Jayhawking to Jays to Jaywalking

Kansas City is one of those cities that has deeply influenced the development of the United States, but is often lost in the conversation. Everyone knows about New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago. But like Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Indianapolis, everyone just kind of forgets Kansas City exists. Visitors from Corning, NY once remarked upon visiting, “Hey, you guys actually have a real city here!” To which I replied, “You know you’re from Corning, right?” Maybe they just needed glasses.

We Kansas Citians brought the world countless things everyone uses, or used once – sliced bread, Folger’s Coffee, Lee Jeans, the Kansas City strip steak, greeting cards, concrete pavement, redlining mortgages, the Las Vegas mafia, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the B2 bombers at Richard Gebauer. I’m probably missing at least a few, but you get the point.

And one of those innovations was jaywalking.

Seven years after inventing basketball, James Naismith brought it to Lawrence, Kansas, the same place that the Winchester Brothers from Supernatural lived. As far as I know, these developments are unrelated (so far). But the basketball team from KU is named the Jayhawks. Kansas, as it happens, was named after Kansas City, not the other way around. And Kansas City is in Missouri, not Kansas, unless you’re talking about Kansas City, KS, which we choose not to discuss unless we have to. Kansas – named for Kansas City, MO – is known as the Free State, and entered the Union as the Kansas Territory, previously Indian Territory.

You see, while St. Louis calls itself the Gateway of the West, and has that massive Gateway Arch, the Oregan Trail hewed to the Santa Fe Trail and the California Trail up until it reached Kansas City. You can still walk the original route in Raytown, MO – famous worldwide as the setting for Mama’s Family, and the global top consumer of chain link fence – along a series of Terraces near Blue Ridge Cutoff. A few blocks away is the West Cemetery, which for years I thought was named after the West family, only to later realize that it was named for settlers headed “west”, who died leaving behind only the first names, and were buried as “James West” and “Bonnie West” and the like since nobody knew their actual last names.

Kansas City was the gateway to the west, at Westport – huzzah, who’d have imagined – where the trails led into the notoriously dangerous Indian Territory. Lots of travelers would stop over in Kansas City for the relatively safe, wide-open, rich crop land and easy access to water, and – much like in the game Oregon Trail – decide that the living was easy here, there was no point going further. Instead of continuing on, they’d stay behind in Kansas City, just east of the border of Indian Territory. Looking to clean up the territory’s reputation as it prepared for statehood, James Denver suggested renaming the territory to Kansas, after Kansas City. The idea was to draw people just slightly across the Missouri border from Kansas the City into Kansas the Territory, by tricking them into thinking that the city and the territory were one and the same. This was an early and extremely successful form of marketing. And when you say “I’m from Kansas City,” 150 years later, people still assume you mean Kansas, the state, even though you just said it was the city. Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We actually never were, but thank you for asking.

Due to clever lies and well-constructed trickery, the Kansas Territory burgeoned and, as things went in those days, eventually Missouri wanted to be named as a state. Missouri, being quite full of Missourians, wanted to keep slavery alive, and so the Missouri Compromise was struck – Missouri would enter as the last slave state, if Kansas would enter as a free state. The rest of Indian Territory would be cleaved and eventually became Colorado, its capital later being named after James Denver, architect of the Kansas City shuffle. And thus the Free State was born, and the Kansas City shuffle was later adopted as a political ploy to trick people into voting for one thing by lying about it and distracting them from what they were really voting for, which Republicans eventually adopted as a core of their political platform. Now, the Kansas City shuffle is a well-known confidence scam that uses misdirection to trick people into doing what you want by making them think you don’t want them to do it. It is an apt name, and we earned it well. There are few things Kansas City does better, historically, than civic corruption.

Anyway, back to the Jayhawks. I was visiting Wichita once and saw a man at a BBQ restaurant wearing a “Heritage Not Hate” shirt with a Confederate flag on it. It made me recall the heritage of the Confederacy in Kansas, “the Free State”, and that heritage was devoted Kansans mercilessly slaughtering slave owners in Missouri, to free the slaves and bring them to the safety of Kansas, the Free State. I wondered if he realized that the heritage of the Confederacy that he was supporting was to be killed by Kansas Jayhawks. In hindsight I’m pretty sure he made it out of the restaurant alive, albeit just barely, and considering his obvious health conditions I’m not sure he’d have survived even a light scuffle.

When I say Jayhakws, I don’t mean basketball fans that James Naismith later named his team after, who probably have killed people at least a time or two, or at least gave it the old college try, but named them after the original Jayhawks, the ones who killed people on purpose, and arguably for the good reason that the people they were killing were slavers.

You see, during the Civil War period in Missouri there was a group, Quantrill’s Raiders, led by Bill Quantrill, who counted for a time Frank and Jesse James among their numbers. Quantrill’s Raiders were also known as the Gray Ghosts of the Confederacy. Richard Brownlee wrote a whole book about it, which I read a long time ago, and still sits on my shelf, so I can pretend like I remember any of it. The Gray Ghosts would ride into Westport, bringing troops and weapons to attack Free Staters and defend Missouri’s slave status. They would ride over to Lawrence, to clash with the Jayhawks – the Kansas guardsmen established to battle the slavers, not the basketball team – and attempt to re-capture the slaves that the Jayhawks had freed in prior raids.

The legacy of the Jayhawks was to kill slavers and free the slaves. And the legacy of the Gray Ghosts was to kill free men and capture slaves. Whose heritage are we honoring here wearing “Heritage Not Hate” shirts in Kansas? And Missouri, being a state that I grew up in and love deeply, is an incredibly racist and prejudiced state to this day. Missourian’s love of racism runs so deep its citizens have taught me slurs I still don’t know the meaning of. This love of racism imbues the city I live in and love, Kansas City, too. We all have our flaws, but the existence of a flaw is not self-justifying, and we can love someone while being critical of their shortcomings.

Once Kansas Citians invented paved roads in the late 1800s, and sometime later Kansas City developed an impressive system of institutionalized civic corruption around paved roads that continues to this day, right around then James Naismith was involved in a slightly less corrupt activity (college athletics) by founding the Kansas Jayhawks 20 miles to the west. The self-important not-quite-country-bumpkins of Kansas City would, remembering their old embarrassments in the Civil War, look down on Kansas residents just a few miles away, and dismissively refer to the Kansas country bumpkins as Jays.

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” – Lyndon Johnson. Lots of people want someone they can spit on, I guess, and when you’re from Kansas City, relying on the cattlemen to bring up herds from Texas, through Oklahoma, across the Kansas plains, and into the railcars in Kansas City to send up to Chicago for butchering and distribution throughout the east coast through the Great Lakes waterways, you’re pretty low on the totem pole and really need an easy target to feel good about yourself. And for Kansas Citians, that easy target was the inheritors of the city’s name coming in from Kansas.

Kansas City, having the benefit of paved roads and automobiles and extreme political corruption, and a somewhat easier way of life in real estate development and infrastructure engineering than the Kansas farmhands, was a strong draw to the children of those Kansas farmhands. The errant farm boys sought an easier life in burgeoning Kansas City, where there wasn’t quite as much gunslinging – back then – as there was in Dodge City, Kansas where Wyatt Earp had made many men his unwitting huckleberries.

The young men from Kansas would come to Kansas City to make their lifestyles in the cattle yards and Kansas red winter wheat stock trading floors, only to be dazzled by the astonishing sight of an honest-to-God five story building at Petticoat Junction in downtown Kansas City. Taken aback by a tower to rival Babel, the astounded young Kansans would step into the road without looking, only to be narrowly missed by a Model T racing down the newly-paved road at a breathtaking 8 miles per hour. The driver would aaaah-oooo-gahhh the horn of their brand-new Model T, and holler at the errant Kansan, “watch where you’re going, Jay!” Probably with one of those sneering “nyah, we’ll get you, see!” type mobster accents that old-timey radio plays would use.

This insulting demonym was later all but quietly forgotten when Jay Nixon was governor and Jay Ashcroft made Secretary of State, but I feel like someone really ought to have mentioned it.

Someone who is warlike is a hawk. And a Kansan is a Jay. A warlike Kansan is a Jayhawk, as discussed already. And a bumpkin from Kansas by himself, all alone wandering the streets of the City of Kansas, hay stem in his mouth and handkerchief in the back pocket of his Lee overalls, wherein he mistakenly steps into the road without looking both ways for a new-fangled automobile, is a real Jay. The nickname for Kansans, the Jay, was soon adopted as the slang for any bumpkin who was too unsophisticated to appreciate the rules of the road and the need to keep a keen eye for cars. And someone who would walk off the street in front of a car without looking was soon known as a jaywalker.

As with all things racism, Kansas City invented it, defined it, institutionalized it, and utterly excelled at it. Not long after inventing the idea of jaywalking – or walking into the street without looking – the City made it a crime. Jaywalking, by the early 1900s, was taking cities around the nation like wildfire. Where the streets had previously been the domain of people, horses, cattle, and wagons, all mixing about together, shitting wherever was convenient, and generally moving at the same pace, once the car was introduced, Kansas City almost immediately made cars dominant. That’s another story, too.

In these hustle-bustle times, as our civic senses have developed further, the availability and acceptance of convenient street-shitting is now limited mostly to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and sometimes New Orleans. And to this day, the City of Kansas is defined by its obsession with parking lots, and its domination by real estate developers building roads for cars, and parking for cars, and sometimes (reluctantly, and only if they have to) buildings for people to use when they’re not in their cars, parking their cars, or driving to another place they can then drive more or park.

Soon the concept of a jaywalker was known nationwide. And in the true Kansas City fashion, the concept was stripped of its heritage and slathered in derision to symbolize the fool who would cross the street outside of a crosswalk. And, in the kind of flourish that only the Kansas City shuffle can provide, quickly became a valuable tool of social division that enabled the police to strictly enforce racial and class divides. Once jaywalking was illegal, it was swept up as essential throughout the Jim Crow era and used as a means to criminalize black persons going about their lives. After all, what’s worse than someone crossing the street at the wrong location? I’ll tell you what – a black person doing it. The nerve!

Before and after the Civil Rights era, police and prosecutor discretion were used to primarily focus enforcement of jaywalking against the black community. And once someone was of interest by the police for stepping off the sidewalk at the wrong location, the police then had cause to search them and interrogate them to try to use their errant step as a justification to expand the inquiry into where the persons steps had led them from, and where their steps were leading them. Who they were stepping with, and what sort of things they may have carried as they stepped along.

Jaywalking, once a way of deriding an errant Kansan who’d moved to the not-so-Big City, was soon transformed into a tool of institutional racism in the way that only a city divided like Kansas City can. Soon it was being used nationwide with punitive policing to generate police interactions with minorities that could then be escalated at the convenience of the officer. This in turn kept the officer from having to focus their attention on real problems, and people crossing the street at the wrong place are usually much safer to intimidate than actual criminals who might be armed and resistant to police interactions, like the Mafia who ran Kansas City, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, and Boston for most of the century. Those mobsters eventually moved into the construction and real estate industries, then later the finance industry in the 80s and 90s, where they could keep running their scams, only now with more revenue and less risk. Hell, most of these nth generation modern day mobsters probably don’t even realize they’re running old mob rackets with a glazing of legitimacy from their transposition out of street crime and into construction, real estate development, and finance crimes. That’s a conversation for another day.

Thankfully, Kansas City government embodies the American Spirit, as depicted by Norman Rockwell in an aptly-titled artwork “Kansas City Spirit” showing a man holding blueprints, rolling up his sleeves, and standing in front of a parking garage, a cow, and the Kansas City’s City Hall (built by Boss Tom Pendergast, but that’s another tale as well), embodying the four things Kansas City does really well – cows, building stuff for cars, political corruption, and architecture, engineering, financing, insurance, and construction services for real estate development – all of which in turn, like all things Kansas City, eventually results in building stuff for cars. And those cars then turn us all into cows.

This artwork, as anyone who knows Kansas City would reasonably assume, is held at the Hallmark corporate headquarters to this day, where people sipping Folgers coffee, eating Wonderbread, and wearing Lee Jeans can enjoy it.

As Winston Churchill remarked on the American Spirit, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” We all know he was referring to Kansas City with that one, even though he probably never even heard of the city, or would have at least had the good sense to pretend he hadn’t if someone had bothered to ask. Actually, I guess Churchill knew Truman, so he was probably at least somewhat familiar with the concept of Kansas City, but I bet that old lush thought it was in Kansas.

In its attempt to fully prove Mr. Churchill’s observation about Americans correct, after more than 100 years of inventing the concept of Jaywalker to antagonize Kansas country bumpkins, and later using it to harass and oppress hapless minorities for stepping into the street at the wrong location, in 2021 Kansas City finally ended its century long reign of terror by officially eliminating jaywalking from its criminal code.

Kansans everywhere rejoined, and finally for reasons other than that their state was misleadingly named for a city that isn’t even in the state, that they’re surprisingly quite good at basketball, and that the original Jayhawks have a proud and illustrious heritage of brutally killing slave owners (which, to be clear, being brutally killed is exactly what a slave owner deserves).

Now, after more than 100 years, Kansas Jays, no matter how far abroad they ventured, could finally legally get run over by a car because of their own ignorance and lack of foresight, just as God intended.