Hiram Young: Kansas City’s First “Colored Man of Means”

 

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For travelers heading west, Hiram Young’s Wagons & Yokes in Independence was a necessary part of the long haul. Painting by Cheryl Harness courtesy National Park Service.

 

Hiram Young: Kanas City’s first “Colored Man of Means”

By Topher Wilson

In honor of Black History Month coming to a close, it is only apt to highlight one of the many lesser-known African Americans that helped put Kansas City on the map. The impact that many black Kansas City residents had during the city’s formative years is nearly impossible to overstate—however, their stories are painfully too often buried in history. This is the story of one of those figures.

Hiram Young red bridge
Hiram Young is represented on a column at the new Red Bridge,  one of many honoring those significant to the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails.

 

Hiram Young was born as a slave in Tennessee sometime roughly around 1812. While still a slave he married, learned the trade of wagon making, and moved with his owners to Green County, Missouri, in the mid-19th century. Hiram worked hard to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife, Matilda—even before purchasing his own. This move was a well thought out one on Young’s part. At the time, slave laws in most states outlined that any children born of a married couple in which one was enslaved and one was free would be granted the status of the mother. Young was able to afford his wife’s freedom after working hard enough to become a master craftsman and become well known for his ox yokes and wagon parts.

After a short times, he purchased his own freedom and went into the wagon business. Young and his wife moved to Independence in 1850. This move allowed Young to take advantage of all of the heavy wagon traffic in the area stemming from the conjunction of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trail systems. Thousands of western emigrants chasing their dreams of cheap farmland or California gold outfitted themselves though Young’s company. By 1860 “Hiram Young & Company” was one of the largest businesses in all of Jackson County. It is said he produced as many as 50,000 oxen yoke a year, at $1.25 per yoke. During this time as a business owner, nearly all of Young’s staff at his wagon company was made up of slaves he “purchased” and then allowed to work off their own freedom. Countless former slaves were eventually granted their freedom though Young’s company.

During the Civil War, mounting racial hostilities caused Young and his family to feel the need to distance themselves from the still slave-holding state of Missouri. They briefly moved to Fort Leavenworth, KS, where racial tensions were, at least marginally, a bit less unstable. After the war, however, Young moved back to Independence and quickly resumed his business—though it never enjoyed the success it had before being interrupted by the war. Young would go on to set a legal precedent by being among the first African American business owners to sue the federal government for losses caused by the Civil War (though he would pass away before the case resolved).

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Students attending Hiram Young Elementary School in Independence pose in the school’s garden.

 

Young’s legacy can still be felt in Kansas City. In 1887 an elementary school, which still stands today in Independence, was named in Hiram Young’s honor. The school, which was originally named after Fredrick Douglass and built to serve black children with no alternative educational outlets in the area, proved Young’s renowned status in the city’s black community. Young’s daughter would later serve briefly as the school’s principal. The new Red Bridge in Minor Park also pays tribute to Young, featuring a decorative memorial panel of the acclaimed wagon manufacturer among others who also helped turn the area into a thriving crossing for westward travelers. Young would die in 1882. He was so highly respected in the community that he was buried in the white section of Woodlawn Cemetery off of Noland Road in Independence.

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