NLB museum working as vaccination site

By Vahe Gregorian
The Kansas City Star/TNS
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is dedicated to preserving the history of African-American baseball, when black players were prohibited from joining the major league teams.

On the first Monday after the abruptly shutdown from the pandemic in mid-March last year, Bob Kendrick sat in the lobby of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and pondered the implications of a phenomenon that felt surreal.

The museum suddenly had closed the day before and wouldn’t reopen for nearly three months. So even though it was a day on which it normally wouldn’t be open, Kendrick still felt a flood of emotions. All at once, he thought about how precious so much of what we take for granted might be; the sense of an impending shift in the world as we knew it; what he could do to help … and a certain hollowness.

“Now every day is kind of like Monday,” he said then, managing a laugh. “Most people don’t like Mondays.”

Most people don’t like shots, either.

But on the corresponding Monday a year later, Kendrick relished the opportunity to make that unsavory combination more appealing in the warm and friendly confines of the NLBM over which he presides in the 18th & Vine District. Coming “full circle” from a year ago, as Kendrick put it, Monday was the first day of what is to be a weekly vaccination clinic at the museum in partnership with Hy-Vee:

More than 600 people were vaccinated against COVID-19 there on the opening day of a Monday-only program that Kendrick expects to extend for at least six weeks.

A year after contending with “a veil of uncertainty and fear like everybody else, not knowing what the heck is going on … we are trying to be part of the solution to getting rid of this dastardly virus,” he said, later adding, “I guess that is a sign of progress and optimism and hope. But, again, those are the things that are embedded in the story of the Negro Leagues.”

That theme reverberated at the museum all through 2020: The long-planned 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Negro Leagues in Kansas City was disrupted by a virus Kendrick likes to a call a “big nasty right-hander who just threw one high and tight and knocked you down.” But it dusted itself off and adapted and made a dynamic year of it nonetheless as it also deftly switched gears to focus on Negro Leagues 101 this year.

But something else resonated in the last year about what’s embedded in the story of the Negro Leagues. Or, more specifically, the story of the museum itself:

From the time it was founded in 1990, Kendrick recalled, the mindset was that it had an inherent responsibility to more than just a museum; it was incumbent that it become a community leader and give back in the spirit of its founding.

When someone asks, “Why are you guys doing that?” Kendrick will say, “We’re supposed to do these kinds of things.”

That became further evident last summer in the reinvigorated social justice movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a time in which the identity of the museum as a civil rights institute was clarified and amplified.

“So we’re always doing things that on the surface have nothing to do with baseball or the Negro Leagues,” he said. “But then once you delve into this story, you know that it has everything to do with what the Negro Leagues represented off the field.”

In this case, an institution that in the past has sought to find ways to empower the Black community to take control of their finances or their health has taken this on for several reasons — including providing access to the under-served and to demystify the process for those wary of treatment.

In the case of Kendrick himself, that meant facing his own dread about getting what he called his first shot in decades a few weeks ago when he was notified that Morning Star Baptist Church had a slot open because of canceled registrations.

He joked, we think, that he might have cried about it if not for having to put on a smile for a TV camera. As it happened, though, he needn’t have feared: “The trepidation leading up to taking the shot was far worse than the shot. It didn’t hurt at all.”

But there is a different sort of anxiety that Kendrick hopes the museum can help dispel: the lack of trust in the African-American community of the medical professions, a notion amplified by the extra risk in the Black population.

“This had been passed down from generation to generation, and we’ve got to kind of continue to chip away at that stigma,” he said. “And so you hope that doing it in this environment makes getting this vaccine less threatening. It’s not the same as going into a medical facility. And maybe someones saying, ‘OK, if the Negro League museum is providing this, maybe this ain’t that bad after all.’ And I think it’s important for the community to see and hear that.”

It’s also important for them to continue to adjust in the weeks to come. For instance, Kendrick noted that they want to be better able to accommodate those who either don’t have online access or aren’t able to use it properly without help.

“There is a tremendous technological divide in these under-served communities,” he said, noting that the NLBM is working with Hy-Vee to enhance the registration process to include call-in ability or on-site registration “to make sure we bridge that gap as well.”

Toward that end, Hy-Vee will be back onsite at the NLBM from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday to sign people up for the vaccination clinic on March 22; this sign-up effort is part of the outreach to target those who don’t have computer and internet access.

Moreover, those seeking to register online can go to the NLBM website (https://nlbm.com/) for further information. While the scope of it was advertised as for the 18th and Vine Community, Kendrick noted that people from all over Kansas City had shown up on Monday.

“The area’s expanded,” he said, laughing.

Much like the influence and significance of the museum, which is grateful to Hy-Vee for approaching it about yet another collaborative endeavor between them.

A year after getting a dose of perspective, the first dose of this offers more yet.

“This is by far the single most important collaboration we’ve ever had,” Kendrick said. “Because this is legitimately a potentially life-saving measure that we’re working on here.”