Theron B. Watkins Homes, 1301 Vine St. Kansas City, MO
Theron B. Watkins Homes at 1301 Vine St.

By Dorri Partain

Numerous sites throughout Kansas City have been named in honor of business owners and civic leaders Theron B. Watkins (1877-1950) and his adopted step-son Bruce R. Watkins (1924-1980).

Funeral home owner and embalmer Theron B. Watkins was appointed to the Housing Authority Board  of Commissioners and served from 1941-1948. Along with his brother John, they opened Watkins Bros. & Co. funeral home in 1909 at 1729 Lydia Avenue. Following his death in 1950, the public housing complex completed in 1954 was named in his honor, and remains the only housing complex named for a housing commissioner. T. B. Watkins features 210 housing units, a playground and the Clymer Community Center at 13th Street and Woodland and Vine avenues.

Spirit of Freedom Fountain at 3708 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd.
Spirit of Freedom Fountain at 3708 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd.

City Councilman Bruce R. Watkins formed the Spirit of Freedom Foundation in 1977 to create a fountain that would symbolize the heritage of Black Kansas Citians. Black sculptor Richard Hunt was chosen to create a bronze fire-like image on a stair step pedestal, surrounded by jets of water. The fountain was dedicated on the one year anniversary of Watkin’s death, September 13, 1981. A plaque at the base of the sculpture reads: “This work was inspired by Civic and Community leader Bruce R. Watkins, March 20, 1924-September 13, 1980.” The fountain is situated in a park setting within view of the Watkins Heritage Chapel funeral home at 4000 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd. The fountain operates from April to October.

PHOTO: Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center at 3700 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center at 3700 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Just south of the Spirit of Freedom Fountain stands the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. The center is operated as a joint venture between Kansas City and the state of Missouri to celebrate the culture and history of African Americans. Dedicated in 1989, the center contains an exhibit dedicated to the civic career of Watkins, space for special exhibits and events, and the Gertrude H. Keith Resource Library.  Along with other public spaces, the center has been closed to the public since March 2020, but the lobby has  reopened as a COVID-19 testing site operated by the Kansas City Health Department.

PHOTO: Bruce R. Watkins Drive along U.S. 71
Bruce R. Watkins Drive along U.S. 71

Originally planned as the South Midtown Freeway, construction began in 1972. After many delays, construction began again with design improvements and a new name, Bruce R. Watkins Drive in 1986. The first segment opened to traffic in 1990, from 75th Street to Bannister Road. Once completed in 2001, the 10.2 mile section from 12th Street to Blue River Road named for Watkins had been landscaped with 2,800 trees and 13,000 shrubs. The entire project totaled $300 million once completed and is maintained by the Missouri Department of Transportation. During his terms on the City Council, Watkins was actually opposed to the freeway’s construction.