Parkinson’s pardons in 1969 robbery case may reunite father and daughter after 40 years

Action clears man who's been living in exile in Africa since 1970

Jackie Johnson of Kansas City, Kan., hasn’t seen her father in 40 years.

But with the stroke of a pen, former Gov. Mark Parkinson has opened up hope of a reunion.

In one of his last official duties, Parkinson pardoned Johnson’s father, Frederick Umoja — who’s been living in exile in Africa since 1970.

Umoja, along with John Manning — also pardoned Friday — were among a group of black defendants known as the Wichita 8. The eight were convicted by an all-white Sedgwick County jury in 1969 of robbery charges. The Kansas University’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies assisted Johnson and Manning in obtaining the pardons.

Four of the defendants, including Umoja and Manning, fled the country before sentencing. Umoja ended up in Liberia, where he’s spent the past four decades as a teacher, businessman and staff member for nonprofit organizations. Johnson was 4 years old when her father fled, and she said she hadn’t spoken to him since she was 8.

“We didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” Johnson said.

A May 2010 Journal-World article about the clemency petitions and Gov. Parkinson’s pardon of another member of the Wichita 8, Samuel Jarvis “Jerry” Hunt, provided Johnson with the first clue in locating her father.

Umoja had changed his name from Johnson when he fled, a fact noted in the Journal-World article.

“It was the first piece of information I had,” Johnson said. “That’s how I found out his name.”

Johnson said her father remained overseas because of fear of a prison sentence if he returned — a fear erased with Parkinson’s pardon. Johnson has spent the past seven months reconnecting with Umoja, and the two are planning a family reunion.

“I am without words to express what this means after 41 years of calculated injustice to me and my family,” Umoja wrote in an e-mail to the Journal-World.

Manning, meanwhile, fled to Tanzania with his wife and young son, and worked as an economist for the Tanzanian government. He was immediately arrested when he returned to the United States in 1984, and spent five months in Kansas jails and prisons for his robbery conviction in the case. Reached by phone in the Virgin Islands, where he is now living, Manning said he was pleased with the pardon.

“It just shows me that America is a better place than when I left,” he said.

Umoja’s and Manning’s pardons are for their convictions of third-degree robbery. Amy Jordan Wooden, press secretary for former Gov. Parkinson, said of the pardons: “The charge made in 1969 for all three of these gentlemen was for third-degree robbery, which was based on a law that has since been repealed.”

In July 2009, Parkinson issued the first pardon of his term for Hunt, who also fled following a third-degree robbery conviction in the case. In 1993, Gov. Joan Finney issued a similar pardon for another member of the Wichita 8, Leonard Harrison, who at the time of the conviction was the director of the Ballard Center in Lawrence.

The convictions for all of eight of the men stem from an incident in Wichita where the group — all community organizers — met with employees of the newly formed Joint Action in Community Service, or JACS. During a conflict over wages for the time and travel to the meeting, the JACS representatives claimed the group physically intimidated them into payment.

Former Kansas Attorney General Robert Stephan was the presiding judge at the trial, and described the racial atmosphere in Wichita at the time as “very polarized.” Stephan said it was the most racially contentious trial he had ever worked on, and he wrote letters supporting pardons for Hunt, Manning and Johnson. Stephan sentenced the four members who did not flee the country to probation, though they could have received prison sentences of up to 21 years.

On Jan. 7, Parkinson also issued a pardon for Orvel Bald Ridge, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Jordan Wooden said. Ridge was convicted of assault in the 1970s, and was planning to run for office in the Cherokee Nation, but would need a pardon to do so, according to Wooden.

The pardons for Ridge and the three members of the Wichita 8 were the only ones issued by Parkinson during his term.