When Bella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 after being sold and bought four times, suffering decades of enslavement, beatings, rapes, whippings, harsh physical labor, and violent punishment, she was inscribed with a new identity as a gifted speaker, abolitionist, and activist for civil rights. It was about the same year that Dr. Benoist Troost settled in the Kansas City area. He was about ten years older than Bella; he grew up in Holland while she was enslaved to a Dutch family in New York where she spoke Dutch and, like him, only later learned English. While she was enduring torture, he was on another sojourn: a medical mission with his brother that was to take them from Holland to the East Indies, but they got rerouted to Pennsylvania. He later followed his son to Kentucky and, on a trip to Saint Louis, he saved the life of a man who invited him to settle near the future Kansas City. The first resident doctor here, he became a city builder, and an avenue was named in his honor. Unfortunately, that avenue became a symbol of racial, social, and economic division. When Troost Avenue undergoes a name change, it, too, will imprint a new identity upon our city’s sojourn to a greater truth.
Prior to the Civil War and during the time of the Trail of Tears, there were many slave owners in Kansas City. Native Americans as well as African Americans were victims of the atrocities of the time, as native customs and culture were destroyed and native citizens were driven westward across Missouri and other territories along another painful journey. Among the most notorious slave plantations in the heart of our city was one owned by Reverend James Porter; it covered an area from about 23rd to 31st Streets and Vine to Locust. Unlike Porter, who owned scores of slaves—perhaps even a hundred, Troost owned a few. Nevertheless, as the city developed, the street bearing his name increasingly became associated with residential segregation and redlining. It has been noted numerous times that no other city in America has such a clear symbol of division as we have on Troost Avenue.
Fortunately, over the past quarter century, efforts have been made by civic and business leaders, along with developers and philanthropists, social agencies and church communities, to transform Troost from a place of division to a place of gathering, a path of unity. The efforts have been very successful. From social ministries like Reconciliation Services, Community Linc, Journey to New Life, One City Café, and Operation Breakthrough to wonderful restaurants like Ruby Jean’s Juicery, Thelma’s Kitchen, Equal Minded Café, Niecie’s, and Blackhole Bakery, to schools, churches, second-hand shops, and a plethora of programs for youth and families, assistance in areas of tutoring and finances, residences for elderly or those reentering society after personal setbacks, it is great to see. The Catholic community has taken a servant-leadership role along Troost, as well, through the good works at Saint James and Saint Francis Xavier Parishes, as well as Rockhurst University.
We are each on a sojourn. It is a journey of faith and truth. A name change can make a world of difference. It did for Isabella Baumfree, and it can for Troost Avenue. If it becomes Truth Avenue, it can speak volumes about our city’s long evolutional journey from enslavement and division to hope and goodness.