obert Dixon sits in his Parkville living room located on West Street while a pair of reading glasses rests on his head. Yet another pair of glasses is placed on the dark wood coffee table before him. Dixon is African American, and has seen with his own eyes how far the Parkville community has come since the days of segregation.
Dixon was born in 1940, and has chosen to remain in Parkville his entire life, although many of his friends and neighbors have migrated to nearby areas for economic opportunities. As an only child, his family home stood on the hill behind his current residence which he built in 1969 for himself and his mother.
While Dixon was a small child, state law required the education of black children, but prohibited the education of black and white children in the same school. As a result, Dixon attended grade school next door to his family residence in a two room schoolhouse named Banneker School No. 2. There was one classroom, while the other room was used for recreation. Only one teacher was present to instruct 25 to 30 pupils.
“We had nothing to compare this experience with at the time, because it was all we had been exposed to, all that we were familiar with,” Dixon says. “There were children from the first through eighth grades learning in the same room. Growing up, I only had black friends. We saw whites, but there was never any integration culturally. The areas from West Street to 13th was where all the black families lived. Parkville is such a small town that you were able to know everyone. You knew the whites, but you rarely mixed socially.”
The elementary school previously used strictly for black children in the Parkville School District was Banneker School No. 1 located on 8th Street. This tiny brick structure was built in 1885 and housed as many as 80 students at one time. It was then replaced in 1902 by the larger Banneker No. 2. Both structures are still standing; Banneker No. 1 is now abandoned, but several attempts to restore it as a museum have failed. The later Banneker No. 2 is a private residence.
The black population in Parkville at the turn of the 20th century was nearly 20 percent. Since Park College hired black workers and sold them lots for homes at reasonable prices, blacks gravitated to Parkville for these opportunities rarely afforded in other nearby towns. There is little evidence that black residents were intentionally segregated in Parkville’s residential areas, but a strong black community quickly developed along West Street.
During Dixon’s high school education he attended many different schools, each for their own reason. Until 1956, the Park Hill School District was segregated. This meant black students in the Parkville area were forced to ride the Greyhound bus across Kansas City to reach Lincoln High School. Many students did not attend, whether as necessity or as a choice.
“A lot of my friends I grew up with didn’t attend high school at all,” Dixon says. “Many were from large families and needed to get started in the work force. My parents were big proponents of education, so not attending high school was never an option. They had the expectation that I would attend college, too.
“Lincoln High was an all black school, so that’s where I had to go. It was a huge adjustment since I was familiar with a very small school that I had just left. I got on the Greyhound bus at 6:30 in the morning every school day. Parkville’s bus station was at 12th and Main Streets, so I rode from there to 10th and Magee where I got off. I had to walk another few blocks to catch the streetcar at 18th and Troost. I attended Lincoln for two years.”
When Dixon was a junior, his mother encouraged him to switch schools and attend Manuel High School which was integrated. This new experience awarded Dixon his first opportunity to meet and attend school with people of many races. Manuel High had a heavy concentration of Mexican, Black, and Italian students.
“There was a good mixture of races and I could interact with these new friends on a day to day basis,” Dixon says. “It was the first time I was able to see everyone treated as equals, because we were all just seen as students.”
A huge change in public education occurred before Dixon was a senior in high school. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court made the historic decision which made it unlawful to segregate children by race in the United States Public School System. This case had been fought as early as 1951 in Topeka, Kansas when the NAACP recruited black parents in Topeka for a class action suit against the local school board.
The U.S. District Court for the district of Kansas heard the NAACP’s argument who stated “segregated schools sent the message to black children that they were inferior to whites, therefore the schools were inherently unequal.” The Board of Education’s defense centered on their opinion that “segregated schools simply prepared black children for the segregation they would face during adulthood.” They argued segregated schools were ‘not harmful to black children.’ The judge ruled in favor of the Board of Education, which led to the NAACP’s appeal to the Supreme Court where the ruling was overturned.
The NAACP’s original objective in filing this suit was to end the ‘separate but equal’ mentality throughout every segment of society, including public transportation, dining facilities, public schools, and all forms of public accommodation. This change was yet to take place until the Civil Rights movement began and the controversy of race discrimination was brought to the forefront.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision did not require desegregation of public schools by any specific date. Instead, the final document only stated “schools be integrated with all deliberate speed.” Even though the Supreme Court ruled in favor of integration in May of 1954, the Park Hill School District remained segregated until 1956. Dixon spent his senior year at Park Hill High School, where he said there were few problems with this new integrated environment.
“Opinions varied widely around the area, but the school board said ‘It’s now the law of the land and we have to abide by it,’” said Dixon.
“Parkville had few problems, but this varied from town to town. Liberty had a large black population at the time and they had no problems because of that influence; the majority was in favor of it. But the smaller towns like Smithville made a huge fight out of this, mainly because there were no blacks there,” he added.
“For the first two or three years after integration, we would travel to Smithville for high school football games where we competed against them. There was a real animosity towards us and it was enough to warrant the presence of the Highway Patrol. My friends would be running the football down the field and there were racial slurs yelled at them by the Smithville fans. It felt like everyone there was antagonistic and anti-integration.”
Dixon graduated from Park Hill in June of 1957 with a class size of 77 people. After spending one year studying at Kansas City’s Junior College, he decided to attend the local Park College where he continued living at home and walked to class daily.
While majoring in history, Dixon held many jobs at the college to help pay for his tuition. He worked 12 hours a week in different capacities, which included janitor, cafeteria dishwasher, and dining room cashier. He spent one entire summer carrying bedroom furniture up the stairs to occupy the newly built Dearing Hall. He graduated in December of 1964.
Dixon has held many professional jobs during his career, including working in the Park College mailroom and later managing their bookstore. In the spring of 1965, a friend from Park contacted him with the news of an employment opportunity to work for Grayber electrical wholesale. He was told how Grayber was looking to hire their first minority and he decided to accept this position where he stayed for more than 16 years.
In 1984 he started The Regency Travel Agency at 104 Main Street in Parkville. He sold Regency ten years later while he worked on another business venture with three partners. They had decided to try their skills in a convenience store business at Parkville. They named this convenience store ‘Please Stop’ which they decided to sell on April 10, 2006.
Dixon has seen multiple changes occur in Parkville during his residency, especially the city’s population growth.
“Even though the city of Parkville has grown, its black population has not,” said Dixon.
“There used to be around 100 blacks in this community, but now there are fewer than 20. We have gone from a small town to a suburban community. The city boundaries used to be defined from the river’s edge and north to the two cemeteries on Highway 9. There was never anything past 13th Street, but now that area is taking off. There has never been a free-standing bar here, but only the restaurants which have food on the menu too. If you want a drink, you’ve always had to go over to Riverside.
“There was never a sewage line on West Street until 1968. When I built my current home in 1969, it was the first time I had central plumbing. You used to go outside to your outhouse in the middle of a cold December night while you carried a lantern and the Sears Catalog!”
In Parkville, as late as 1960, “persons of color” could not be seated at the drug store or get their hair cut in town. The city has come a long way since, and Dixon said he is glad he stayed around to see the changes.
“Growing up in Parkville, you could hardly wait to leave,” Dixon said. “I never left and I’m glad I didn’t. The choices I’ve made and the opportunities I’ve had here have been rewarding. Overall, I think Parkville has always had the influence of the university. This has made us different from nearby smaller towns, the school has pulled this city into the 21st century at a fast pace.”