A history of African American settlement in Stafford County was largely forgotten or ignored for decades. Leadership from unusual places recently helped preserve and elevate that past. Descendants of the Exodusters returned to central Kansas this past fall for a homecoming weekend to establish connections with once unknown ancestors. The event proved emotional for both visitors as well as residents trying to come to terms with the good and bad of their local history. 

At the start of a worldwide pandemic nearly two years ago, Rene Elmore of Tampa, Florida, made a promise to her great-uncle George Elmore of Tyler, Texas. Elmore, well into his 80s, was despondent because he didn’t know where his family was. He was the youngest and had no idea what had become of his 17 siblings, let alone aunts, uncles and cousins.

​​“I asked him what their names were, and he said, ‘Well, I’m not sure. We have a huge family. But there’s Elmores, Youngs and Scotts.’ So, after talking with one of my first cousins, we decided to do a DNA test. We tested my uncle and my father, Ronald Elmore.”

On Ancestry.com, they found information about their family from Alice McMillan Lockridge, who lived across the nation in a suburb near Seattle.

She had roots in central Kansas about 40 miles west of Hutchinson, in Stafford County.

And so did the Elmores. Their family members were among the hundreds of African Americans who settled there, members of a mass migration often referred to as Exodusters, a term derived from the Bible’s recounting of the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt. 

Beginning in the mid- to late 1870s, as support for Reconstruction following the Civil War waned, African Americans left the deep South in droves to find better lives on the Western frontier. 

Thousands came to Kansas.

In a phone call, Elmore found McMillan Lockridge’s family knowledge galvanizing. “She had a lot of names that I was starting to recognize. I was so excited. I thought she was a possible relative.”

But no, McMillan Lockridge told Elmore, she wasn’t a relative.

She is white. The Elmores are Black.

On that first phone call, Elmore remembers exactly what McMillan Lockridge said next:

“She said, ‘I’m a tree hugger.’ And I asked, ‘What is that?’”

It was a reference to genealogy, not environmentalism.

“She said she was from the (Stafford County) area and she researches African Americans and tries to leave their grave sites with dignity.”

Elmore’s voice chokes up in retelling the story.

“I can’t thank her enough.”

At the same time, Rene Elmore’s daughter, Shelby Ronea, a filmmaker and actor, was also pursuing her mother’s quest. Once anonymous ancestors were starting to be revealed as identifiable human beings.

“When it comes to talking with the descendants of the African American community, we’ve all been told the same story – the information is lost,” Ronea says. “But the fact that my mom has been able to start off with 40 names at the beginning of 2020 and now has 3,200 names has changed the way I’ve looked at my identity and my history.”

And for the Elmores, a little town in Kansas – St. John, with barely 1,100 residents – held the key to their past, a draw that would ultimately lead several families back for a unique sort of homecoming.

And it isn’t just the Elmores who are reclaiming their piece of the past. After years of confining the town’s rich African American history to the shadows, St. John is taking steps to not only acknowledge and preserve that past but welcome back descendants such as the Elmores to celebrate that history with them.

The effort isn’t being spurred by traditional leaders. McMillan Lockridge nurtures her several-generations-long familial connection to Stafford County while living afar. As a junior high student, Taylor Clark, who went on to become Miss Kansas 2021, undertook a 4-H project that mobilized local and national efforts to preserve and elevate the community’s unique African American history. 

“I’m envious,” says Mark McCormick, director of strategic communications for the ACLU of Kansas and former director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita, and a past columnist for The Wichita Eagle. (McCormick is also a columnist for The Journal.) “I wish this were happening in more places. Maybe more than any other time in our nation’s history, we need to be finding narratives that bring us together as opposed to drive us apart. My hope is that it grows.”

In the process, though, some are struggling to come to terms with troubling aspects of Kansas’ history and their families’ roles in it, especially the racism that contributed to driving some Black residents away.

With the exception of Nicodemus, 150 miles northwest of St. John and one of the few remaining African American communities founded after the Civil War, the history of Black settlement in Kansas has been largely ignored. 

Even those working to preserve the history of Nicodemus see their history as separate from the Exoduster movement because that community was an organized town that people were solicited to settle, Angela Bates, executive director of the Nicodemus Historical Society, told Wichita’s KMUW public radio station last summer when the town conducted its 143rd homecoming.

The homecoming effort in Stafford County is also exposing a part of Kansas history that has increasing resonance as the state’s demographics trend toward greater diversity.

“There has been to my knowledge very, very little research on Black homesteaders,” says Gretchen Eick, an award-winning author and professor of history at Friends University in Wichita. “We know they existed. When I was doing my Ph.D., that was one of the topics I was really interested in. I ended up with the civil rights movement instead, but I remember it just hadn’t been really researched. It is a whole area of research that is just very exciting and undeveloped.”

  • Bo Rader takes wet-plate photos
    “When people see how this process works — they aren’t used to getting inside of the camera and seeing how a photograph happens,” Bo Rader says. “You can see the whole thing from start to finish, and I think that’s what fascinates people. One of my favorite things is people’s reactions and how they react to seeing a photograph pop up.” (Photos by Jeff Tuttle)

Where Their Ancestors Lived

The conversation with McMillan Lockridge would wind up drawing Elmore and descendants of African American families to St. John and Stafford last October for a homecoming so they could see for themselves where their ancestors had lived. They came from Florida, Oklahoma and elsewhere in Kansas. 

The attendees included three generations of the Gracey family – Julia Gracey Holmes, Marcia Phillips and Alecia Dunigan – who drove from Dover, Oklahoma. Their highlight, 85-year-old Julia Gracey Holmes says, was visiting the graves of family.

Some gathered sandy Stafford County soil from their ancestors’ homesteads. 

Seated at round tables, they struck up acquaintances over coffee and rolls.

Their return added a new chapter to the often less-than-hospitable history African American families have had with towns such as St. John. 

The Exodusters, often poor Black farmers from the South, were drawn to Kansas in part by its Free State reputation. Many had heard it was home of fiery abolitionist John Brown, who was hanged in 1859 for treason after failing to foment a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The state was also home to the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, the first regiment of African Americans raised in a northern state and the first Black unit to see combat in the Civil War.

In fliers, the leader of the Exoduster movement, Benjamin Singleton, better known as “Old Pap,” promoted Kansas as a promised land.

“Ho for Kansas!,” the most popular flier read. “Brethren, Friends & Fellow Citizens: I feel thankful to inform you that the REAL ESTATE AND Homestead Association Will Leave Here the 15th of April, 1878, in pursuit of Homes in the Southwestern Lands of America, at Transportation Rates, cheaper than was ever known before.” 

All told, between 15,000 and 20,000 Exodusters flocked to Kansas, urged on in part by St. John’s namesake, John P. St. John, Kansas’ eighth governor. Originally called Zion Valley, the community of St. John was renamed to gain favor with the governor and to sway his decision in naming it the county seat over neighboring Stafford. (It apparently worked. St. John remains the county seat and Stafford County’s largest town.)

John P. St. John also founded a relief organization that provided aid to migrants, and was the group’s board chairman before serving as the state’s chief executive from 1879 to 1883.

Nearly 30 Black families claimed land in Stafford County. By the 1900s, it is estimated that there were as many as 400 African Americans living in Stafford County. The county’s population then was about 9,000 residents.

St. John supported two African American churches – a Baptist church and the African Methodist Episcopal.

But life was never easy. There was drought, endless Kansas winds, sun, dust and secret organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The Black homesteaders persevered as long as they could. Of those who survived the perils of racism and nature, most moved on.

By 2021, there were no remaining Exoduster families in Stafford County, where the population has dwindled to 4,000 people and is 94% white. Fewer than 30 African Americans live there now, according to the 2020 census.

Bo Rader used William R. Gray’s old photo studio to make homecoming portraits of Shelby Ronea and others. “Working in that environment, re-creating portraits of people who were descendants of people he photographed, was kind of special to me,” Rader says. (Photos by Jeff Tuttle)

A Hidden History Emerges

Yet connections between the present and the past are still possible. 

In January 2021, McMillan Lockridge, the genealogy enthusiast, was researching information for the Stafford County Museum and was intrigued by several historic local photographs featuring Black farm families. She comes back to St. John from Seattle twice a year for a few weeks at a time, and can also access the Stafford County Historical Museum’s digital archives through the internet.

The museum houses a collection of more than 30,000 negatives begun by photographer William R. Gray. The Gray family took photos in Stafford County for 76 years. Almost every family that has ever lived in Stafford County is represented in the archive. Gray’s daughter, Jessie, continued taking photos up until 1981, when the negatives were donated to the Stafford museum.

No one fully grasped the extent of this archive until museum curator and project director Michael Hathaway moved the glass plate negatives from the basement of the town’s old bank building to the museum’s library in 2004.

Gray had kept 11 ledgers dutifully logging each of the 30,000 photos. Among them were more than 100 photographs of Black residents with the last names of Gracey, Scott, Bowen, Martin, Rawlins, Robison, Tyler, Depree, Minnis and Micheaux.

“I knew I was close to some hidden history,” says McMillan Lockridge, a fifth-generation Stafford Countian. “I always say somebody ought to do something and then I said to myself, ‘Well, I’m somebody. And I’m going to do it.’”

She researched the African Americans of Stafford County in old newspaper clippings – including one in particular that caught her attention. It was a report of a birthday party for Lela Scott on Oct. 23, 1921, hosted in her parents’ house – the parsonage of the AME church in St. John.

The article published in the St. John News read “Miss Lela Scott served a delicious dinner at her home on Pearl Street last Sunday. Forty-nine guests were present, several from out of town. Her tables were loaded with fried chicken and everything else that was good to eat, and everybody certainly ate to their satisfaction and listened to sweet music. … Everyone that was present fully decided that Miss Scott is some entertainer. One Who Was There.”

McMillan Lockridge was intrigued and decided to re-create the event. She would host a centennial birthday party for the Scott twins – Lela and Elsie Scott.

She says she thought it would be a great way of celebrating a little-known aspect of the county’s history. And from there, the idea grew to become a homecoming for long disconnected descendants of the community’s Exodusters.

McMillan Lockridge contacted several people in Stafford County explaining she had already invited descendants to come to Stafford County, and could meeting spaces in Stafford’s museum and St. John’s museum be made available? The spaces were available along with local board members and volunteers to help, and she not only gave tours but even paid for a dinner. 

“I’m looking for a reason to celebrate this history and keep it alive and do something for the people who are related to them and give them a reason to come and see us.

“I want to tell them that not everybody is horrible.”

The photographs of their descendants were something much more, a tear-inducing, nearly transcendental opportunity to see the faces of their forebears. Brave people. Strong people. Their people. On site that day was Wichita photographer Bo Rader who, in keeping with the approach that William R. Gray had used, made complimentary pictures of the attendees. In another small way to reclaim connections lost to the passage of time, McMillan Lockridge had circular, cast iron grave markers made saying “Exoduster Pioneer.”

“They were pioneers,” McMillan Lockridge says. “There is a hole left in their history. My family didn’t move. I can go to my house in St. John and find generations of things. When you may have been run off by the Klan, you don’t take stuff with you. They didn’t have pictures; they didn’t have keepsakes.”

  • Wet plate portrait of Shelby Ronea and Rene Elmore
    ​​A good portrait begins with emotion, here provided by Rene Elmore and her daughter, Shelby Ronea, both of Florida, and expertise, provided by the photographer, in this case, Bo Rader. From there, chemistry goes to work. (Wet plate photo by Bo Rader)

Preserving an All-Black Cemetery

This past October’s homecoming was the latest development in a decade-long push to bring the all-but-lost history of Stafford County’s African American settlers back to light. For much of its 142 years of history, the community of St. John has promoted its history of largely white, prominent and prosperous families.

But some of the remnants of African American life were harder to erase and, in fact, have been preserved.

The Martin Cemetery, an all-Black cemetery a few miles west of the intersection of U.S. Highways 50 and 281, was researched as a 4-H project by then junior high school student Taylor Clark, beginning in 2012. 

It took her three years and wound up with the cemetery being listed on both the Register of Historic Kansas Places and the National Register of Historic Places. 

One of her grandmothers was Ruth Clark, a St. John junior high teacher who taught generations of students to feel passionate about their Kansas history. Her other grandmother, Amy Dudrey, another multigeneration Stafford Countian, is just as passionate about local history.

“A lot of it was just Grandma and me looking through documents, calling people, going through microfilm machines and reading old news articles,” says Clark.

She submitted her book-thick research as a nomination form for the historic designations. Funding was found by both Stafford County and St. John to build a white vinyl fence around the cemetery, put up signage and keep it regularly mowed.

“It’s not your typical 4-H project,” Taylor says. “But it’s affected me greatly and has me really checking histories as to what comes through as true and what stories are maybe pushed to the back. I think this is a story that needs to come to the forefront.

“By researching and going more in-depth, it tells us more about the communities in our state.”

Clark made a special appearance during the homecoming weekend, playing drums for entertainment and talking with the descendants about her research.

The developments present some intriguing possibilities. Although it has some assets, such as the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, the Wetlands Scenic Byway and several unique restaurants, Stafford County isn’t exactly a hub for visitors.

But the amount of history that’s been preserved in the community is substantial. The Stafford County Museum houses much of the county’s archive of newspapers, rural school records and family files along with the Gray photo collection.

Could that history be a model that other communities could follow in exploring their own pasts? Could it even be a resource for starting more productive dialogues about race relations?

“There are different types of history,” Eick says. “There’s different emotional sides to this history. But the exciting thing is that basically you can work on uncovering it and documenting it with a chance for reconciliation and allow some healing to take place. 

“And who knows, maybe it can make people aware of what’s happened there.”

The hope is that the homecoming weekend will become an annual or biennial tradition for Stafford County, held on the third weekend of October to honor and tell the stories of the past – the good and not-so-good.

In doing so, the community could be joining a broader national movement. According to Tanya Debose, vice president of communications for the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, a national group based in Tuskegee, Alabama, it has always been a custom to host homecoming celebrations in historic Black towns and settlements.

Although most families move away and many were sometimes forced out, descendants are finding it a sense of responsibility and commitment to come back and commemorate what happened, “good or bad.”

It’s becoming more common in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, according to Nicka Sewell-Smith, a nationally recognized Black genealogist who lives near Memphis, Tennessee. 

Sewell-Smith has roots in Kansas. One of her ancestors was Isaac Rogers, a Cherokee freedman who was a soldier in the 1st Kansas Colored Troops.

“I’m not shocked this (St. John) is a Kansas town,” Sewell-Smith says. “It is part of the origins of Kansas. It makes complete sense to me that a small town in Kansas would do this.”

But her advice for St. John and other Kansas communities wanting to better recognize their own histories with African American settlement is to tell the stories in an equitable way,

“I’m saying this tongue-and-cheek but when you are reading Southern history, you may read about a landowner who acquired land and he was a planter and I’m like thinking slaves and not wanting to know about the marble on the fireplace. I want to know who was shining it every day and who was tending to the garden that still exists and who built the house that stands,” Sewell-Smith says. “That’s the part of the story that we don’t talk about. The biggest barrier to these sorts of reunions is the fear factor: How will it be perceived? Whose story is told? How can we tell a story accurately and honor everyone?”

  • Rene Elmore and Shelby Ronea at Stafford County's all-black cemetery
    Rene Elmore and Shelby Ronea have more than a portrait to take away from their trip to Kansas. They explored graves at the Fairview Park Cemetery in St. John and honored Exodusters with commemorative markers. Outside of town, mother and daughter gathered soil from the ground where their ancestors’ homestead once stood. (Photos by Jeff Tuttle)

Stafford County’s Ku Klux Klan

The willingness of the Exodusters’ descendants to go in search of family histories and the kindness and support to which they were treated at their homecoming still must be viewed in historical context.

During the 1910s and 1920s, hundreds of white families in Stafford County boasted membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

Stafford itself joined the list of Kansas towns with sundown laws. Violence from local lynchings and threats were used by white families to prevent Blacks from truly settling down for generations.

Local newspapers during the first few decades of the 20th century reported on local KKK meetings, donations from the Klan to local church organizations and upcoming meetings in flat, nonjudgmental prose.

Decades later when some of those memberships came to light, many families were confounded by the actions of loved ones they thought they knew well. 

This writer remembers a visit with my grandmother over a Thanksgiving dinner in 1976 who said, “You know, your grandfather was a member.” 

His name was James W. Tanner, and I adored him. He was a school superintendent and had promoted the state’s first hot lunch school program in the Stafford County hamlet of Radium and who, in 1913, was the state secretary of prohibition.

How could that man, whom I knew as a child and who taught me my love for the written word, do this?

My grandmother said he joined for “social reasons,” meaning he wanted to fit in and to refuse wouldn’t have been looked upon kindly by the organization’s local representatives.

That same year, I remember going into the Ida Long Goodman Library in St. John for research on a college term paper about the KKK in Kansas and finding a box with a satin robe, local membership rolls and a KKK song book.

The box has since disappeared from the library.

I’m not the only person from Stafford County to find out about the darker elements of their family’s past.

Rachelle Keeley, now of Independence, recalls the time she discovered a KKK membership card in the back of her grandparents’ closet. 

“I can’t even tell you what I was looking for, but I was down there, going through stuff and found a folder. I flipped it open, and I find this paper with this fancy script, and it had this KKK on it. I can’t even tell you whose name was on it. I was so shocked and incensed by it. I never pictured our family being involved in something like that,” Keeley says.

Will They Return?

While it might be tempting for some to talk about the joyous reunions of homecoming weekend without talking about the Klan’s history, it’s a hard topic to avoid. 

One of Elmore’s relatives who homesteaded in St. John was the Rev. John Arthur Scott, who was an elected official during Reconstruction. He had been threatened by the Klan, fled Louisiana and eventually came to Kansas.

“I hope from this homecoming that I will be able to meet my family, because I don’t know who they are,” Elmore says. “I hope that I will be able to gain information on what they did, where they lived, what some of them looked like. I’ve only been able to see a few pictures, but I want to know how they maneuvered through the world and what they experienced.”

Indeed, coming to terms with such history and what it means for today can be difficult for both the descendants of homesteaders and of the townspeople who remain. McCormick, the former museum director, recalls a recent Zoom meeting in which historian Martha Jones talked about having compassion for people, primarily white Americans who are having to come to grips with a feeling that their country isn’t exactly what they’ve been told. 

“So you have to extend some grace and understanding to people who are really wrestling with the fact that their notion of this country has been turned upside down and inside out. We have to listen and learn from each other,” McCormick says.

Revisiting the past certainly makes real the painful realities of living as a Black person in Kansas a century or more ago. But there’s power in being reconnected to one’s ancestors and the stories of their lives. 

  • Alice McMillan Lockridge
    Alice McMillan Lockridge’s sleuthing through some old newspapers eventually led to a homecoming for long disconnected descendants of Stafford County’s Exodusters. “They were pioneers,” McMillan Lockridge says. “There is a hole left in their history.”

Since Elmore and her daughter, Shelby Ronea, began researching their ancestry, they have designed a family crest for the Elmore, Scott, Young and Jackson family with the words “Altruism, Elevation and Valor” emblazoned on it.

Among some of their potential relatives are the Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel and pioneering filmmaker and producer Oscar Micheaux, who has direct ties to Stafford County.

Ronea, in her early 20s, recently graduated from DePaul University in Chicago. She wants to make a documentary on her family’s search for relatives.

“This has empowered me and has become part of the legacy I want to leave behind,” Ronea says. “It’s made me prouder of who I am and where I come from. It is an amazing privilege to have that knowledge.”

Ronea was in awe as she went about the county, meeting some current county residents – some of whom even recalled members of her family. One was a neighbor of Elsie Scott’s and told of mowing grass for her as a young man and later buying her house and the AME church after she died in the early 1980s.

“I did not understand until now, being attached to an actual land and having history and knowing that somebody you are related to once lived here … I tear up. I didn’t think time travel was possible until I came here – but, yeah, now I am a time traveler.”

Ronea said she is gathering collections of soil from her family’s roots – in Stafford County and Eros, Louisiana, to someday place in her own home.

The fall 2021 homecoming was significant but small. The number of descendants numbered about a dozen. 

It’s not clear yet whether they’ll come back. Some Stafford County residents are hopeful they will and are contemplating steps that might encourage a return.

The Lucille M. Hall Museum board in St. John is currently considering a name change. One idea is to change the name to the St. John Homecoming Hall and Museum and create more exhibits and research on all cultures who have settled in the county – Native American, white, Black, Hispanic and Asian.

The board will make that decision within a few months.

For now, there is hope in encouraging a homecoming every year or two years.

“That sounds like the perfect name because everybody yearns to come back home. They are coming home,” says board member Wendy Mawhirter of St. John. “They are all coming home.”

Cover about honoring black history in small town Kansas

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.

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