As America celebrates 400 years of Africans in America, the Kansas African American Museum has compiled an exhibit in recognition of 150 years of African Americans in Wichita. The exhibit, “Defining Black Wichita: 1870s to 1930, Black Belt Beginnings, The Downtown West End District” begins in the year Wichita was incorporated.
Wichita was little more than a trading post but African Americans migrating from the South, found a certain degree of safety in the Midwest city conveniently positioned along the Arkansas River and the Chisholm Trail.
When the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway reached the city in 1872, Wichita became a destination for cattle drives traveling north from Texas to access railroads heading to markets in eastern U.S. cities. Driven heavily by the cattle trade, Wichitans – both Black and White – grew rapidly in number and prosperity.
If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for African Americans during those early days, “Defining Blackness” will answer your questions. What you’ll find is that as Wichita flourished, so did the stature of African Americans in Wichita. While none of them ultimately rose to the level of Archibald Derby, founder of Derby Oil, or Fred C. Koch, founder of Koch Industries, a strong Black middle class evolved.
The Black community formed churches and social organizations. Initially, Black children attended school with White children. The schools weren’t segregated until 1911. There was also a successful Black-owned businesses community.
As in most segregated communities, Wichita’s Black community had its own restaurants, a hotel, clothing stores, tailors, a newspaper, a YMCA, and American Legion, a children’s home their own fire station to put out Black fires, and their own police officer to arrest Black folks who were went outside of the law.
Initially, Water Street, the area just south of the Sedgwick County Court House, was the center of Wichita’s downtown business community. You’ll learn how that area eventually became Wichita’s Black economic center and how the White businesses moved to Douglas Avenue.
You’ll learn about some of Wichita’s early Black families: including the Van Leus, the Porters, the McAfees and the Robinsons. That’s not to say all things were great for Wichita’s Black community.
“Defining Black Wichita,” beautifully curated by Paris Cunningham, 25, brings home a well-rounded message of both the “good” and the “bad” without making the exhibit seem to morose. The exhibit is more of a celebration of the amazing life put together by a group of people who in many cases were fresh out of slavery, potentially illiterate, but determined to take advantage of the possibilities America and, in this case, Wichita had to offer.
“Defining Black Wichita:1870s to 1930s” is on display at the Kansas African American Museum, 601 N. Water through Sat., Nov. 23. It is the first in a series of three Black Wichita exhibits. The next exhibit is “Defining Black Wichita: 1930s to 1970s – Heart of the Community, The Dunbar McAdams. District.”