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The Kentwood Arms Hotel reveals the twists and turns of one Springfield business’s path to desegregation

For our Sense of Community Series, we dive into old newspaper archives to learn about the first Springfield hotel to reach racial integration—and also note that it didn't stay desegregated for long.

We’re visiting various sites and venues of importance to the African American history of Springfield this week, as commemorated on the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail. This time you’ll learn about a residence hall — currently owned and operated by MSU —that used to be one of Springfield’s two major hotels.

Originally the Kentwood Arms Hotel when it opened in 1926, it became Kentwood Hall when the university purchased it in 1984.

Over the years, the Kentwood Arms hosted numerous celebrities and luminaries who came through the Springfield area. Its selection by the creators of the local heritage trail is due, at least in part, to its designation as the first hotel in town to open its full services to include Black citizens.

But its path to desegregation was far from simple. It involved a campaign visit by then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in September of 1960.

“The end of segregation had had a significant moment in Springfield in 1960, prior to the visit of then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who was coming through on a campaign stop as he toured different parts of the country,” said Kaitlin McConnell, a local historian and publisher of the website, Ozarks Alive.

Springfield's morning newspaper, the Springfield Daily News, reported on September 20, 1960 that local Republican Chairman Del Caywood told representatives of the NAACP that two Black reporters accompanying Vice President Richard Nixon on his visit the next day would be housed at the Kentwood Arms. According to the paper, “Caywood said...that Nixon spokesmen had said he would not stop in Springfield if Negroes in the press delegation could not be housed at the hotel.”

“So there was pressure to make a change,” McConnell said of the visit.

And there was also pressure from the local NAACP chapter, according to former City Council member and NAACP activist Denny Whayne.

“At that time Blacks couldn't stay at the hotel. The NAACP got word that Richard Nixon, the V.P., was coming to Springfield. But Black people that were traveling couldn't stay. So we were going to picket the hotel—the NAACP [was]. And the City Commissioner at the time got word that the NAACP may picket the hotel. And so, he didn't want the problems. So he got together with some of the city fathers on the telephone and he thought that it would be best that they open up public accommodations for everybody. So we didn't have to picket the Kentwood,” Whayne said.

The change happened virtually overnight, according to a September 20, 1960 Springfield Daily News article. The article says, "Earl Moulder, owner of the Kentwood Arms, announced the hotel's permanent desgregation...Shortly after the Kentwood's announcement, F.W. McClerkin, president of Heer's, Inc., made a similar one covering all of the store's facilities."

Heers was a major department store on the square in downtown Springfield.

'Twists and turns' included a reversal of policy

A map of the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail at www.ozarkgreenways.org identifies the Kentwood Arms Hotel as a “five-story hotel built by developer John Woodruff," and that it "ended segregation in September 1960.”

Historian Kaitlin McConnell said she originally thought that was the end of the story. But while researching old newspapers, she found a series of articles from the spring and summer of 1962 in the Springfield Leader and Press reporting that Earl Moulder eventually reversed the Kentwood’s new desegregation policy.

“The manager-owner had decided that Springfield was ‘not ready’ for that level of desegregation,” said McConnell.

“Unfortunately, this area is not quite ready to accept the idea on a broad or unlimited scale….” Kentwood Arms owner Earl Moulder is quoted as saying about desegregation in a Springfield Leader and Press article dated May 30, 1962. The article notes Moulder cited “economic reasons” or an “economic issue,” but it doesn't elaborate.

Moulder was also quoted as saying the Kentwood’s policy would admit African Americans in private dining rooms.

But at issue was access to the hotel’s main, public dining rooms—as well as other facilities, which the hotel had opened to everyone in the fall of 1960 but was now restricting once again based on race.

Picketing, blowback from policy reversal

Because of the Kentwood’s policy reversal, the Missouri Federation of Republican Women’s Clubs announced they were transferring their 1962 convention from Springfield to Kansas City.

On September 9 and 10, 1962, the Springfield Leader and Press reported that some 18 picketers, consisting of Black and white residents, “paraded in front of the Kentwood Arms Motor Hotel, which recently announced it would not serve Negroes in its public dining rooms.”

One of the demonstrators carried a sign reading, “Springfield lost $10,000 today,” referring to the loss of the Republican Women’s Clubs’ annual convention opting to bypass Springfield altogether.

Other voices and groups chimed in, including the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and Community Relations, which was formed soon after the Nixon campaign visit in September 1960—and which, notes McConnell, is still in existence today.

Eventually, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate in places of public accommodation because of race—and that included hotels and motels.

Lyle Foster is a local business owner, associate professor of sociology at MSU and a founder of the heritage trail. He says the trail organizers are aware of the twists and turns in the Kentwood Arms story, and that the marker that will stand at Kentwood Hall will mention the 1962 reversal of the hotel’s full desegregation policy.

“Some things are good, and some things are not so good. But it tells a more complete story,” Foster said.

Randy is in his 43rd year at KSMU (45 if you count his student days!)--first as Music Director, later under the the title "Arts Producer."