Death of a Legend

Arthur Bryant

Arthur Bryant

Arthur Bryant died on December 28, 1982, while working in the restaurant that he turned into a world-famous barbecue joint. Bryant was born in 1902 in Branchville, Texas, and attended Prairie View A&M, an all-black agricultural college. After declining to teach agricultural classes, he moved to Kansas City in 1931 to join his brother, Charlie, who worked for local barbecue magnate Henry Perry.

Perry, who worked on steamboat kitchens along the Mississippi River around 1900, brought his knowledge of southern barbecue with him to Kansas City in 1907. In the city’s thriving Garment District downtown, he served smoked meats, with a pungent pepper sauce, from alley stands, a barn, and finally a restaurant to blacks and whites alike. When Perry died in 1940, Charlie Bryant took over the business and then sold it to Arthur Bryant in 1946. Today Perry is best remembered as the "father" of Kansas City-style barbecue and an early business leader in the black community.

When Arthur Bryant inherited the business, it was respected but not exactly a local legend. Arthur Bryant toned down the barbecue sauce to have wider appeal and renamed the business "Arthur Bryant’s." In 1958 he moved it to 1727 Brooklyn Avenue, near Municipal Stadium, where he lovingly referred to the unassuming joint as a "grease house." The distasteful nickname hardly kept the diners away though. Presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter dined there; as did journalist Calvin Trillin, who wrote in 1974 that Arthur Bryant’s was "quite possibly the best restaurant in the world."

On a routine work day in 1982, Bryant succumbed to a heart attack in a rest area of the restaurant. Under new ownership, Arthur Bryant’s continues to serve the same famous recipes that helped make Kansas City-style barbecue nationally renowned. Barbecue did not originate in Kansas City, but the city has embraced barbecue to an inordinate degree and is widely considered the barbecue capital of the world. The area hosts more than 90 barbecue restaurants as well as the Kansas City Barbecue Society, a non-profit organization that claims 8,000 members, and annually sanctions 300 barbecue contests across the nation.

Read full biographical sketches of Arthur Bryant and Henry Perry, prepared by the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

View images of Kansas City barbecue that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Check out the following books about Kansas City barbecue and Arthur Bryant.

View "Cooking Barbecue Kansas City Style," videocassette, by Charlie Podrebarac; instructions on Kansas City-style barbecue.

Continue researching Kansas City barbecue history using archival material from the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

References:

Lawrence O. Christensen, Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 131.

Daniel Coleman, Biography of Henry Perry (1875-1940), Restaurateur, Missouri Valley Special Collections.

David Conrads, Biography of Arthur Bryant (1902-1982), Restaurateur, Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Charles Coulter, Take Up the Black Man's Burden: Kansas City's African American Communities, 1865-1939 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 120-121.

Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 346.

Jason Roe
Historical date: 
Tuesday, December 28, 1982

About the Author

Jason Roe is a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, content manager and editor for the Civil War on the Western Border website, and the author of the Library's popular "This Week in Kansas City History" column. Prior to joining the Library, he earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012. While at KU, he was named the 2011-2012 Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, and he received the History Department's 2012 George L. Anderson Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation for his work, "From the Impoverished to the Entitled: The Experience and Meaning of Old Age in America since the 1950s." He enjoys tackling a wide variety of projects relating to U.S. and local history.

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