Wet plate photo by Bo Rader being processed
Wet plate photography, whether done by William R. Gray or contemporary talents, such as Bo Rader of Wichita, requires that the coated plate — here containing a portrait of Rene Elmore from the Stafford County homecoming — be quickly processed after it’s exposed. For Gray, that could mean sticking close to his studio. Rader hauls a mobile darkroom with him. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
After the end of the Civil War, Kansas was advertised as a good place for African Americans to settle. Thousands came to live here in the decades to come but experienced challenges, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Many sought out greener pastures, leaving behind historical footprints for their ancestors to explore.  

(Photos courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society)

1860
The Census records 625 free and two enslaved African Americans being residents of the territory.

Jan. 29, 1861
Kansas enters the Union as a free state.

April 12, 1861
The Civil War begins. African Americans in Kansas form volunteer military units to fight the Confederates. The First Kansas Colored Infantry based at Fort Scott was the first African American unit to see action in the Civil War. In Wyandotte County, Black recruits were more numerous than white.

April 9, 1865
Civil War ends. Kansas is advertised as a good place for African Americans to settle.

1870
Census shows the Black population in Kansas growing from 6,237 to 17,108, with settlement primarily occurring in Atchison, Douglas, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties. African Americans make up 4.6% of the state’s population.

1873
Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave, purchases 1,000 acres of public land near Baxter Springs. He envisions Kansas being an “asylum for the freedmen of the South.”

1874
A group of 300 Black people establish the Cherokee colony on Singleton’s land. Singleton would go on to claim that he persuaded 7,432 individuals to settle in Kansas, the majority of whom were African Americans from Kentucky and Tennessee.

1875
Zion Valley, the town that would become St. John, is founded in Stafford County.

1877
Nicodemus, the state’s best-known Black settlement is founded. Two years later, the community organizes Graham County’s first school district.

1879
The Exoduster movement of poor Black people from the South reaches its peak in Kansas. Many depended on relief organizations and were not eagerly welcomed.

After first taking up residence in eastern Kansas cities, they were encouraged to resettle so no single town would have to absorb their numbers into the labor force.

John St. John takes office as Kansas governor. Zion Valley is renamed in his honor. St. John creates the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association to help Black migrants relocating to Kansas.

1900s
As many as 400 African Americans live in Stafford County, which has a population of about 9,000.

1915
The Ku Klux Klan is revived and begins to attract membership across the U.S.

OCT. 23, 1921
Lela and Elsie Scott’s parents host a birthday party for their twins in their house, the parsonage of the African Methodist Episcopal church in St. John. 

1923
The KKK rises in Kansas. Estimates suggest that nearly 60,000 Kansans belonged to 30 local Klan organizations.

1924
Gov. Henry Allen and William Allen White fight the Klan in Kansas. The Klan is denied a charter to operate and outlawed in the state.

1930s
African Americans continue to arrive from Arkansas and Missouri for better economic opportunities, but a two-decade-long influx soon ends amid widespread discrimination.

1981
The Gray family donates negatives taken during 76 years of photography to the Stafford County Historical Museum. Among the 11 ledgers documenting 30,000 photos are more than 100 photographs of Black residents.

2004
Museum curator and project director Michael Hathaway moves the negatives from the basement of the town’s old bank building to the museum’s library.

2012
Junior high school student Taylor Clark, who would go on to become Miss Kansas, researches the Martin Cemetery, an all-Black cemetery a few miles west of U.S. Highways 50 and 281, as a 4-H project.

2015
The Martin Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

2020
Census shows fewer than 30 African Americans living in Stafford County. No Exoduster families remain in the county, which is 94% white.

2021
Alice McMillan Lockridge, a genealogy enthusiast, becomes intrigued by historic photographs featuring Black farm families. 

A news item about the Scotts’ party in 1921 catches her attention. She decides to re-create the event and host a centennial birthday party for the Scott twins.

Wet plate photography, whether done by William R. Gray or contemporary talents, such as Bo Rader of Wichita, requires that the coated plate — here containing a portrait of Rene Elmore from the Stafford County homecoming — be quickly processed after it’s exposed. For Gray, that could mean sticking close to his studio. Rader hauls a mobile darkroom with him. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

Oct. 2021
About a dozen descendants of African American settlers return to Stafford County for a homecoming event.

Source: Kansas State Historical Society

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.

Recent Stories