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Friday, March 8, 2019

Reuben and Ella Davison Street and their Kansas City Blue Room

I have long been intrigued by the stories of enslaved people from Williamson County who - once they attained their freedom - made the painful choice to leave their homes, family, and friends and strike out for a new future in new places.  Many of them became "Exodusters" - the name given to the group of people who moved to Kansas beginning in 1874.  Reuben Stanley Street and his family were some of Williamson County's Exodusters.  I have written a much longer post about the experience of Williamson County's Exodusters generally that you can read here.

Reuben Street's Family and Early Childhood.  

Reuben was born on New Year's Day 1876 to James S. Street, Sr. and Maria Jane ("Jane") Austin. James had been born around 1852 in Kentucky and Jane was born a few years later in Tennessee - probably in Williamson County - to Jim and Regina Austin (Reuben's grandparents).  

Reuben's parents had been children (probably in Williamson County) during the Civil War and they and Reuben's grandparents were all almost certainly enslaved. After the War, in 1870, Reuben's father James was 18 years old and working as a farm laborer in the Thompson's Station area of Williamson County.  That same year, his mother was just 12 years old - the middle of five children - and still living at home with her parents, Jim and Regina Austin in District 21 of Williamson County between College Grove and Peytonsville.  

In 1873, James and Jane were married in Williamson County.  The following year, Ida, the first of their 13 children was born. In 1876, Reuben was born. By the time the 1880 Census was taken, Reuben's father James was 28 years old and his mother Jane was 22; the couple had four children - Ida 6, Reuben 5, Queen Victoria 3 and a 4-month-old daughter Selonia - who was identified only as "Baby Street" in the Census.  Living and farming nearby was Jane's brother John Austin and his family.

Exodusters - Ho for Kansas!

Around 1883, the family took part in a migration that many other African American families from the area had already participated in - the exodus to Kansas.  They pulled up stakes and headed to the "Free State of Kansas" - becoming "Exodusters."  Another example of Williamson County Exodusters who I have recently blogged about was the family of Green and Caroline Starnes Currin - you can read that post here.

The_Topeka_Weekly_Times_Thu__Apr_15, 1875
The Workingman's Courier (Independence, Kansas)
Thursday, November 25, 1875
Four years earlier, the newspaper was reporting that a group of 75 people
from Williamson County had become Exodusters and headed to Kansas.
Newspaper accounts described how farms in Williamson County had been "stripped" of their hands - sometimes blaming agents of the Kansas railroads for encouraging the migration.

The Nashville Republican Banner,
Thursday, April 29, 1875
Benjamin Singleton, and S.A. McClure, Leaders of the Exodus, leaving Nashville, Tennessee.
Photomural from montage. Historic American Building Survey Field Records, HABS FN-6, #KS-49-12.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 
Around 1883, the Street and Austin families joined hundreds of others from Middle Tennessee in becoming Exodusters.  They packed up their belongings and left for Kansas.  Most likely, they took a steamship up the Cumberland River from Nashville to Paducah, Kentucky where the river joins the Ohio, to Cairo, Illinois and the mighty Mississippi.  Their steamship would have followed the Mississippi north, to St. Louis and then traveled west along the Missouri River past Kansas City, Missouri and there their journey seems to have ended, just across the River, at the small town of Wyandotte, Kansas. Reuben would have been about seven years old - the second of six very young children.  
Approximate Route taken by Exodusters traveling by riverboat from Nashville to Kansas.

Wyandotte, Kansas, located at the junction of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, was a short distance from the state line. At that time it was the first Kansas town of importance encountered en route from St. Louis. This feature made it a popular landing spot for those heading to Kansas. A few years earlier, a large wave of emigrants from the south to this area had overwhelmed the local community and resulted in Congressional hearings to determine the cause of their flight. Many of them had arrived without sufficient food or supplies and hundreds died.  Despite the difficulties encountered by earlier travelers, the Streets and Austins had undertaken the journey - perhaps joining others who had by now made a foothold in Kansas and were ready to receive them.

Within a year of the family's departure from Williamson County, a son John was born in the inland suburb of Wyandotte called Argentine, Kansas. Soon, however, the family seems to have moved back across the Kansas River to the Armourdale District of Kansas City, Missouri where Reuben spent his formative years.  He, his father and oldest siblings farmed and Reuben sold vegetables to local grocery stores to earn money. Four more children joined the family during this time - the last was a son named after his father, James S. Street, Jr.  

The Leavenworth Times May 13, 1893
Topeka.  By 1890, the family moved about 60 miles due west to North Topeka, Kansas where James Street Sr. was working as a carpenter and serving as a minister at a "colored Baptist church" in an area of Topeka called "Tennessee Town" due to a large number of emigrants from the state.  In May 1893, a newspaper article reported on the fact that James Street had encountered some difficulty with his congregation one day and was missing - although he does seem to have returned thankfully.  The family's home was described as being "two miles north of North Topeka."  Jane was a homemaker with nine children - Reuben would have been 17 years old.  James Street was described as "being a mulatto [biracial], 6 feet tall, 45 years old, and weighing about 170 pounds." 

That same year, Dr. Charles Monroe Sheldon of the Central Congregational Church opened a kindergarten in Tennessee Town for African American students. Reuben's twin younger sisters Mary and Martha would have been five years old and might have attended.
Tennessee Town Kindergarten 1893
Courtesy Kansas Historical Society
The following year, in 1894, when he was 18, Reuben went to live with his uncle John Austin (his mother's brother) in Kingfisher, Oklahoma.  His uncle had also emigrated to the Argentine area of Wyandotte, Kansas with Reuben's family and then moved to Kingfisher, Oklahoma to farm around the same time that Reuben went to live with him.  There was a small but vibrant community of Williamson County African Americans who settled in Union Township in the Kingfisher area after the land was opened for development on April 22, 1889; chief among them was Green Currin who was elected to the Oklahoma legislature. While living there, Reuben probably met his future wife Ella Davidson, who was also from Williamson County and had moved there with her parents.

The Indianapolis News, Wednesday April 18, 1900

Marriage.  By 1898 Reuben had moved to Indianapolis and took a job working in the grocery business.  The following year, on April 16, 1900, when he was 24 years old, Reuben Street married 22-year-old Ella. The couple was married at the "Bethel Parsonage" in Indianapolis - a historic AME church and the oldest African American congregation there. The couple lived in Indianapolis for a few years after their marriage and their only child, a son named James Stanley, was born there.
Early Photo, Bethel Parsonage, Indianapolis
Photo Courtesy Indiana Digital Newspapers Program
During the time that Reuben and his new bride were starting their family in Indianapolis, Reuben's parents were still in Topeka.  His father James was working as a carpenter and a minister. Reuben's brother Monroe was a fruit dealer and both he and Reuben's sister Julia lived with their parents at 1214 West Euclid Avenue in Topeka. His other siblings had started to move out and begin their own families.

Birds Eye View of Topeka, 1909
By Unknown photographer - Reproduced from an original postcard published by H. C. N., Public Domain,

1902 Topeka City Directory
Showing Reuben's father James Street - a carpenter and minister
Reuben's sister Julia and his brother Monroe, a fruit-dealer
All were living in the family home at 1214 West Euclid Avenue, (today 17th Ave) Topeka

African American children, Topeka, Kansas
This sepia colored photograph shows a group of African American children gathered in front of a home in the Tennessee Town neighborhood in Topeka, Kansas. The neighborhood was located southwest of the Capitol building. Some"exodusters" settled in this area of Topeka.
Creator: Gates, W.A.
Date: June 20, 1900
Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society
1903 Kansas City Flood.  In 1903, a terrible flood struck Kansas City. Sleet storms and freezes in late April 1903 led to tornados, hail, and massive rainstorms in May. Reuben's maternal grandfather Jim Austin, was 77 years old, and living in Kansas City during this natural disaster.  Reuben went back to Missouri to take his grandfather to Topeka to stay with relatives after the destruction in the Armourdale District of Kansas City.
Jumble of flood wrecked homes, 4th St., Armourdale, Kansas, 1903
Courtesy, Library of Congress

Streets Cafe

Reuben and Ella seem to have stayed in Topeka after moving his grandfather there, because by 1904, Reuben was working as a janitor on Westport Avenue.  His sister Queenie was working as a cook. 

During this time, the couple began working in the restuarant business.  The first reference to Reuben owning his own restaurant appears in 1905 in a Kansas City directory.  The cafe was located on East 18th Street near the intersection of Vine - a location that would be central to their professonal lives. 

However, they seem to have bounced back and forth between Topeka and Kansas City for several years trying to get their business to take off. Five years later, based on a 1909 City Directory, Reuben and Ella were living with his parents at 1233 Lane Street in Topeka.  The couple were working as cooks along with Reuben's brother James. Reuben's sisters Martha and Mary were working for the artist Marie Witwer as a cook and maid respectively.

(For more information about this time period in the Street's lives, Andrea Broomfield's Kansas City: A Food Biography (p. 97)  includes a good overview of how Reuben Street spent his early career working in restaurant kitchens and cafe's before going into business for himself.)

 In 1917 Reuben and Ella moved their restaurant into a location at 1510 East 18th Street and by 1920 they took over the whole building.

Reuben Street's World War I Draft Registration
He and Ella were living at 1516 Howard Street. He was working as a cook.

Street Hotel

Reuben and Ella's Street Cafe catered to the growing African American middle and professional class community in Kansas City. Their success encouraged the couple to take out a loan and invest in their dream of owning their own hotel. According to the Encyclopedia of African American Business, Volume 1 (p. 59) and Charles E. Coulter's Take Up the Black Man's Burden: Kansas City's African American Communities, around 1920, Reuben Street received the financial backing of two African American brothers Theron and John Watkins who owned a successful funeral home business in Kansas City.  With this loan the Streets purchased the building where their restaurant was located - at 1510 East 18th Street on the southwest corner of Paseo- and began Kansas City's finest hotel serving African American guests. 

In 1923, Reuben Street's business enterprise was doing well enough that he was able to participate along with a group of 15 other successful African American investors in purchasing the black newspaper, the Kansas City Sun.  By the mid 1920s, due to the success of their businesses, the Streets appear to have paid off the loan from the Watkins brothers.

By this point, the Street Hotel included the exclusive Rose Room - their dining room - and and across the lobby, the Blue Room.  The Blue Room was considered, "Kansas City's favorite cocktail bar," and employed a well-known bartender named KingfishIn the 1930 Census, the Street's building was valued at $100,000. By the mid-1930s the hotel was a landmark on the 18th Avenue cooridor in Kansas City's African American business district.

The Rose Room.

The book Kansas City: A Food Biography by Andrea L. Broomfield describes the Rose Room as providing a dining experience that was surprassed by no others in Kansas City.  The Rose Room could seat 125 diners at linen-clothed tables set with fine crystal and silver. 

Buck O'Neil
By Unknown Public Domain - 
Buck O'Neil was a first baseman and manager with the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs. In his autobiography, "I Was Right On Time," he said, "Imagine what it would be like staying in a fine New York City hotel, like the Waldorf-Astoria, and coming down every morning to breakfast, nodding hello to Frank Sinatra or Doris Day or Fred Astaire as you pass by their tables. Well, that's what it felt like for me, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the late thirties and early forties, staying at the Streets Hotel at 18th and Pasco, and coming down to the dining room where Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday and Bojangles Robinson often ate."

The Rose Room served Kansas City's famous strip steaks - sometimes prepared and presented by Reuben Street himself. 

The Blue Room. The Blue Room was central to the development of Kansas City's Jazz scene. Musicians developed a style of jazz that pulled heavily from the blues music tradition and ragtime. Count Basie, who joined the Blue Room's house band Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra in 1929, is generally credited with originating the style and Kansas City native Charlie Parker transitioned the musical style to "bebop" in the 1940s. 
Count Basie And Herman Walder
Circa 1937 photograph of Count Basie (piano) and Herman Walder (saxophone) 
at Street's Blue Room, part of the Street Hotel at the northeast corner of The Paseo and 18th Street. 

March 5, 1954
Joplin (MO) Globe, page 24
Even Satchel Paige - the Negro League and Major League pitcher - was a regular. When he was arrested for driving under the influence in Kansas City, his court testimony included a mention of the Blue Room: "I was in the Blue Room of the Street Hotel. I was sitting there talking to the bartender, Kingfish. I had one bottle of beer and we were just sitting there chatting."

By 1950, Reuben Street's business enterprises were worth $300,000.  The hotel and restaurant continued as a central part of the African American Kansas City community through the 1950s and the couple was very successful.

Reuben Street in front of the Street Hotel
Courtesy of the Black Archives of Mid-America
In April 1953, Reuben's beloved business partner and wife Ella died unexpectedly at home. Their son James was with her at the time.  
Ella Street's obituary
Courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library

The following April, Reuben sold the building to a local investor and retired. On August 16, 1956, Reuben also passed away.  He was 80 years old.
Reuben Street's obituary
Courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library

2630 East 29th Street, Kansas City, MO
Google Earth
Reuben and Ella Street's Home in Kansas City, MO

Eventually, the 18th and Vine area began to decline as desegregation meant that well-to-do African Americans in Kansas City had choices about where to spend their dollars and leisure time.  In 1997, as part of a revitalization of the 18th and Vine neighborhood, a new "Blue Room" jazz club opened in the American Jazz Museum near the original location of the Street Hotel.

Today, live jazz can still be heard in the Blue Room at the corner of 18th and Vine.  I am sure that Reuben and Ella are there in spirit and would be so pleased to know that the band plays on.

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