal Post, a daily newspaper, added more details. He was robbed of $3,000 in cashiers’ checks and forced to remove his clothes.)
His kidnappers eventually drove away and Payne wandered through the Central Industrial District until he came to a flagman’s shanty, according to the Call. Here he telephoned someone in the 12th Street gambling corridor, and a car soon arrived to pick him up.
Although the Call survives, the American quit publication in the 1940s and has largely been forgotten.
Franklin founded the Call in 1919 with borrowed money. His most famous protégé was Roy Wilkins, the future head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who in his memoirs remembered Franklin as “a fierce moralist,” a “notorious penny pincher” and a fair-minded man of integrity who once turned down a $1,500 check from a Republican who tried to “buy” the Call during a tight election.
Franklin’s weekly grew and prospered – prosperity being a relative term in the black community – but in 1928 he was faced with direct competition from the American, whose masthead declared it the “unbridled servant of the people.”
Today the Democratic Party virtually takes black votes for granted. But without the efforts of shrewd hustlers like Payne, that might not be the case. Before 1932, most black voters lined up behind the party of Lincoln.
And the upstart American’s politics were clear. It’s owners aimed to win black people over to the Democratic Party.
Thus began a startling example of hardball, go-for-the-throat newspaper competition. It was remarkable for the level of wit, candor and viciousness exhibited on each side.
Picture it: the Republican Call, publishing out of offices at 18th Street and Woodland Avenue, and the Democratic American, with headquarters at 18th and Vine streets, fighting it out in an era when the black community’s business district was lined with shops, professional offices, hotels, apartment buildings, nightclubs and gambling joints.
The American was an alliance between Dr. William J. Thompkins and Felix H. Payne, ambitious Democrats and real estate speculators whose backgrounds were very different. Thompkins, a physician, was a man of formal education whose service to the Democratic Party and loyalty to the Pendergast machine would earn him a government appointment in Washington and a place in Who’s Who in Colored America.
Payne, on the other hand, hustled his way to prominence. He started out in his 20s as a barber on Fourth Street and slowly built a career through a series of nightclubs, shoestring show-business enterprises and sports promotions.
By the time the American began publishing, Payne was involved in at least three nightclubs: the Subway, at 18th and Vine; the Sunset, at 12th and Vine (both were important in Kansas City’s jazz history); and the East Side Musicians Club at 12th and Highland. Payne was the business partner of Big Piney Brown and his brother, Little Piney – gamblers who would be immortalized in blues singer Big Joe Turner’s song, “Piney Brown Blues.”
The Pendergast machine, because of its tolerant attitude toward gambling, prostitution and bootlegging, is generally credited with making the growth of jazz possible in Kansas City during the 1920s and ‘30s. So there’s little mystery about the loyalty to Pendergast exhibited by Payne and Thompkins in the pages of the American.
Laudatory items on Democrats were common. Casimir Welch, an entrenched justice of the peace who campaigned as a “friend to the Negro” and distributed free turkey dinners to poor black families on Thanksgiving, was frequently written up. Political boss T.J. Pendergast’s annual Christmas dinners for the poor were reported in detail. The marriage of Pendergast’s daughter made the American’s society page. John Lazia, a North End political boss and racketeer who ran gambling operations and nightclubs and was connected to bootleggers, was the subject of glowing profiles.
Welch and Pendergast, interestingly, each owned concrete companies that advertised in the American. Lazia’s ginger-ale distributorship, too, bought adds.
The American devoted plenty of space to Thompkins and Payne. An insurance company the two were involved in was the subject of more than one Page One story, and the amateur tennis exploirs of Payne and Big Piney Brown were thoroughly documented. But although the American was quick to criticize Republicans and racial intolerance, it reserved most of its venom for its 18th Street rival.
When Franklin was sued for $20,000 by a woman who alleged the he shoved her during a public shouting match, it was front-page news. When Franklin’s grandmother died in the County Home for the Aged and Indigent, the story received big play and was followed by an editorial critical of those would allow their elders to suffer such a fate: “There will arise in their minds the burden of responsibility and the next thought is: What shall we do with her? Where shall we put her? She is tiresome, she is a burden . . . “
The Call responded in kind. When Thompkins and Payne attended the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston as delegates, the Call reported that black convetioneers were segregated in a section of the auditorium surrounded by a steel mesh cage. (The American reported that delegates were treated courteously and made no mention of segregation.)
The Call also noted Payne’s policy wheels (a form of lottery) which, despite frequent police raids, never seemed to be shut down for long. Those arrested were usually taken before young Judge Carlin P. Smith, a good Democrat to whom the American attributed the “wisdom of Solomon” and the “mercy of the Lowly Nazarene.”
None of this escaped the notice of Franklin and Wilkins. The latter wrote a weekly column and, apparently, uncredited news stories during his years with the Call.
In 1929 the Call launched an attack on the East Side Musicians Club, where Payne operated one of his wheels. The lavishly appointed nightspot was promoted by the American as “the finest and most pretentious in the city” but was condemned by the Call as a gambling joint that took advantage of black people.
“No one is sure just how many times the patrol wagon has backed up before the East Side Musicians Club,” the Call wrote. “Some say 97, some way 99 and some some say 101.
“Anyway, the patrol is such a familiar caller at the address one would think it was a delivery wagon bringing in new shipments of trumpets, saxophones, tubas, drums and what-not musicians use. Every time the wagon calls, however, it takes a load of ‘musicians’ – at least they call themselves musicians – to the police station.”
Times had changed, the Call noted. Once Payne, “the idol of Twelfth Street,” might have jumped in his Packard and be waiting at the station with a roll of cash to post bond for those arrested in a raid, but now he had fallen on hard times.
“Too many musicians getting raided,” the Call mused. “Too many bonds to go, business a little slim on the policy wheels . . . It seems as though the old faithful one just can’t keep up. Yes, times have changed.”
A few weeks later, the Call published an expose alleging that reports of a “big win” on a policy wheel called the Black and White were faked to encourage more betting.
“Everybody likes Christmas and the owner of the Black and White is no exception. He has had some lean days this fall . . . He wants the public to play Santa Claus to him and pour dimes and quarters and dollars into his Black and White stocking.”
The campaign continued until, at last, the American responded with a front-page defense of Payne. Sure, he might own “two or three percent” of the policy wheels in the city, but the “other paper” had attacked Payne because of his politics, the American claimed.
“Felix Payne is the most outstanding benefactor of the suffering members of the Negro race in this city,” the American wrote. “He is for his people first and always. All classes of Negroes have benefitted from his philanthropy – including this other newspaper . . . Felix Payne has sent his money into hospitals to relieve suffering; he has cared for the orphan; he has helped the halt and the lame; he has saved the many who have been victimized by race prejudice . . . He has spent money and invested money that the race might advance. If he needs a job done, a Negro does it.”
The following week, Payne published an open letter to Franklin. Franklin had arranged with the police to harass Payne, the letter claimed. Payne also tossed in a bit of personal history: “I was making or earning dimes in Missouri, blacking boots, hopping bells, carrying dishes, shooting craps, promoting clubs, saloons, shows, prize fights, baseball teams, carnivals, amusement parks, barbershops, pool halls and railroad excursions, when you were playing lemon pool and running down wild women to bring to Kansas City.”
The feud dragged on. Franklin criticized Casimir Welch in an editorial, and the American said it was because Welch stopped advertising in the Call. The divorce of the Call’s business manager was covered in detail by the American. Franklin was ridiculed in cartoons.
While taking care of business, dodging the law and attacking the Call, Payne somehow made time to promote the Democratic Party to black voters. Payne was an electrifying speaker who emphasized the GOP’s indifference to black voters and and sometimes spoke to white audiences. In 1928 he organized 75 black Democratic clubs in Missouri.
In 1932, after Thompkins was named president of the National Negro Democratic Association, Franklin D. Roosevelt was voted into the White House and the American heralded the event with this headline: “HEAVY NEGRO VOTE REPUDIATES GOP.”
It was a moment of triumph for the scrappy Democratic weekly, and the rewards were tangible. Thompkins was named recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia in 1934. Later he hired Payne’s only son.
No copies of the American survived to tell us how the paper covered the assassination of John Lazia or the downfall of Pendergast. By the early 1940s, the American had fallen on hard times and Payne complained in letters of the burden of running the paper alone and of the cash advances requested by Thompkins.
The paper eventually folded, as handy a symbol as any of the passing of an era. The wide-open days of the city’s jazz era were over. The American’s old rival, the Call, survived to become a local institution and a nationally respected newspaper. Thompkins died in the ‘40s and Payne settled into a relatively quiet life. During his later years he offered his profession as “broker.”
By the time Payne died in 1962 at the age of 78, the feud was forgotten history. The Call recognized his contributions to the black community with a lengthy and respectful obituary.
“Throughout his life, Felix Payne was active in the Democratic Party and gave generously to civic projects,” the Call reported. There was no mention of kidnappings, policy wheels, Pendergast or newspaper wars.
The unstated sentiment was clear: Rest in peace, Felix, rest in peace.
© 1990 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved
Dreaming of 18th and Vine On these streets an era has come and gone. And jazz was just a part of it.
February 8, 1992
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
On Sept. 24, 1935, the streets around 18th and Vine were alive with people high on black pride.
Joe Louis, the black heavyweight contender who was to become a two-fisted symbol of his country in the coming war, fought the white ex-champ, Max Baer, in New York that night. In four quick rounds, Louis battered Baer, bruised him and pounded him to his knees, where he took a 10-count. Later Baer told reporters: “When I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than $25 to watch it.”
Black Kansas Citians monitored every blow on the radio; when the final bell sounded, they poured into the streets and partied all night. There was dancing in the streets. People crowded the sidewalks. Cars, horns blaring, crawled bumper-to-bumper through the streets.
“VINE STREET GOES TO GLORY,” a headline in The Kansas City Times proclaimed the next day. “Radios Scream the Defeat of Max Baer and Enthusiasm Rises in Cheers to Hit the Sky.”
The storied intersection was the thriving commercial center of the black community in the segregated city of 1935. The people who celebrated Joe Louis’ victory partied past cafes, restaurants, loan offices, shoe-repair shops, taxi companies, beauty shops, a pool hall, a grocery and a post office. There was a drugstore, an American Legion post, a business college and a record store. And more: a Baptist church, a life insurance company, theaters, print shops, nightclubs, two newspaper offices, two hotels, a musicians union hall and professional buildings with offices for doctors, dentists, lawyers and the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
The 18th-and-Vine Historic District, which basically runs along 18th Street between the Paseo and Woodland Avenue, was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, along with two buildings in the area. But today the district is a shadow of what it once was. Many of the buildings that existed in 1935 are gone, and you’re likely to see street crowds only during the annual 18th and Vine Heritage Festival.
Yet it remains the most obvious visual reminder of the black community that once existed, and supporters of redevelopment hope some day to see a revitalized district that replicates the bustling scene of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. The movement to establish a jazz hall of fame and a baseball museum near 18th and Vine focuses renewed attention on the district’s heritage.
History junkies and jazz fans, when they think of the glory days, are likely to envision jazz, gangsters and smoke-filled rooms- a sweeping epic of gamblers, bootleggers and midnight rides, the greatest movie never made.
But the significance of 18th and Vine extends far beyond a single intersection and the mythology of the prewar jazz era when famous musicians haunted the streets and sidewalks. It represents the hopes, dreams and history of a segregated minority that fought for equality. The doctor and the gambler
In December 1906, when many of Kansas City’s streets were unpaved and a new buggy could be bought for $33.50 cash, a young physician was the subject of a news item in The Rising Son, the city’s only black-owned newspaper: “Dr. William J. Thompkins, recently of the staff of…Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C., wishes to announce his office at 704 E. 12th St.”
Thompkins’ practice would have been between Holmes and Charlotte, not far from the offices of The Rising Son. The paper, always ready to cover success stories, praised the deserving and condemned the unworthy.
The Rising Son stressed respectability and carried ads for the Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University) in Jefferson City, where black students could acquire an array of skills, from blacksmithing and shoemaking to typing and drawing. It covered the career of Blind Boone, the great Missouri-born ragtime composer, and encouraged black citizens to attend the opera where, “in order to accommodate the Colored People of Kansas City there will be a special section reserved for them.”
Meanwhile, to the northwest, toward the western edge of the city’s Downtown business district, an enterprising young black man named Felix Payne ran a place unlikely to win the paper’s approval. It was called the Twin City Club and had a way of moving around, but in 1906 it was near Sixth and Wyandotte streets.
We can only speculate about the amenities offered by the Twin City Club, but it was in a part of town filled with saloons, and Payne’s later career as a gambler and trench fighter for Democratic boss Tom Pendergast suggest a less-than-genteel atmosphere. (More than 500 saloons operated in Kansas City in 1906, and Tom’s big brother, Jim Pendergast, founder of the political dynasty, ran one of them – at 508 Main St., not far from Payne’s place and practically next door to City Hall.)
Establishments like Payne’s were under heated attack from The Rising Son, whose editor condemned black social clubs in florid Victorian prose as “hell holes” and “damnable places for the downfall of young boys and girls” that carried “hundreds of Negroes into the vortex of hell’s running stream…”
Despite the rhetoric, the Twin City Club outlived The Rising Son, and over the next four decades Payne the hustler and Thompkins the physician found themselves among the biggest movers and shakers of black Kansas City. They owned real estate, got involved in the newspaper business and tirelessly promoted the Democratic Party to black voters.
Their destiny would be wrapped up in the history of 18th and Vine, where an office building would bear Thompkins’ name.
By 1906, Kansas City’s black community was moving out of the West Bottoms and claiming areas abandoned by the white population as the city grew to the south. There were pockets on West Sixth and East Fourth, but already black residents could be found living in areas that are now thought of as the inner city – at addresses such as 2410 Highland, 2225 Vine and 2628 Forest.
Kansas City had black policemen and black firemen, and the black community’s leaders were looking for ways to ameliorate the segregated town’s indefensible social conditions. Black residents were opening businesses on East 12th Street and others were eyeing the East 18th Street corridor, where a real estate and loan office advertised “cheap homes for colored people,” for sale or rent.
Reuben Street opened the Street Hotel at the Paseo and 18th Street in 1919 – the same year the Kansas City Call first hit the streets. By then, 18th and Vine was a happening place.
The Street Hotel was a class act and through the years attracted the most successful black celebrities in the country as they passed through town. Joe Louis, Lionel Hampton and the actor Stepin Fetchit (whose real name was Lincoln Perry) stayed there, as did many members of the Kansas City Monarchs, the legendary Negro League baseball team. Black people, needless to say, could not patronize Kansas City’s Downtown hotels.
The black community in 1919 had its own YMCA, political organizations, civic club, two hospitals and, of course, a newspaper. Trolley cars took people to and from the intersection and taxis raced through the district. The Call kept tabs on social advances and injustices, not to mention the dangers of crossing the street:
“It would be a good thing for the neighborhood, for drivers and pedestrians, if some members of the motorcycle squad would give a little attention to the traffic at 18th and Vine Streets,” the paper once cautioned. “Speed, hairpin turns and screeching brakes are a regular occurrence at the intersection. Taxi drivers are some of the greatest and most frequent offenders.”
Payne was there, buying real estate, setting up gambling operations, always looking for the next opportunity, but he was just one of a dizzying cast of characters. The sidewalks of 18th and Vine in the ’20s were walked by musicians, true enough. But the pavement also knew the footprints of labor leaders, criminals, cops, gamblers, preachers, journalists, athletes, politicians (Democrats and Republicans), merchants and visionaries who fought for a time when the barriers of segregation would be demolished.
The district achieved its zenith in the ’20s and ’30s, when the 18th-and-Vine community included bandleaders like Count Basie; an outspoken young newspaper columnist named Roy Wilkins; and C.A. Franklin, the Republican editor and founder of The Call who gave Wilkins a forum.
Wilkins, who later headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, once wrote: “In its feelings about race, Kansas City might as well have been Gulfport, Miss.”
Then there was Homer Roberts, a businessman who opened what may have been the first black-owned car dealership in the United States, at 19th and Vine. He bought the building for $70,000 and named it for himself. Thomas “Big Piney” Brown, a superb amateur tennis player, worked for Roberts during the day and helped Payne run his gambling operations at night.
Roberts and Brown were among four black golfers who were denied access to the public course at Swope Park in 1928 and sued for the right to play. The city decided the answer was a second course just for blacks.
Brown had a brother, Walter, known as “Little Piney,” who was a gambler remembered fondly by jazz musicians. He was immortalized in 1940 when Big Joe Turner, who began his career in Kansas City as a singing bartender, recorded “Piney Brown Blues.”
Cornelius “Tug” Carter, the first black cop to make the rank of sergeant, was practically a celebrity in the ’30s. He began his career with the police department as a hostler, forking hay and shoveling manure in livery stables, and advanced his career by making arrests on his own time.
The Pull Together Club, a syndicate of businessmen and wage earners, pooled their money in monthly installments to buy land. But many of the black organizations and businesses remained tenants. Street, for example, finally bought his hotel in 1947 after 28 years of leasing.
The Lincoln Building, on the southeast corner of 18th and Vine, is still there and today houses the Black Economic Union. Gone are the Thompkins Building, where Thompkins and Payne ran a newspaper, and the Shannon Building, where Kansas City cops once raided a meeting of the Communist Party.
Musicians were plentiful in the district, thanks to the clubs (the Subway Cabaret, the Cherry Blossom and the Mayflower, among them) and the black musicians’ union hall at 1823 Highland Ave.
In 1940, Big Joe Turner walked into a New York recording studio and immortalized the district with these lyrics: I dreamed last night I was standing on 18th and Vine…
Payne and Thompkins, to promote the Democratic Party, decided to get into the newspaper business. In 1928 The Kansas City American made its debut.
The American operated out of an office about two blocks from the Call, and the two papers wasted little time in drawing battle lines.
It was a rough ride.
The Call reported with relish Payne’s kidnapping at the hands of gangsters who stole his money and jewelry. When the police raided the East Side Musicians Club, one of Payne’s operations on 12th Street, The Call splashed it across the front page and accused Payne of rigging his gambling games.
The American fought back, singing the praises of Pendergast and other Democrats, even Democrats such as John Lazia, the North End political boss who eventually would be shot to death by unknown assassins.
Payne and Thompkins got their rewards after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the White House in 1932. Thompkins was appointed the recorder of deeds in Washington and hired Payne’s only son as an assistant.
The sweetness of victory was fleeting, though, because the Call was destined to outlive The American. The Call, of course, is still in business. After the war
In 1945, Cab Calloway met Lionel Hampton in the restaurant of the Street Hotel, and Hampton invited the King of Hi-De-Ho out to the Pla-Mor Ballroom on Main Street to see his show. Calloway went, but there was a problem: The Pla-Mor was off limits to blacks, and Calloway ran into an easily excited off-duty cop who clubbed the famous bandleader with a pistol.
The story made the papers, and Calloway sued the ballroom. The ballroom countersued, claiming it had lost revenue; Hampton would not continue playing after Calloway was refused entry. But the all-white jury found for neither side.
Calloway appealed and the Missouri Supreme Court, citing racial prejudice in the original trial, ruled that he was entitled to a new trial if he wanted one. But Calloway never followed through.
True, the city had changed in many ways. The vibrancy of the district had been interrupted by a world war, and many of the jazz musicians who had made the town special in the ’30s were gone. Some had been drafted during World War II. Others had moved to New York or Los Angeles.
The club scene wasn’t what it had been. The Brown brothers were dead, the Pendergast era was over, the American had folded. But the Calloway incident made it clear that one aspect of Kansas City hadn’t changed: This was still a Jim Crow town.
In 1950, to commemorate the city’s centennial, a group of black civic leaders published a history. Your Kansas City and Mine celebrated black achievements and assessed the still-pervasive racist atmosphere and the opportunities for progress.
Included was a poem by a man named Tommy Berry that closed with these lines: Litter / Rubbish / Never neat / Nobody cares / About / 18th Street.
The district’s decline
These days Horace Peterson spends his days surrounded by the history of the black community, in the old firehouse near 20th and Vine streets that houses the Black Archives of Mid-America.
Peterson, executive director of the Black Archives, knows which buildings are gone, and he knows what the 18th-and-Vine district was and is. And he knows when it changed.
In 1964 voters in Kansas City approved, by a narrow vote, a public accommodations law lowering racial barriers for which so many people in the 18th-and-Vine area had worked for so many years.
One result, ironically, was that the historic intersection became a neglected area of the inner city, which seemed to underscore the prophetic truth of the Tommy Berry poem. The change happened virtually overnight, Peterson said.
“An analogy that was drawn for me was this: When Basie came to town in the ’50s and the ’40s, he stayed in the Street Hotel. In 1964, when public accommodations came about, Basie then started spending his money Downtown at the major hotels. And that pulled the economic rug from underneath the black community’s feet, so to speak.
“People with the money…were able to go and spend their money outside of the community. Schoolteachers and lawyers and doctors and all those people were able to buy properties outside the community.
“They didn’t want to spend those dollars in the inner city, so our middle class started dissipating and left the inner city in shambles. That’s what happened.”
In terms of jazz lore, 12th Street always had more sex appeal than 18th Street, Peterson observed. But the surviving symbols are at 18th and Vine.
Today there are no physical reminders of the black community as it existed elsewhere in the city. No trace of the Twin City Club, no evidence of the black people who once lived in the West Bottoms. The intersection of 12th and Vine doesn’t even exist.
“There’s nothing left,” Peterson said.
© 1992 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved