Celebrating Black History Month: Olathe’s early African-American community

Even after slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the bloody Civil War ended in 1865, black people in the South were still marginalized and desired a new life in another part of the United States.  Black people left the South in huge numbers.  From 1870-1881, over 50,000 black men, women and children descended on Kansas.  Nearly 6,000 of these people crossed the border from Missouri for a fresh start in Kansas.  The anti-slavery legacy of the Sunflower State attracted black Southerners.

America Shelton moved to Olathe at age 7 with her parents, both former slaves.  She raised six children in Olathe.

America Shelton moved to Olathe at age 7 with her parents, both former slaves. She raised six children in Olathe.

Black settlements popped up in all parts of Kansas, including Johnson County.  Olathe became the preferred destination for blacks who migrated to the area, and by 1880 their population stood at 900.  Olathe was, and remains, the county seat, and the bustling town offered more opportunities than some rural communities.  Black people new to Kansas definitely farmed as well, but Olathe’s black community primarily worked in the service industry and as laborers.  Others embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of the times and owned their own businesses in Olathe.

David Page and his family circa 1930.  Page (1841-1938) was born into slavery in Virginia.  He fought in the Civil War and settled in Olathe, where he ran a laundry business out of his home.

David Page and his family circa 1930. Page (1841-1938) was born into slavery in Virginia. He fought in the Civil War and settled in Olathe, where he ran a laundry business out of his home.

The black citizens of Olathe also started their own churches and schools.  The Lincoln School that served black children had become dilapidated by 1918.  A new Lincoln School opened that year and locals called it the best school building in Kansas for its size.  Black and white children in Olathe were educated separately until 1958.

Olathe’s early black residents left a legacy of hard work, entrepreneurship and civic pride that inspired the city’s later residents.

– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum

Students at the Lincoln School in 1937.

Students at the Lincoln School in 1937.

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