Archive for Sunday, August 24, 1997


August 24, 1997


A civil rights activist will be honored next month at a local school.

A preschool classroom will open Monday at Pinckney School, thanks to the generosity of a longtime Lawrence resident.

William Dann, 60, has donated $50,000 to the Lawrence Schools Foundation to finance one year's operation of the classroom. At Dann's request, the classroom will be dedicated in honor of Jesse Milan, Lawrence's first black teacher.

"This program is terrific," said Dann of the Early Childhood Educational Readiness Program, which also operates a preschool classroom at East Heights School, 1430 Haskell Ave. "This program is badly needed."

Dann is well known for writing "advertorials" in the Journal-World, although it's been some time since he's paid to have his views aired. He's also spoken out numerous times at city commission meetings.

He said he wanted the Pinckney classroom to carry Jesse Milan's name because he respects Milan's work to integrate Lawrence.

"In any discussions about racial injustice here in Lawrence, his name frequently came up," Dann said. "I wanted to dedicate this classroom to someone whose efforts hadn't received the recognition I thought they deserved. I'm very happy about it. It should have happened a long time ago."

During a ceremony at 9 a.m. Sept. 10, the classroom officially will be dedicated in Milan's name. The public is invited. That day also will be "Jesse Milan Day," according to a Lawrence City Commission proclamation.

"It's great, it really is," said Supt. Al Azinger. "It's really a nice thing that's getting done. You talk about a win-win kind of situation."

It's likely the Pinckney classroom will be at capacity this year, with 18 to 20 students, according to Cris Anderson, the school district's early childhood education coordinator.

Like its sister classroom at East Heights, which opened last fall, the Pinckney classroom targets children who previously have not had an opportunity for preschool. It follows a "family literacy model," which involves parents in the children's education and offers continuing education opportunities for parents.

Tremendous honor

When Milan visited the Pinckney classroom one day last week, he obviously was pleased -- and somewhat overwhelmed -- that Dann had chosen to honor him.

"I didn't do anything to be recognized," said Milan, 69. "I did what was necessary. I appreciate it very much. This has really been tremendous. I don't know how to take it. I have never been so honored. This is something they do for people when they die."

People in Lawrence didn't always appreciate Milan's actions. He left Lawrence in 1971 for Kansas City, Kan., where he and his wife still live.

Milan was hired by Lawrence public schools in June 1954, as one of three black teachers in Kansas' public schools. He was a special consultant who taught classroom teachers at the city's elementary schools how to teach physical education.

He also was a counselor at the city's junior high school and taught social studies. He ran physical education activities during lunch and coached intramural basketball at the high school.

Milan played a central role in the passage of a $150,000 bond issue in November 1968 to finance a public swimming pool. Before the opening of the municipal pool, blacks and whites did not swim together.

At the time of the vote, racial tension gripped Lawrence. Milan said many of the children he had taught had sought his help with the third attempt at passing a bond issue.

"I identified the section of Lawrence that always voted down the pool," he remembered.

About 30 children knocked on doors and encouraged parents to vote for the pool. It apparently worked.

"I feel good because look what the benefits are to the community, not just from a recreational standpoint, but from an economic standpoint," Milan said.

Today, the pool stands as one of the anchors in downtown Lawrence.

But Milan and his family paid a price. They were threatened with violence -- from Ku Klux Klan members and from blacks who viewed Milan as an Uncle Tom.

"I didn't promote white hate or black love," he said. "I promoted human development. I refused to let a child's skin color dictate how I taught."

Milan left his teaching job in 1969 for a position at Baker University. Two years later, he moved to Kansas City, Kan., where he worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Now, he's back on the Baker faculty.

His four children, two of whom were born in Lawrence and attended Pinckney School, will attend the classroom dedication ceremony.

"They're all excited," Milan said. "I guess my past has caught up with me."

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