Historical Themes

At the crossroads of American transportation networks and cultural norms, Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s typified broad trends in American history. The decades bounded by the world wars were marked by intense political, social, and economic change as the United States reluctantly took its place on the world stage while simultaneously struggling with significant challenges at home. The upheaval of World War I, the massive migration of people of color into urban America, the entrance of women into both the labor force and electoral politics, resistance to Prohibition and changing social mores, and an economic collapse and near revolution in national politics all redefined the national character.

Aerial photo of downtown KC circa 1930

Aerial view of Kansas City’s downtown, looking north. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

Understanding how these changes influenced Kansas City—and how the city responded—reveals how citizens of the age adapted to the rise of modern America. Kansas City’s place in this larger national story has received considerable scholarly attention, including a focus on organized crime, the Pendergast political machine, Harry S. Truman, race relations, and the famous Kansas City jazz style exemplified by Count Basie and Charlie Parker.  The Wide-Open Town workshop both encompasses and complicates this well-known narrative. During this period, for example, Prohibition was barely (if ever) enforced; the mob was in ascendancy; and gambling, prostitution, and other hallmarks of urban vice were easily visible. Yet this same “openness” allowed many of the city’s residents to carve out autonomous spaces and challenge conventional social boundaries. Kansas City remained a community divided by the hard lines of race and class, but it was also a city of possibilities where the restrictions that governed life in a segregated state were often more fluid.

Senator Harry S. Truman with Thomas J. Pendergast at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 24, 1936. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

With this premise as a foundation, the Wide-Open Town workshop will explore how residents navigated a city in transition. We believe the Wide-Open Town workshop will contribute to an ongoing conversation about the costs and consequences of Kansas City’s maturation into a modern American city and how these trends reflected larger forces in US history.