In 1863, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation. Three years later, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments brought all slavery to an end in America and granted citizenship and voting rights to freed slaves.
The support system provided by Reconstruction ended in 1877. This meant a return to the unjust and prejudicial practices of pre-Civil War society for African-Americans. Seeking escape from a seemingly hopeless situation, these people looked West and took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862.
Between 1878 and 1880, about 20,000 African-Americans migrated to Kansas. John Brown and his fiery abolitionist friends made Kansas seem like a fair place where they would be welcomed. The rumor was that Kansas would provide “40 acres and a mule.” These migrants became known as “Exodusters” because their migration resembled the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt in the Hebrew bible.
Gov. John P. St. John (1833-1916) encouraged the Exodusters to come to Kansas. A colony of them came to Stafford County and settled mostly in Ohio Township in sections 6, 14, 17, 20, 27 and 30.
In 1994, local historian Colen Hoover (1909-1995) noted in the St. John News that the ex-slaves survived and thrived on the Kansas prairie “because of their experience in operating every aspect of the southern plantations where they had been enslaved. These pioneers knew how to take care of livestock; cultivate soil and plant seeds; make mortar and bricks and lay them; build houses and store harvests; butcher animals and preserve meat. They could make soap, hominy and molasses in large amounts.
“They had developed the planting of corn in deep furrows called ‘lister plows’ in order to protect young corn from hot southwest winds. In those early days, there were many water ponds in the grasslands where they raised fish. They also had orchards and poultry.”
Our early African-American pioneers established Martin Cemetery in Ohio Township, 1½ mile west of the junction of highways 281 and 50 on the north side of Highway 50. It still stands as a testament and memorial to the hundreds of African-Americans who made a new life here. The earliest death date on a gravestone there is 1906, but there are at least 14 people believed to be buried there without markers.
Although the cemetery is no longer used, it is maintained by the City of St. John. A large stone marker with its name inscribed was placed there by the Stafford County Board of Commissioners in 1993.
On the south side of St. John, there were two African-American churches – a Baptist church, which did not last long, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church organized in 1887 and built in 1892. It was located on the southeast corner of Pearl and Hoole streets.
George Washington Walker was born Nov. 14, 1849 in Washington, D.C. His early life was spent in Oklona, MS where he received his education in private schools. At 21, he went to Paducah, KY where he taught school. On Jan. 11, 1875, he married Catherine Harris of Paducah. (She was born in 1859). They had 12 children. Mr. Walker arrived in Great Bend in 1880 and walked from there to stake his claim in Stafford County, settling in Seward Township. He worked hard and saved his money until he had enough to pay train fare for his wife and children. In 1884, they removed to Byron Township. In 1938, oil was discovered on their 480-acre farm. It gave 1,600 barrels daily. Catherine Walker died May 7, 1940. Her obituary noted that all four daughters were college graduates and all four sons were successful farmers. George Walker died Jan. 24, 1943. Mr. and Mrs. Walker are buried at Great Bend Cemetery. Several articles and Mrs. Walker’s obit state they were both ex-slaves. There is no mention of that in Mr. Walker’s obituaries.
John A. Scott was born into slavery in 1828 and his wife Julia R. in 1840. According to their granddaughter, Cosa Mae Vaughn, John was something of a rebel. As a slave, he was beaten and shot because he refused to beat a fellow slave. After the Civil War, the family faced other dangers. Around 1870, the Ku Klux Klan went to John Scott’s home in Louisiana, looking for him. The family left for Indiana the next morning with only the clothes on their backs, leaving behind two adult children they never saw again. They took a wagon train from Indiana to Salina, fording the Arkansas River. John & Julia walked from Salina to Stafford County in 1886, staking a claim south of St. John. They lived in a dugout and gathered cow chips for fuel. John and Julia had 16 children. John died in 1893 and Julia in 1914. They are buried in Fairview Park Cemetery at St. John.
A short eight-line death notice, tucked in the inside pages of the June 2, 1905 edition of the St. John Weekly News, belies a long, courageous, industrious, life lived out against the backdrop of one of the darkest and most tumultuous chapters in American history.
Samuel Grayson was born into slavery in 1825. In 1860, he led his entire family to freedom from a Missouri plantation in a daring late-night escape fraught with danger and hardship – and the knowledge that runaway slaves who were caught were often beaten to death or shot. The Graceys made it to the shores of the Missouri River where Union soldiers helped them cross into the free state of Kansas.
To avoid being sent back to their old master as a result of fugitive slave laws, Samuel changed the family’s name from Grayson to Gracey. In 1878, the Graceys homesteaded in Stafford County. Samuel Gracey died in May, 1905, at his home in Byron Township and is buried at Eden Valley Cemetery in Stafford County.
Photos: George Washington Walker (1849-1943). Photos by W.R. Gray.