Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

A deeper shade of history

Black pioneers had roots in Lawrence

February 22, 2004


You know some of their names. Langston Hughes. Wilt Chamberlain.

But what about George "Nash" Walker, Etta Moten Barnett and George Washington? All were pioneering black Americans who lived in Lawrence, spent their formative years here or developed their gifts at Kansas University.

From escaped slaves turned civic leaders to vaudeville and Broadway stars who carved out space for blacks on the stage and screen to basketball phenoms who changed the rules of the game, these men and women are part of the American story we celebrate every February.

Etta Moten Barnett

Kansas University alumna Etta Moten Barnett spent her entire life breaking barriers.

Born in Texas in 1901, she moved to Kansas City as a teenager and came to KU in 1927, divorced with three daughters. She helped establish the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, performed in all-black plays, had her own radio show and helped lead the fight to end segregation at the Lawrence swimming pool.

More than 1,000 people attended her senior vocal recital.

After graduating in 1931, Barnett appeared in several films and musicals. She sang as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced in the 1933 film "Flying Down to Rio," but she was best known for playing Bess in "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway.

Etta Moten Barnett

Etta Moten Barnett

President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Barnett to sing at his 1933 birthday party, making her the first black person to sing at the White House.

Barnett's also been hailed as the first person to break Hollywood's stereotypical portrayal of blacks by playing romantic, sexy roles instead of the nannies and maids most black women were cast as in early Hollywood films.

Also of note: Barnett played a role in luring Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball at KU by holding herself up as an example of a black KU graduate who had achieved success.

Barnett died last month in Chicago of pancreatic cancer. She was 102.

George Washington

George Washington knew first-hand the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, and he organized a yearly celebration of its signing in the grove outside his Bloomington home.

Washington was born a slave in "Old Virginia" in 1840 and had been given as a wedding gift to a couple who moved to Platte County, Mo. In 1862, Washington escaped by way of Parkville, Mo., across the frozen Missouri River and into the riverfront abolitionist township of Quindaro.

The George Washington Family in 1902 stands outside their home in
Bloomington. George is second from right.

The George Washington Family in 1902 stands outside their home in Bloomington. George is second from right.

He then moved to Leavenworth, where Gen. James Lane was recruiting troops among free blacks. Washington enlisted in the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1862 and fought in numerous Civil War battles.

After leaving the service, he bought a farm in Bloomington and, in 1868, married his neighbor, Arminda Simpson. They had seven children and were active in the community.

Each Aug. 1, Washington organized Emancipation Day celebrations and spoke eloquently of his participation in the war. More than 1,000 people attended the picnic one year.

Washington died Dec. 26, 1931, and is buried in the family plot at Clinton Cemetery.

George "Nash" Walker

Born in 1873 in Lawrence, George "Nash" Walker went on to garner international fame as a black theatrical pioneer in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

George "Nash" Walker

George "Nash" Walker

He left Lawrence as a young man and met Bert Williams in San Francisco, Calif. The pair took exception to minstrel shows featuring black-faced white comedians and decided to fill the demand for black faces on stage with real black actors.

"We finally decided that as white men with black faces were billing themselves 'coons,' Williams and Walker would do well to bill themselves as 'Two Real Coons,' and so we did," Walker wrote in an early 1900s theater magazine.

The duo moved east in the mid-1890s and won critical acclaim in the Broadway musical "The Gold Bug." They produced a series of successful shows, including "The Policy Players" (1899), "Sons of Ham" (1900) and "Williams and Walker in Dahomey (1902-05) -- all of which generated jobs for large numbers of black artists.

Walker died in 1911 and is buried in Lawrence.

Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain was the most coveted basketball recruit in the country coming out of the famed Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, and he chose to play ball at Kansas University.

No player before or since has been able to touch Chamberlain's collegiate debut. The 7-foot center scored 52 points and grabbed 31 rebounds against Northwestern on Dec. 3, 1956.

He averaged 29.9 points and 18.9 rebounds during his KU career (1956-58) and had his No. 13 jersey retired in 1998.

The Big Dipper left KU after two years, playing one year with the Harlem Globetrotters and going on to play in the NBA for the Warriors, 76ers and Lakers. He's one of only four players to have scored more than 30,000 career points in the NBA.

Chamberlain's skills were so far beyond those of his competitors that several NCAA rule changes were enacted to keep his abilities in check. Those included widening the lane, instituting offensive goaltending and revising rules governing inbounding the ball and shooting free throws.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., but his earliest memories were of Lawrence and the house at 732 Ala., where he lived until he was 12 years old with his grandmother, Mary Langston.

His recollections also include attending church services with his Auntie Reed at St. Luke AME, 900 N.Y. He later said he heard rhythms in the black churches of Lawrence that influenced his poetry.

Writer Langston Hughes, circa 1958.

Writer Langston Hughes, circa 1958.

Hughes graduated in 1920 from Central High School in Cleveland, attended Columbia University briefly and eventually graduated in 1929 from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. During this time he also visited his father in Mexico and traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, the Soviet Union, the Caribbean and China.

He lived in New York and was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, the African-American cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

Sources: Watkins Community Museum of History, Journal-World Archives, Clinton Lake Museum.

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