Pioneering Black educator at Lawrence schools, Baker dies; he was longtime champion for civil rights
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo
Jesse Milan, a pioneering Black educator in Lawrence schools, Baker University professor and former president of the Kansas branches of the NAACP, earned a bookcase of awards and honors during his life, but his son said one was very special to his father.
“In 2004, President George W. Bush named him to the presidential commission planning the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education,” Jesse Milan Jr. said Friday of his father, who died Feb. 8. “That was a great honor.”
The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended “separate but equal” racial discrimination in education in the U.S. helped open doors for Milan. His father dedicated his life to helping others take advantage of new opportunities, his son said.
Milan, a native of Kansas City, Kan, was born in 1928 and was a 1946 graduate of Sumner High School. He enrolled in the University of Kansas after a two-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, going on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s in education from the University of Kansas in 1954, the same year he married his wife of 60 years, Alversa, his son said.
Milan was the first Black educator hired to teach in Lawrence schools after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case. His father started as a physical education and social studies teacher at what is now Liberty Memorial Central Middle School before taking the position of physical education consultant. Jesse Jr. said in that role his father for 15 years traveled with instructors in arts and music to visit all the elementary schools in the district.
“Literally every elementary school student in those years had my father as a teacher,” he said. “He taught me first at Pinckney and later at Hillcrest. I remember kids telling me that my dad was in the building.”
Lucy Price, of Lawrence, who later taught with Milan at Baker, said she was a student at the now-gone McAllister Elementary School near Central when Milan taught “activities.” The young, enthusiastic, handsome male teacher was a sharp and welcome contrast to the rest of the school’s middle-aged female teachers, she said.
“He really made quite an impression on our elementary school,” she said. “He was so much fun and had a presence.”
As a junior high school student a few years later, Price said she and her friends regularly attended after-school dances Milan hosted at the 11th Street Community Building during which he would play current top-40 favorites and teach students to line dance.
“I remember he would get on the stage and sing some of the songs,” she said. “I later found out the after-school dances were his answer to latchkey students.”
Price said as a student she was unaware of Milan’s community engagements in Lawrence in the late 1950s and 1960s for fair housing or leading the effort to pass a bond issue to build a new city swimming pool in Buford M. Watson Jr. Park. For their work in the community, Milan and his wife jointly received the 1997 Martin Luther King Award from the NAACP Lawrence Branch.
His father would always take pride in his work to make the downtown pool a reality for all in Lawrence, his son said.
“One door he was very proud of was opening the swimming pool to all races,” he said. “Leading the charge for a new integrated swimming pool was his proudest achievement. There was no violence. There was no anger. Black and white people pulled together to make that happen.”
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
Milan left Lawrence with his family in 1971 to become regional compliance director with the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Protection of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. Well-remembered in Lawrence, the school district dedicated in 1971 the Jesse Milan Pre-School at Pinckney Elementary in his honor.
Even with his federal responsibilities, Milan stayed active in education, continuing as an assistant professor at Baker University, teaching courses in education, Jesse Jr. said. He was hired as the school’s first Black professor in 1969 when he was still teaching in Lawrence schools.
“He was an assistant professor at Baker the whole time he was with HUD,” Jesse Jr. said. “He drove from Kansas City to Baldwin City every day.”
Price said she started as an English professor at Baker when Milan was a full-time professor with the school after retiring from HUD in 1988. At Baker, Milan founded the Mungano student group, which promotes diversity and cultural interactions at the school.
Milan also started Operation Reachback, which brought elementary school students from Kansas City, Kan., public schools to the Baker campus to learn what they had to do to prepare for a college education.
“He did a lot to showcase college campuses and show young students college was something they could aspire to achieve,” Jesse Jr. said. “He loved doing that.”
Baker honored Milan with an honorary doctorate in education in his retirement year of 2001, and in 2000 named the award annually given to the student most active in promoting diversity on campus for him and fellow professor Manny Harris.
Milan stayed engaged after his retirement from education, serving as president of the Kansas branches of the NAACP from 2000 to 2004 and receiving the regional President of the Year award in 2001.
A lifelong learner, Milan completed a four-year course of study and became an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church at the age of 75, Jesse Jr. said. He would stay active in that role until 2012, Jesse Jr. said.
Through his many activities and engagements, his father left his mark on Lawrence, his hometown of Kansas City, Kan., the state of Kansas and the region. But Jesse Jr. said his father’s real legacy was his connection with people.
“You would be surprised how many people I run across who knew my father,” he said.