***This story was originally published by the Geary County Historical Society and Museums on February 27, 2015.***
Our records at the Museum indicate there was an African-American presence in Geary County right from the beginning, finding information about them is another matter, Often it appears that personal or family histories of these early residents are non-existent, and then, out of the blue, in a newspaper or via a letter from a descendent information surfaces that brings these pioneers to life. Such was the case with our subjects for today's article.
In the Main Hall of the Museum is our Pioneer Settlers photograph collection. The faces that peer out above the names "Geo. Young" and "Mrs. Geo. Young," don't differ greatly from the other 243 images on the wall. They are dressed in the fashions of the time, the 1860s, and their hairstyles look very much like those of the other subjects. But they are different.
George and Mariah Young are the only African-Americans represented in the collection, which was compiled by photographer Louis Teitzel in 1909 in observance of the 50th anniversary of Junction City's founding.
We at the museum knew little else about the George and Mariah Young until 1995, when one of their descendants, Greggory Hickman-Williams of KC, MO, presented the museum with a wedding photograph of one of their sons, John Huston Young, and his bride Mary Hart, made in Junction City in 1888. Then Susan Lloyd Franzen, while researching her multicultural history "Behind the Facade of Fort Riley's Home Town," contributed some additional information. Most recently, we learned a bit more about the impact the Young family had on early Junction City while researching the article on Junction City's first school.
According to Gregory Hickman-Williams, the George and Mariah Young family was one of the first, if not the first, African-American family to settle in Junction City, coming in 1864, prior to the end of the Civil War. George Young was a barber by trade.
Susan Franzen, writing for Museum Musings in 1999, noted that Union editor George W. Martin provided unusually good coverage of African-American achievements in that early era: "When Love's Barbershop was opened by four black men in 1867, the Union made note of it. By the time of the US Census of 1870, one of the barbers, George Young from Tennessee, was quite wealthy. His real estate was valued at $1000. A white grocer and a physician in the same census each had $1500 in real estate, so George Young was successful by local standards of the day.”
One of those children born in Tennessee, the Young's oldest son, Willowby, caused considerable uproar in Junction City only a short time after the family's arrival.
At the beginning of 1866, although the Civil War had ended eight months before, feelings were still strong and loyalties divided in Junction City. There was yet to be built a permanent school building in Junction City, so from term to term, school was held in rooms located above the businesses downtown.
In 1865-66, school was being conducted in Ganz Hall, located in the upper floor of the stone building that housed J. H. Blake dry goods store. It was situated across from the City Park on West Sixth Street, where the Bartell stands today.
At the beginning of the new school term, in January of 1866, Willowby Young, was enrolled in this city school. The presence of the one African-American boy in the public school caused a great uproar and much heated debate, both on the street and in meetings and gatherings all over town. The Youngs immediately withdrew their son, but this did not end the dispute.
The Union reported that a meeting was held the next evening, with a lively debate on the subject of school integration. Those in favor of educating young Willowby with the white children of the town finally prevailed, and the school board ruled to that effect. However, inflammatory letters and articles continued to appear in print. On January 18, 1866 the Ganz building mysteriously burned down.
The general supposition was that the fire was the result of this racial controversy, and Editor Martin went so far as to accuse segregationist parents of arson, saying that they'd rather burn down the school than have it integrated.
Little else on the Young Family is in our files, we know they stayed in JC, and it is apparent by their presence in the Pioneer Photo Collection that they were considered contributing and significant citizens within the community they had helped to build. Now if we just knew the rest of the story from their perspective....
May be some of you out there can help us. Little by little, our files on the African-American community are growing. However, we do send out a plea to those within the community here to share their family and personal histories with the museum so our records and archives can more accurately reflect the whole history of our town.