Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Segregation divided but didn’t conquer city

April 6, 2001


Ed Salisbury has lived in Lawrence since 1908, and unlike some folks his age he remembers an awful lot about the people in his hometown.

At 95 he's got a better memory than most bill collectors.

He speaks in a gravelly voice that overflows with names and dates. He smiles when he recalls his false start at Lincoln School, a segregated elementary school in North Lawrence for "colored children."

"When I was 5 years old, my mother took me over to Lincoln to enroll me in the first grade. The principal, Mary Dillard, who lived over there at 520 Louisiana Street, told me I was a year early and to come back when I was 6," he said in an interview in late February. "Always better to be early," he chanted. "Always better to be early."

Salisbury was a third-grader when his family moved to 831 N.Y., and he enrolled in New York School. He recalls his teacher, Sadie Stone, "who taught blacks and Mexicans in the first three grades, you know, to get them on their feet."

Salisbury has a tough time finishing one story before launching into another. His informal history lessons are punctuated with waving hands and a deep, throaty laugh that ends in a smiling cough.

He offers no sour grapes about growing up black in a segregated Lawrence.

"If I can't make a person smile, or be an asset to a person, I'm missing out on why the good Lord put us here," he said.

In 1920 there were about 1,850 black residents in Lawrence. Total population was about 12,950.

Salisbury rattled off names of black-owned businesses that were operating on Massachusetts Street when he was a teen-ager.

"There was Jimmie Jackson's Barber Shop, a restaurant run by Fred and Curtis Stone. Joe Hughes ran a 5-cent movie house for blacks. There was Ike's Pool Hall, a farrier and a blacksmith shop at 620 Massachusetts Street run by Miner Roberts."

Still not short on breath, he continued.

"When I was a kid chasing circus wagons, you know, they'd let you in free if you helped wash their wagons and haul some water. I saw old Mr. Roberts lay one of those big old circus horses on its side to put on a new horseshoe," he recalled.

"I was there and saw that, yes sir, right in the 600 block of Massachusetts Street."

In the neighborhood

Salisbury was just getting warmed up.

"Dad Merwin was the principal at Central Junior High over there at Ninth and Kentucky, and he always carried a little bell. After he rang that bell and you were standing in line for school, you froze in your tracks or he'd snatch you out of that line by your ear."

Salisbury's demeanor turned serious.

"That was discipline. He rang it for one reason: to march us into that school. He wasn't out there to watch us fool around."

There were no black teachers in Salisbury's junior high school.

Family pride

Across the street at 906 Ky. in the high school building, Albert Salisbury, Ed's father, was the janitor.

"When the high school was moved to the new Liberty Memorial building at 14th and Mass. (now Central Junior High), the principal, 'Pap' Olney, said he wanted my father to be in charge of the first floor," Salisbury remembered proudly. "The school honored him that way."

Salisbury said his father didn't dispense discipline to his five children. "We didn't have time to display any mischief. We had to work," he said.

When his older brother would "outgrow" a job, he'd pass it down to the younger Salisburys.

"We'd rake leaves, haul coal, carry out ashes ... petty jobs usually for old women who couldn't do it themselves. That's why I had respect for old folks who helped me through life. We needed the money."

Salisbury's grandmother, Mary, lived at Sixth and California streets.

"My brother Albert Jr. and I would ride our bikes over there twice a day, before and after school, to milk her cows," he said. "They were raggedy bikes, but they got us there."

Salisbury got serious for a minute. "It's kind of interesting to talk about that old stuff now," he said. "No fame, no fortune, but I enjoyed my life and I've loved living in Lawrence."

In 1924 Salisbury was one of nine blacks in a high school graduating class of 75 students. His was the first class to graduate from the new Liberty Memorial High School.

There were no black teachers in the high school.

Social codes

Downtown soda fountains were off-limits to blacks. Seating in movie houses for blacks was limited to the balconies, which were described as various types of "heaven."

Some forms of segregation continued in Lawrence into the mid- to late 1960s. In the late 1950s, Kansas University Chancellor Franklin Murphy pledged to show current movies at KU if Lawrence theater owners continued to segregate their audiences.

So where did a young black man go to have a Coke?

"Since I knew I wouldn't be served in places like Woolworths, I didn't bother to go in and get insulted," Salisbury said solemnly. "They were too good for you, too good for you."

Then, smiling, he said, "I don't think I bought a Coke until I was a grown man; I had better things to do with my money."

Salisbury said he always tried to have good relationships with people. "I'm a nobody, so if I don't communicate with people who'd want to communicate with me?"

His first full-time job was at the Jayhawk Creamery at 900 Ind. Salisbury's laugh returned when he described the job.

"I did everything nobody else wanted to do. But you've got to work if you expect to get paid."

Tailor-made suit

In 1928 he went to work for Grace and H.B. Ober, who ran Ober's Clothing at 821 Mass., one of Lawrence's upscale men's stores that catered to the university trade.

"I remember making deliveries to fraternity houses, and it was really different back in those days," he recalled. "You'd see those fraternity boys dressed in suits and ties out in front of their houses singing. In those days it didn't cost a whole lot of money to look like somebody."

Ober's went out of business in 1973, and for the first time in his adult life Salisbury was not working.

"I was sitting on my front porch when Dr. Dick Nelson stopped his car in front of my house and yelled to me, 'Hey Ed, you'll rust out before you wear out, why don't you come work for me.'"

He helped take care of Nelson's property for 19 years, until the doctor died in 1992.

Time to reflect

Today, Salisbury lives in Brandon Woods Retirement Community, where he's undergoing physical therapy since suffering a light stroke.

He has slowed down, but is as lively as anyone who gets around in a wheelchair and on a walker.

"This is the first time in my life that I have absolutely nothing to do," he said as he headed for his easy chair.

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