A new start in Ottawa colored by challenges
By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 2/26/2014
Richard Jackson discovered he couldn’t get a haircut when he arrived in Ottawa in 1964 to attend Ottawa University.
Not because he couldn’t afford it. No barber would cut his hair because he was black, Jackson said.
“It was a culture shock, being from Rochester, N.Y., where my neighborhood was bigger than the [Ottawa] community,” Jackson said. “My freshman year there were 10 to 12 African-Americans [on campus, 1001 S. Cedar St.]. There was no place to get your hair cut, so the university brought in a barber from Lawrence to cut our hair about once a month at Tauy Jones Hall. It was quite an adjustment moving from a town where there was a large African-American population to a much smaller [black] community in Ottawa.”
But Jackson adapted well to life in Ottawa and eventually became the city’s first black mayor, serving four terms in that office between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.
Jackson, chief executive officer of the social agency East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., 1320 S. Ash St., Ottawa, reflected Wednesday on the local black community as the nation observes Black History Month in February. Jackson was part of a small group that formed the Ottawa Black Awareness Committee, which has been promoting a Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest since the mid-1980s in honor of the slain civil rights leader.
“Cultural [diversity] is not a weakness — it’s a strength of the community,” Jackson said. “I have people ask me why we need a Black History Month, because there’s not a special month honoring whites or Italians. I think everybody’s culture is important, and they all contribute to the success of the community. I think we all need to celebrate that.”
COUNTY’S RICH BLACK HISTORY
For a group of 11 freed slaves, arriving in Franklin County was a cause for guarded celebration in 1858.
“One of the most significant events with the Underground Railroad was when [slavery abolitionist] John Brown came back from the East Coast in ’58 and freed 11 slaves in Vernon County, Mo., [near Fort Scott, Kan.],” Deb Barker, Franklin County Historical Society executive director, said. “They spent a very, very cold December in a cabin in Franklin County, close to the Anderson County border.”
The group was spirited away to a deserted cabin on a little hilltop now known as Paradise Hill, Barker said. Because slave-catchers were thick as thieves in the area, Barker said, the 11-member group was not allowed to burn fires during the daylight hours, with night-time fires providing brief warmth.
“A baby was born in the cabin, which is almost unimaginable given the horrific [winter] conditions,” Barker said. “John Brown showed up a month later and took them to Canada. They named the baby John Brown Daniels.”
But some freed slaves migrated to Franklin County where they established farmsteads in the 1860s and 1870s, Barker said.
A son of slaves freed from a farm in 1863 in Howard County, Mo., John “Bud” Wilson settled in Ottawa as a blacksmith. From those humble beginnings, Wilson went on to become one of the most influential and well-respected men in the community, according to historical accounts.
“Bud Wilson was the youngest child of a family leaving Missouri to flee slavery,” Barker said. “He was the only child not born into slavery. He started a blacksmithing business. He was very religious and insisted that his children all attend school and Sunday school. The accomplishments of his children are simply not to be believed in any family of any circumstances.”
Bud and Bertha Wilson’s son, John Leod Wilson, was one of the first black youths to graduate from Ottawa High School in 1919, Barker said. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Kansas State University in 1923 and a master’s degree in organic chemistry from the University of Kansas in 1933. Also earning a doctorate degree from the University of Indiana in 1957, Wilson served as a professor at Southern University, Baton Rouge, La., Savannah State College, Savannah, Ga., and St. Augustine College, Miami. He also served as academic dean at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluffs and was inducted onto the OHS Wall of Honor in 1997. Wilson returned to Ottawa late in life where he spent his final years until he died in 1998, Barker said.
Brothers Claude Wilson and Lloyd Harold Wilson also earned college degrees and taught at several universities. Claude Wilson also earned a doctorate degree and served as dean of the School of Engineering at Prairie View A and M, Prairie View, Texas, for nearly two decades in the 1940s and 1950s. Cozetta Z. Wilson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas and taught at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., and later became the art therapy instructor at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tuskegee.
When Bud Wilson died in 1952, he had amassed a tidy sum for the times of $50,000 and owned numerous rental properties throughout Ottawa, Barker said. The Western Union office in Ottawa reportedly experienced its busiest day on record when condolence telegrams flooded in from throughout the region upon Wilson’s death, according to historic accounts.
DESEGREGATING OTTAWA SCHOOLS
Elijah Tinnon might have been one of the best known early black figures in Ottawa’s history for his fight to desegregate Ottawa schools. The segregation of schools went back and forth during the 1860s to 1880s, depending on who was on the school board, Barker said.
Tinnon filed a lawsuit in 1881 against the Ottawa school board in an attempt to get them to desegregate Ottawa schools, where his son, Leslie, attended.
The case, Leslie Tinnon vs. The Ottawa Board of Education, went before the Kansas Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court ruling that ordered Ottawa to desegregate its schools. The majority opinion in the case was written by Supreme Court Justice Daniel M. Valentine, an Ottawan. But the school board ignored the high court’s ruling and the segregation practice continued, Barker said.
Though some historians considered it a forerunner to Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 — some 70 years later — the case was significant, Barker said, because it was one of the first to cite the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868, to address rights and equal protection of the laws. The amendment was proposed in relation to treatment of former slaves following the Civil War.
“It’s always mentioned because of the 14th Amendment being used, but it didn’t impact people physically because the school board ignored the [state Supreme Court] ruling, and no one was moved around,” Barker said. “The community was building neighborhood schools, or schools in each [voting] ward, and blacks lived primarily in two wards on the north side and on the far east side in what was called the [river] bottoms east of Cherry Street. Those ward schools accommodated almost all of the black kids.”
The community couldn’t build schools fast enough in the 1870s and 1880s as the town’s population swelled after the Civil War, Barker said.
“There were massive groups of black people, called Exodusters, in the 1880s [from the South],” Barker said. “That’s when Franklin County’s black population was the largest.”
Franklin County’s black population in 1880 was listed at 860, according to U.S. Census data. By contrast, the county’s black population had dwindled to 280 by 1990. The 2010 census showed black residents comprised 2.2 percent of the county’s population.
Two Ottawa churches served the black community from the beginning, Barker said. The Bethany Chapel Baptist Church was established in 1867, followed by the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopalian Church in 1869.
Bethany Chapel Baptist Church, still in existence today, has played a vital role in the community’s history, former mayor Jackson said.
“Bethany Chapel is one of the oldest churches in the county and has a rich African-American history,” Jackson said. “I believe it was founded by 12 descendants of slaves and in the history annals there is mention of one Sunday when 200 people were baptized in the Marais des Cygnes River.”
Jackson and fellow Ottawa University graduate Joe Wakefield were among a small group that established the Ottawa Black Awareness Committee in 1984 to promote the history of the local black community and to raise funds to benefit local organizations and schools. Jackson credited Wakefield, who died Feb. 21 in Topeka at age 86, with his hard work in advancing cultural competency in the community.
In addition to the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration and essay contest, the Black Awareness Committee has brought in speakers to enlighten residents about black history in the local community, the state and nation. The committee brought a group of Buffalo Soldier re-enactors to Ottawa elementary schools to talk about the history of that U.S. Army regiment of black soldiers. The regiment formed in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth and served with distinction in several military campaigns, including the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II.
The committee also conducted sweetheart dance fundraisers and fashion shows. The committee would try to make a $1,000 donation to a different entity each year, Jackson said. One year the committee raised about $1,000 for equipment at Ransom Memorial Hospital, 1301 S. Main St., and another year donated $1,000 to the Ottawa Library to update and expand its African-American materials — as just a couple of examples, Jackson said.
Jackson would like to see the committee resurrect two former events — one a potluck dinner to honor an outstanding adult and youth in the community and another gathering to recognize honor roll students at Ottawa high and middle schools, he said.
Jackson’s hope is that people will be more tolerant and respectful of each other and come together to learn more about each other’s cultures, he said.
“I think people have a tendency to pick out all the differences rather than focus on the similarities in our thinking,” Jackson said. “People need to stop and ask themselves, ‘Are we being friendly? Are we being Godly?’ I think we need to be more respectful of each other. If we sat down together, we would find we have a lot in common — people are people [regardless of race].”