Sustaining Social Justice Heroes

Chester C. Owens Jr. — Historian & Civil Rights leader

Owen was elected to the Kansas City, Kansas Council, and would become the first Black elected to City Government in the 20th Century. (Kansas City, Kansan April 1883). Owen has been recognized by leaders from all walks of life for his contributions to history, the advancement of Civil Rights, and for serving in government, his church, and in the community. Owens is a servant by heart, a man of faith, and most importantly, he was a loving husband, and wonderful father whose heart of love has extended beyond his home, own ZIP code, and throughout the nation. 

Watch: Conversations: Chester Owens

Luther Smith — Social historian

Smith currently serves as the curator of the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum. He was born and raised in Quindaro, KS. Smith was the first black to play football & baseball at Washington High School located in Kansas City, Kansas. His senior year, he made the all-state football team. Smith started playing baseball at the age of 16 teen, and he recalls playing baseball at Quindaro Park with teams such as Atchison, KS, Smithville, and several other teams during the segregation years before the signing of the 1954 Brown V. Board of education. While playing baseball, his batting average was 320. In 1953, a year before schools were integrated, Smith’s mother personally went to Washington High School, and asked for permission for her child to attend the school. Upon request, the principal admitted Smith. Luther Smith, shared that he experienced racism while in the service in 1961. (Interview, Smith, Luther, 2021). Smith, a retired engineer, is dedicated to keeping the story of Quindaro alive. He had traced his family back to the 1700’s.

Watch: Meet Luther Smith

Loretta Norman — Internationally recognized R&B singer Janelle Monae’s grandmother

Monae’s grandmother is a woman of hope, inspiration, and courage. Along with Janelle Monae, she was invited to the White House to meet the former president of the United States, Barack Obama. Janelle Monae was invited to the White House to perform for the president of the United States. Ms. Loretta Norman was born in Quindaro, Kansas on June 17th, 1926.  Ms. Norman attended Vernon Elementary School, and later attended Western University. She remembers the campus being really beautiful. She enjoyed the cooking classes that she was enrolled in while studying at Western University. Since she lived in the community, after class, she walked home, but some of her friends stayed on campus in the dorms. During her early years of education at Vernon Elementary School, Norman remembers being taught the basics, such as math, reading, and writing. Ms. Norman played a huge role in Monae’s life. She shared that always believed in Monae, and she knew that Monae had amazing talent, even as a child. 

Bobby Watson — Saxophonist, educator, composer, arranger, & servant

A saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator, Bobby Watson grew up in Kansas City, Kan. He trained formally at the University of Miami, a school with a distinguished and well-respected jazz program. After graduating and still not yet 25, he proceeded to earn his "doctorate" – on the bandstand – as musical director of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The seminal hard-bop group, created in 1955 by late legendary drummer who died in 1990, showcased a rotating cast of players, many who, like Watson, would go on to have substantial careers as influential musicians and bandleaders in their own right. The Jazz Messengers – frequently referred to as the "University of Blakey" – served as the penultimate "post-graduate school" for talented, ambitious young players, which certainly describes Watson.

After completing a four-year-plus Jazz Messengers tenure (1977-1981), encompassing hundreds of performances and appearing on 14 recordings, Watson became a much-sought after musician. Some, but certainly not all, the notable musicians – peers, elder statesmen and colleagues all – he worked with during this period include drummers Max Roach and Louis Hayes, fellow saxophonists George Coleman and a younger Branford Marsalis, celebrated multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers and a then-young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who is a full 10 years the saxophonist's junior. In addition to working with a variety of instrumentalists, Watson served in a supporting role for a number of distinguished and stylistically varied vocalists, including: Joe Williams, Dianne Reeves, Lou Rawls, Betty Carter and Carmen Lundy.

Later, in association with bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Victor Lewis, Watson launched the first edition of what would become one of his key calling cards: Horizon, the acoustic quintet he modeled in many ways after the Jazz Messengers – but a unit that possessed a distinct slightly more modern twist. Throughout the years Horizon's personnel rotated somewhat, however it has always stayed top shelf; the group's repertoire at any given time is overwhelmingly comprised of original compositions. Long-standing, talented members, now established include pianist Ed Simon, trumpeter TereIl Stafford and bassist Essiet Okon Essiet. By all critical accounts, Horizon, which today still performs together on special occasions, is now thought of as one of the preeminent small groups of the past three decades. The group issued several highly acclaimed titles for Blue Note Records and then for Columbia Records. Among the band's releases: Post-Motown Bop (Blue Note) and Midwest Shuffle, Live! (Columbia), the latter a live recording capturing the group in a number of locations during a 1993 tour.

In addition to his work with Horizon, Watson also led a nine-piece group known as the High Court of Swing – a tribute to the music of Johnny Hodges – as well as the GRAMMY®-nominated, 16-piece large ensemble Tailor Made Big Band. The lyrical stylist is also a founding member of the well-respected 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, an all-horn, four-piece ensemble. Watson's classic 1986 release, Love Remains (Red) received a special citation in the Penguin Guide to Jazz (Penguin). Having received the publication's highest rating, the Love Remains was then identified in the ready reference book's seventh edition as a part what the editors considered its "core collection" [i.e. a "must-have"], thereby joining other entries issued by a number of jazz masters and icons.

More recently, Watson issued a series of recordings on the Palmetto label. On the heels of his #1 releases, Live & Learn (2005) and Horizon Reassembled (2006), where he's reunited with Lewis, Stafford, Simon and Essiet, the saxophonist issued From the Heart (2008), where he unveils yet another original project, again sharing the limelight with bassist Lundy. The release also went to #1 on the national jazz airplay chart and remained there for nine weeks.

For essentially four decades now Watson has consistently contributed intelligent, sensitive and well-thought-out music to the modern-day jazz lexicon. All told, Watson, the now-seasoned veteran, has released more than 30 recordings as a leader and appeared on close to 150 other recordings, either performing as co-leader or in support of other like-minded musicians. Not simply a performer, the saxophonist has recorded more than 100 original compositions including the music for the soundtrack of A Bronx Tale, which marked Robert DeNiro's 1993 directorial debut. Numerous Watson compositions have become classics such as his "Time Will Tell," "In Case You Missed It" and "Wheel within a Wheel," with all three titles becoming oft recorded and interpreted by his fellow musicians.

It's ever-more apparent with each passing year that in addition to his compositional and performance prowess, Watson is equally respected as an educator. More importantly, Watson now inspires and passes on his great knowledge to those a generation or more younger than himself; like his former boss Blakey, Watson does both on and off the bandstand. His teaching within known jazz programs and institutions dates to the mid-1980s when Watson served as a member of the adjunct faculty and taught private saxophone at William Paterson University (1985-1986) and Manhattan School of Music (1996-1999).

In 2000, Watson hit his stride in the educational field. The saxophonist, after using New York as home base for 25 years, came full-circle and returned to Kansas City. Offered an endowed chair as the first William D. and Mary Grant/Missouri Distinguished Professorship in Jazz Studies and assigned to serve as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music & Dance., Watson took the appointment to heart. He set out a plan that, over time, would increase UMKC's Jazz Studies Program's visibility. Nearly 15 years later he's still at it, however it's now fair to say that Watson's program is now considered among the top-tier college/university jazz programs in the country. As a result, he's able to attract much the city's measurable home-grown talent as well as draw interest from many other gifted aspiring younger musicians located throughout Missouri, the Midwest region and the nation.

Watson capped off the millennium's first decade conceptualizing and then delivering one of his most ambitious and personalized projects to date – one where he combines all of his talents: composing, arranging, producing, teaching and performing. In fall 2010, the saxophonist released his self-produced, seven-part, all-originally composed The Gates BBQ Suite. The recording went to #4 on national jazz radio Airplay. The selfless Watson designed this complex work – which draws upon his childhood remembrances and experiences centered on his family's involvement in the business and his home-town's semi-official food – to primarily showcase his students. Arranged as a big-band endeavor, with Watson only playing sporadically, The Gates BBQ Suite houses an abundance of ensemble playing and solos from those who study with him.

"The Gates BBQ Suite, performed by Mr. Watson and the University of Missouri at Kansas City Concert Jazz Orchestra, is quite likely the most K.C.-specific work of his career thus far," wrote Will Friedwald in the Wall Street Journal. "It is, in every way, a worthy companion to the most famous long-form work celebrating jazz in that city, the 1960 ‘Kansas City Suite,' written by Benny Carter for Count Basie (neither of whom were K.C. natives, although Basie was easily the single greatest ambassador for K.C. jazz). In 1992," continued Friedwald, "when Mr. Watson produced his first big band album, Tailor Made, Columbia Records trumpeted that the sessions were completely unrehearsed – as if that were somehow a positive thing; here it's abundantly clear that Mr. Watson and his students have ample rehearsal time to get everything right..."

Just releasing the recording was not enough for the enthusiastic Watson. Using guile and his boundless creative energy, he was able to create an opportunity for him and his students to travel to Japan for a 10-day tour that showcased Gates and other compositions. To say they were well-received would be a serious understatement; not surprisingly, the group was extremely well-received.

Watson remains tremendously busy during 2014. The saxophonist has now made each of Gates' seven charts available to band directors around the world, arranged in such a way that they could be played in long-form as the entire suite or performed as stand-alone compositions. This year he also released his latest self-produced project, the well-received Check Cashing Day. Wrote Downbeat Frank Alkyer, "On Check Cashing Day, saxophonist Bobby Watson is at his best, tackling the issue of inequality in the most positive, powerful and uplifting way possible." The thematic recording, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream '' speech, is yet another heart-felt undertaking, this time successfully melding instrumentals, vocals and spoken word.

Of late, Watson has received a number of well-deserved awards recognizing his musical contributions during what is now a four-decade career. In 2011 the saxophonist was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of fame. In 2013 he received the prestigious Benny Golson Jazz Masters Award from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Simultaneously Rep. John Conyers honored Bobby by officially recognizing his work in the Congressional Record.

The most recent recognition is perhaps the sweetest to date. On August 23, 2014, coincidentally his 61st birthday, Watson was selected to be among the first inductees into the newly created 18th and Vine Jazz "Walk of Fame." He joins Pat Metheny as the only other living selection along with a quartet of the city's jazz icons: Count Basie, Jay McShann, Charlie Parker, and Mary Lou Williams.

As in-demand as ever, the lyrical saxophonist continues to balance teaching responsibilities with engagements at major venues throughout the world including appearances at clubs, festivals, on campuses and at Performing Arts Centers. (

Watch: Meet Bobby Watson

Earl Watson Early Childhood Center - 6611 Waverly Ave, Kansas City, KS

The Earl Watson Early Childhood Center is named after a Washington High School graduate, Earl Watson. Watson is a former NBA basketball player who is an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors. His father serves as the director of the Bethany Recreation Center on Central Ave., located in Kansas City, KS. (74)


Watch: Meet Earl Watson

Maurice Greene — Olympic gold medal winner in track

Maurice Greene was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 23, 1974. He attended F.L. Schlagle High School. Greene won the world Championship in 1997 in the 100 meters and won the World Championship in 1999 in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the 4X100 meters relay. He was world champion again in the 100 meters in 2001. He won the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in the 100 meters and 4X100 meters relay in 2000. He won the silver medal in the 4X100 meters relay and the bronze medal in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympics. For a time he held the world record for the 100 meters. (75)

Watch: Meet Maurice Greene

Jefferson Edward Donald — Filmmaker, Producer (“Quindaro”)

The documentary revisits the history of Quindaro, and seeks to bring a greater appreciation, and respect to the stories of Quindaro, and the Underground Railroad. Donald is a respected filmmaker, advocate for diverse communities. Donald and his family are servant-minded leaders. He is a man of faith, courage, and excellence. He is a loving father, and he is committed to sustaining excellence through film, education, and service.

Watch: "Quindaro" by Jefferson Donald


Dr. Nancy Dawson — Farmer, professor, writer, actor, filmmaker & quilter

Dr. Dawson’s descendants were slaves in Missouri. Her family moved to Kansas City, Wyandotte County to escape slavery. Dr. Dawson grew up in Quindaro, Kansas, and later received her Doctorate of Arts in Humanistic Studies from the University of New York, Albany. In 2013, Dr. Dawson was the winner of the 2013 Charlotte Street Foundation Grant for the project, “If da Dirt Could Talk. Currently, Dr. Dawson is the project director of the Russellville Urban Gardening project, a sustainable farming program developed by Dawson in conjunction with the University of Kentucky. The goal of the Urban Gardening Project is to teach low-income youth about farming, agribusiness, organic and bio-ethnic horticulture.  

Watch: Meet Dr. Nancy Dawson