Good Times in the Old Neighborhood

By Joel Francis
The ExaminerThe Neck may have been razed 30 years ago, but its spirit lives on.

About 125 residents of the Neck, the African-American neighborhood bordered by U.S. 24, Spring, College and McCoy streets, gathered at McCoy Park, site of the old neighborhood, to eat, play games and swap stories.

“The thing about the Neck was that people down here were family — a big continuous family,” said former Neck resident Nancy Harris. “If one had bread, all had bread. This was like a village. We played together and mourned together.”

Over plates piled with barbecue, domino games and the sounds of Fats Domino, the old neighbors were more than happy to share stories of the old days, but no one could recall how the Neck earned its name.

“We think it started as a derogatory term, but we have turned it into a term of endearment,” Pettigrew said. “I guess it has been here as long as Independence has been here.”

Back then segregation was enforced.

“They had areas where blacks could live and this was one of them,” Harris said. “You couldn’t live just anywhere.”

Pettigrew agreed.

“It was a time of segregation. We got the title of ‘Neck niggers,'” Pettigrew said. “We couldn’t go to anything but we didn’t have anything but the Neck. We couldn’t go to shows uptown and we weren’t allowed to eat uptown.”

Adversity just drew the community closer.

“If one person had a problem, everyone jumped in to help,” Harris said. “Everybody had a garden all could help themselves from.”

Parenting was also a community activity.

“If Nancy’s mom told me to do something, I did it,” Pettigrew said. “There was none of this ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ stuff. These were the days before the child abuse hot line,” she added with a laugh.

Barbara Nutter spent much of her life in the Neck.

“Neighbors used to watch over us when mama and daddy went to work,” Nutter said.

“Those days were the best days of my life,” she added with a smile.

Entertainment options were limited to traveling to Kansas City or making your own fun. Since money was often tight, block parties and fish fries were the norm.

“We usually had fish fries as a church fund-raiser,” Pettigrew said. “You could have a piece of fish, cole slaw and a pickle for 35 cents, and we’d sell good old Polly’s Pop. We’d have beer at night and have music and dance all night at the back of the house.”

Dorothy King remembered learning how to dance at a Neck party.

“A woman named Katherine Thomas opened her home and we went there to dance every Sunday,” King said. “She had cakes and homemade ice cream. We had a lot of good times. A lot of us learned to dance there.”

The teen-agers usually separated themselves at fish fries and formed an area called teen town.

“The young ones would be in the front room with the blue light on and be rockin’ and rollin’,” Pettigrew said. “We had to make our own fun. We didn’t know what we were missing. We knew we couldn’t go places, but we didn’t care. We were poor but we were happy.”

The hilly streets of the Neck were perfect for sledding in the winter.

“We would carry water from the well, fill barrels up, set them up on the hill (on Mill Street) and dump ’em out,” said Herbert Sullivan, who’s Neck home is now a tennis court. “They’d freeze and the next day you could sled down the hill.”

Nutter remembers spending many a day sledding up and down Mill Street.

“You could go from the top of one hill, clear up to the top of another hill,” Nutter said. “Then daddy would have to go to work the next day and he would slip and slide the whole way.”

Pettigrew thought about having a reunion when she was working on her book, “Memories of a Neck Child.”

“Writing that book stirred up hopes,” said Pettigrew. “I thought getting together in reunion would be a good thing.”

Life in the Neck wasn’t easy, but ask anyone their memory of the area and it will be the good times that are shared.

“It was fun,” said Al Rucker, who was 10 when his family was forced to move.

“We used to do basically the same things at those parties that we are doing right now,” he said munching on a slice of watermelon while a group danced to the Temptations.

“The Neck never left. That spirit is still in these people,” King said. n the 1970s urban renewal cleared out the Neck at the prompting of Harry Truman.

“Truman didn’t want a black neighborhood near his library,” Pettigrew said.

Roxanne Copridge remembered seeing Truman on his walks.

“Truman used to walk through this neighborhood,” Copridge said, “and he always had two bodyguards with him.”

This action stands as a contrast to the man who desegregated the military while president in 1948.

“Truman’s record of civil rights speaks for itself,” said Scott Rowley, acting director of the Truman Library. “There were lots of factors involved in the decision for urban renewal, including the City of Independence.”

Families were forced from their homes with little compensation, the residents remember.

“They just stole it from us,” said Thelma Copridge, Nutter’s sister. “Every time I think about it, I get so doggone mad.”

Harris remembers that time well.

“It killed off a lot of people,” Harris said. “The city didn’t give them anything for their homes — they wanted to cart us all off to Kansas City.

“We had hard times getting people to sell us a house. We had to canvas the neighborhood to see if they wanted us here.”

Nutter expounds on the deaths during the relocation.

“There were a lot of people who owned their house and were too old to look for a job and a new home,” Nutter said. “They died from heart attacks.”

Pettigrew said she feels it is the community’s loss, not just hers.

“When the bulldozers dug up our houses we lost a part of the history of Independence,” Pettigrew said. “Not black history, but Independence’s history.”

But the good food, music and friends made harboring grudges impossible. And for at least a little while, the Neck was once again the place to be.

“I’m very happy,” Pettigrew said. “I got to renew so many old acquaintances. We’re definitely going to make this an annual affair.”