One of the great parts about working for Emporia Main Street is the ability to compare Emporia to other communities. Comparative analysis is often used to determine best practices for development, or common problems that towns should avoid. If you look at Emporia’s early history, compared to other Kansas communities, it becomes abundantly clear that we are different. We are a special place with a unique history built by a special blend of people not seen in most Midwestern communities.
February is Black History Month. and I’ve always wanted to talk about one of my favorite elements in Emporia’s history during this month. We have a unique African American heritage that is overlooked or simply unknown by a lot of our citizens, but it is important for us to communicate because it says a lot about how a small Midwestern town has influenced the nation.
The time period from 1878-1880 is referred to by some as “The Exodus”. This time period saw African Americans leaving the deep south in droves. Participants in this exodus were called “Exodusters” and primarily used the railroad as a travel mechanism. Unfortunately, there was a lot of misinformation given to the African American community about potential travel destinations that resulted in hardships for people leaving horrible situations, only to arrive in another difficult circumstance. Some misinformation included the promise of free land, free farm support and cash at various states, only for former slaves to arrive and find that none of this was true. Kansas, as a relatively southern “free state” was touted as “the land of milk and honey” where “people will welcome you with open arms”. Our climate was touted as “southern” (which we all know isn’t remotely true).
When people look at many (if not most) Kansas communities, they see a town that was founded by one very specific demographic group. These people often not only came from the same European nation, but often came from the same part of the nation, spoke the same dialect and practiced the same religion. Emporia represents more of a blending of cultures from several different areas- and it makes us different (in a good way) from a lot of our counterparts. This area is special because of the people that have made it special, and I want to introduce you to a few of those people, with a couple of stories. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list by any means, but think of the following as a “conversation starter.”
was one of Emporia’s best known African American citizens
and had a tremendous impact on the community. He lived from 1878 until 1975 and built a variety of the structures we still see today. He helped construct the sunken gardens at ESU, part of Lake Wooster, part of Welch Stadium and many of the stone structures at Peter Pan park. For a time, he owned the largest African American construction firm in Kansas, with over 100 employees.
Mr. Rich gave an oral history as part of a class project at Emporia State University recorded by Gordon Garrett. One very interesting part of the recorded conversation referred to early resistance to local segregation in the late 1800’s, and Native American populations that traveled through Emporia. Mr. Rich stated:
“Well they were all just about half white, and them came in here and they wanted- there wasn’t no black ones here at all- but they wanted to do this. They wanted to have the school segregated and they could go with the white people. And there was a man by the name of Sylvan, W. T. Sylvan, and another by the name of Billy Woods and another by the name of Dudley Warren. They were on the board and they said there wasn’t any use in having separate schools because they didn’t have no money and they couldn’t furnish no two or three different classes of school, and all of them were going together. That stopped that right there.”
Bert Rich had an uncle (Bill Rich) that was one of Emporia’s early entrepreneurs. Bill owned a restaurant at Merchant Street and the Railroad Tracks that he made quite successful, and eventually sold the restaurant to Frank Hedgecock that opened up a series of restaurants proximate to rail lines. The sale of the restaurant was for $500, which was a great price for the time. Bill opened another restaurant on the KT Line in town.
We have a history of African American police officers in town. George Williams was our first black policeman from 1880-1882. Andy Armstead was a decorated officer, following in the tradition of his father. Bert Rich relayed the story of a conversation with Officer Armstead, where an early city manager emphasized equality by saying “you arrest anybody that is going contrary to the law. It doesn’t matter whether he’s white or black or not.”
E. J. Alexander (1854-1923) was an early farmer in the area who left 40 acres of Neosho Valley farm land to help orphans and needy children. This area later became known as Camp Alexander.
was the first African American to play basketball on an integrated team at Emporia High School in 1934 under coach Al Smith. Mr. Terry is credited with integrating Kansas High School sports, and was inducted into the Kansas Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. His impact went beyond Kansas. Coach Al Smith had a son that was pretty astute at the game of basketball named Dean. Dean Smith
went on to coach at North Carolina and was instrumental in desegregating collegiate sports in the deep south.
Charles E. Terry wrote a series of articles locally denouncing segregation and ran for office on the school board in 1951.
Joe and Molly O’dair
were instrumental in the early Emporia music scene, and started an all women’s band in 1903. The opening act for the Civic Auditorium in downtown was another famous African American entertainer- Duke Ellington
African American culture was evident at the EKSC (now ESU) with the first black sorority founded in 1934 and the first black fraternity started in 1970.
We still have an East Side Community Group in an area that was once called String Town, and in the early days of Emporia it is reported that we had an African American community of “700-800”, which would have represented a large percentage of the population.
Partnerships between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds resulted in mutual support, including that of one of Emporia’s most prominent historical citizens- William Allen White.
White ran for governor of the state in opposition to the KKK that was attempting to establish itself as a political force in the state (as it had in many other states), and White took several steps to encourage racial equality.
There are MANY more stories and individuals that I could highlight, but I encourage you to do some of your own research. We have buildings that still stand as a testament to our diverse history, including local parks, churches and even the Burnap Building in the 700 Block of Commercial Street (it once was the site of an African American Laundry).
So, what does this have to do with Main Street? First, communities are built by people willing to push for things that are bigger than themselves and fight for progress that they may never see. Community involvement in Emporia Kansas has a history of significant impact, and can continue to do so if we continue to push. Secondly, we see that communities that rally around each other can create opportunities, regardless of the social progress level of other geographic regions at the time. Finally, we can feel pride to live in a place that though imperfect, is the home of folks that have a history of turning dreams into reality.
A special thanks goes out to Yvonne Pool and the Emporia Main Street Design Committee for supplying research for this article. If you want more information about the vital role of African Americans in Emporia (did you know we had a local baseball team that played the Kansas City Monarchs?), we encourage you to visit the Lyon County History Center and reach out to the Emporia East Side Community Group (talk to them about their park project). Learn a little more about the community you choose to call home. This is YOUR Emporia, and we hope you can recognize that this is a special place.