Historic KC Negro League site nearly restored

Former YMCA to become Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center

February 6th, 2017
Nearly a century ago, owners met at the former Paseo YMCA to form America's first successful Negro League.George Murphy

KANSAS CITY -- It was 97 years ago on Feb. 13 at the historic Paseo YMCA where eight independent owners of African-American baseball teams sat down to discuss forming a united league.

Those eight owners, including the legendary Rube Foster, eventually formed the Negro National League, the first successful Negro League in the United States. That league paved the way for future successful Negro Leagues.

"There's so much history in that building," said Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, "that it has always been our goal to refurbish it."

Through time and urban decay, the Paseo YMCA, one of the first YMCAs for African-Americans in the country, eventually crumbled and became abandoned.

"It was an eyesore," Kendrick said. "It was sad."

Homeless people used it as a shelter, even burning fires on the gymnasium floor at night to stay warm.

But the NLBM acquired the decrepit building in the 1990s -- on the vision of the late Buck O'Neil -- in hopes of restoring it. Twenty-five or so years later, that vision is close to reality.

On this Feb. 13, the NLBM will host a private hard-hat sneak peek at the renovated Paseo YMCA, which will be known as the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center. The project is expected to be completed sometime later this year.

"It will be something the entire community can utilize and enjoy," Kendrick said. "We'll have computers, research centers, archives of black history -- everything that Buck had envisioned."

Numerous individuals contributed to the building's revival, including Ollie Gates (of the famous Gates Barbecue) and Julia Irene Kauffman, who is on the Royals' board of directors.

Kendrick still remembers touring the abandoned Paseo YMCA right after the NLBM acquired it.

"You talk about scary," Kendrick said. "We're in there with flashlights looking around, and we didn't know what we'd find. There was all that pigeon waste, rats. You could tell so many homeless people had taken up residence there at times. It was so sad to know that people were forced to have to live there.

"It just makes it so much more significant that this once proud building will be restored with such a great purpose."

The building became historically significant almost by chance.

"Back in 1920 when the famous meeting happened," Kendrick said, "it originally was scheduled to be in Indianapolis. But for some reason, it got cancelled and rescheduled here in Kansas City at the Paseo YMCA.

"If that hadn't happened, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum would not be in Kansas City."