By entry into the 1900s, Wichita was a booming city and Wichita’s African-American population was no different. One of the city’s leading Black citizens was John Henry Van Leu. A successful businessman and church overseer, Van Leu became one of the city’s largest land owners and a nationally recognized leader in the National Baptist Convention.
Neither John Van Leu nor his wife Julia Patton Van Leu were Wichita natives. Few people were, in the fledgling days of Wichita. They, like many other Blacks, migrated to Wichita from the South. John was born in South Carolina in 1866. Julia was from Tennessee. They came to Wichita separately. John came on his own after living for a while in Mississippi. Julia came with her family, who were part of a large migration of Tennessee families who came to Wichita and formed Tabernacle Baptist Church in 1881.
John who was ordained as a minister in 1882, joined the Baptist ministry in 1887 and three years later moved to Wichita, where he quickly positioned himself as a community leader.
By that time, Julia’s family was already a part of Wichita’s Black upper social stratus. Her brother Charles Patton was Wichita’s first Black tailor, her brother George was a renowned tenor and her sister Ethel was a talented organist. When Julia and John married in 1896, it was quite a social occasion.
For a while, John served as senior pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church and in 1896, the National Baptist Convention appointed Van Leu General Missionary for the State of Kansas. He served in that position until his death in 1923.
It’s not certain how John made his money. Whether his position with the National Baptist Convention was a paying one or not, isn’t clear. However he did it, John accumulated a large quantity of land and property, most of which was situated in or near East Water Street, an area that was the business hub of Black Wichita.
As he continued to accumulate property, Van Leu became one of the largest property owners in Wichita, Black or White. His real estate holdings were so large, he established the Van Leu Real Estate Company around the turn of the century.
“He owned most of the land in the 500 block of North Water Street,” said his grandson George H. Johnson, who passed away in 2013. That land is the site of the current Sedgwick County Court House.
Van Leu also owned the Van Leu Department Store at 611 N. Main and the Van Leu Office Building at 628 N. Main. This building housed most of the area’s Black doctors, lawyers and other professionals. The original Jackson Mortuary was housed on the first floor of the Van Leu Building. By 1897, Van Leu was wealthy enough to donate two lots at 8th and Water to Tabernacle Baptist Church for the construction of a new church home.
In the meantime, Julia was busy giving birth to and raising the couple’s 13 children: (from oldest to youngest) William, John II (died at birth), John III, Wendell, Adeline, Vermillion, Geneva, Marguerite, Dorothy, Charles, William, Madeline, Marsellus and Gwendolyn. The first was born in 1899, the last in 1923.
Outside of Wichita, Van Leu was gathering a grand reputation. As the Kansas Baptist General Missionary he helped form Black Baptist Churches across the state and in 1901, he helped found the Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS. The seminary, still in existence today, was the first Baptist seminary west of the Mississippi River. Originally the seminary was located in a mansion near downtown Kansas City. Until his death, Van Leu was working to move the seminary to larger more permanent facilities. In 1923, the year he died, the seminary moved to 16 acres just west of downtown.
According to a historical newspaper article published at the time of his death, “The most utmost thought in his mind until his death was his last big and needed effort to make permanent the Central Baptist Theological Seminary; not a moment of opportunity passed him to let the brethren know the worth, needs and plans of this great institution.”
The article writer continues:
“As we have speeded over Kansas he would point to stations where he would sit up at the station all night, sleep on trucks, and so well do remember once at Cherryvale, where he said he was so tired until he thought a chicken coop would be more comfortable than the seats in the depot, so he laid down on the coop and was filled with mites. … But he would always rejoice to know that he had suffered to put over God’s program.”
Van Leu died suddenly in 1923 while attending the National Baptist Convention in Los Angeles. He was part of a Wichita delegation attending the conference. Because he was a great leader in the National Baptist Church, a funeral service was held for him at the convention. The Wichita delegates accompanied his body back home, where a large funeral was held for Van Leu at Calvary Baptist Church on Sept. 18, 1923. According to an article in The Negro Star, a Wichita paper, “Nearly every preacher and worker of note was present or sent a telegram or letter of condolence.”
Without any formal training or job skills, Julia Van Leu was left to raise the family’s children with little apparent source of income. At the time of her husband’s death, the couple’s youngest child was less than a year old and nine of the children were under age 18. Over the years, to help sustain the family, Julia sold off most of the Van Leu land holdings. She died in 1947.
According to Johnson, many of the Van Leu children died young and none of them are still alive. Of the 13 Van Leu children, there were only five offspring. Johnson, the son of Geneva, was the oldest Van Leu grandchild. Other Van Leu grandchildren are: Sandra Vane Leu Lowe, Wichita; Tevis Mike, deceased; Pamela Brashear Thompson, Wichita; Charles Ella Van Leu, Wichita.