Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield Sr., a spiritual and civil rights leader in Kansas City for more than 40 years, died Thursday. He was 90.
Hartsfield served as senior pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, one of Kansas City’s largest black churches, from 1962 to 1968 and again from 1972 until his retirement on Dec. 31, 2007.
“I have dubbed Dr. Hartsfield the ‘Godfather of Preachers’ because of his vast ministerial knowledge and oratorical skills,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, also a retired pastor in Kansas City, said in a September 2007 tribute to Hartsfield in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Wallace Hartsfield II, who succeeded his father as Metropolitan’s senior pastor, said his father was often referred to as Godfather, having had a profound impact through his spiritual leadership in Kansas City.
“He’s regarded as being a giant,” he said. “Having said that, I’m not so sure he would really want that title. My father always wanted to be one not so much just in the front of others but more importantly amongst others. So, maybe a giant within.”
The elder Hartsfield marched with Martin Luther King Jr., worked with Jesse Jackson on the Operation PUSH campaign to improve economic opportunities for African Americans, and was a nationally prominent black minister.
He was involved in countless civil rights, social justice, educational and economic development campaigns throughout his life in Kansas City.
Hartsfield grew up in the segregated South, where he witnessed incidents of murderous racism that spurred him to activism.
In a 2007 interview with KCUR, he recalled a chilling memory from his childhood.
“I was 8 years old, playing in the yard and my great grandmother came out and made me come inside. I saw a pickup truck with a number of Caucasian men in the truck … and behind the truck, they were dragging the body of a dead black man that had been hanged and his body had been used as target practice,” Hartsfield recounted. “It’s still painful. I don’t think I will ever be delivered from having seen that.”
But Hartsfield did not let those negative experiences fill him with bitterness. Instead, they motivated him throughout his life to fighting for a better life for African Americans.
His son said Hartsfield Sr.’s best quality was fighting for progress and economic opportunities in the African American community.
“I would suggest that your black community, your African American community of professionals that have given leadership since the early 1980s on up to the present, many of them have their positions because of persons like my father who were able to open these doors so they could walk through them,” Hartsfield II said.
Civic leaders and members of his church celebrated Hartfield’s life and accomplishments with a grand 90th birthday party for him last November at Metropolitan.
By LYNN HORSLEY