For the past 30 years, the Kansas Business Hall of Fame has recognized business leaders from the past and present for their contributions to Kansas.
Each year, the organization chooses a contemporary and historical business leader to honor with a plaque installed in Cremer Hall at Emporia State University.
This year, the Kansas Business Hall of Fame honored Junius G. Groves, also known as the “Potato King,” who earned his nickname in the early 1900s after becoming the largest grower of Irish potatoes in the world.
“We are pleased to recognize this individual who achieved extraordinary success in the face of horrific obstacles,” said James Leiker, chairman of the Kansas Business Hall of Fame board of directors.
Groves was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1859, then made his way to Kansas at age 19 as an Exoduster. He and his wife saved their resources, moved to Edwardsville in Western Wyandotte County, where he rented farmland and specialized in growing potatoes.
By 1913, Groves owned over 500 acres of rich farmland, producing 55,000 bushels of potatoes a year. Groves also owned a general store, stock in mines and banks, and even a casket and embalming company. With an estimated wealth of $1 million, at the time, Groves was the richest Black man in Kansas.
“Junius Groves started out as an enslaved person. That means he had zero income – none. After emancipation, they didn’t get checks. They had to go out and make their way, and that’s what (Groves) did for him and his family,” said Dr. Carmaletta Williams, executive director at the Black Archives of Mid-America, at the Kansas Business Hall of Fame induction ceremony held in late July. “It takes courage, strength and commitment to do that.”
The story of Groves is featured in the permanent exhibit at the Black Archives of Mid-America.
Groves had a 20-room mansion, with electricity, hot and cold running water and telephones, all considered rarities at the time. However, he was most known for using his resources to help the local Black community.
At a time when sports venues were segregated, Groves built a golf course for African Americans that was possibly the first such course in the nation. To encourage African-American entrepreneurship, he also sold small parts of his property for them to make their way into the potato industry.
Groves was a founding member of the Kansas State Negro Business League and of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Groves died in 1925 at 66 years old.
“One of the things that we focus on here at the Black Archives is that we have to remember people like Junius’ legacies. We have to promote it to the people, so they see it and share it,” Williams said.
Groves’ great, great niece, Nina Kimbrough attended the induction ceremony and said she was pleased his story is still being recognized.
The Kansas Business Hall of Fame also honored Cliff Illig as their contemporary honoree. Illig is the co-founder and head of Cerner.