We’ve highlighted a few of the African American figures who have contributed to our community, country and the world. They include an important literary figure, bigger-than-life athletes, educators and activists who have contributed to paving the way in the continued struggle for equality.
Author, Langston Hughes, known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties, spent most of his childhood living in Lawrence with his grandmother. In a 1965 presentation at the University of Kansas, he said his first memories are of Lawrence. The house he lived in with his grandmother on New York Street is no longer standing, however the church he attended, St. Luke’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, stands at 900 New York Street. Hughes moved in with his aunt and uncle when his grandmother passed in 1915, and left Lawrence shortly thereafter to join his mother in Illinois. He writes about Lawrence in his autobiography, “The Big Sea.” Learn more about Langston Hughes at the Watkins Museum of History to learn more from the “Langston & Lawrence: 1902-1915” exhibit.
Blanche Bruce was born in Brunswick, Missouri in 1859. He was the first African American to graduate from the University of Kansas. He was also the first colored student to be elected critic of the Orphelian literary society at KU. He received his master’s degree in education in 1891, and was then appointed principal of the segregated Sumner School in Leavenworth, Kansas. He held that position for 54 years, until he retired. During that time he tutored boys set for West Point and Annapolis. It is said that by his retirement in 1939, he tutored approximately 1,800 men and only three failed their entrance exams.
Wilt Chamberlain, also known as “The Big Dipper,” was born in Philadelphia in 1936. He ran track and field as a child, but started playing basketball in high school, perhaps due to his lengthy 6’11” frame. When the time came, he eliminated colleges close to home, in the segregated south, and on the west coast (because he thought their basketball standards weren’t up to snuff). He chose the University of Kansas, where he participated on the Track & Field and Basketball teams. When he arrived in Lawrence, he realizedhow much racially charged tension there was in middle America. According to KU History, Chamberlain promptly made a practice of visiting segregated restaurants around town, sitting in them until he was served. Learn more about Wilt’s fight against segregation with this ESPN video. He had a weekly 30-minute radio show on the student radio network that was a hit with students. When it came to athletics, Chamberlain set remarkable records in both collegiate sports he participated in. His sophomore year, he dominated Northwestern in his regular season debut, December 3, 1956, in Allen Field House when he scored 52 points, a single-game KU record that still stands. Chamberlain left Lawrence in 1958 to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and then the NBA until he retired. He returned to Lawrence 1998 when his jersey was retired and hung in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse (see the video). The warm reception from fans overwhelmed him to tears, and his brother says it was one of Chamberlain’s fondest memories. Learn more about Chamberlain’s legacy at the DeBruce Center, Booth Hall of Athletics and Watkins Museum of History.
Charles Scott taught political science at the University of Kansas from 1970-71. Previous to that he worked on several civil rights cases, including one to integrate South Park elementary school in Johnson County. Webb v. School District No. 90 was upheld to the Kansas Supreme Court in 1949 and African American Children were finally allowed entrance to the school. The Kenneth Spencer Research Library currently houses the Charles S. Scott Collection; his papers from 1918-1989 on the the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka case. An online collection of his papers resides here. He also worked on cases to end discriminatory practices at Topeka theaters, restaurants and pools.
KU History says Gale Sayers might be KU’s greatest football player ever. In 1962, the first time he was handed the ball as a freshman in a scrimmage against the varsity, Sayers ran 75 yards for a touchdown. He quickly established the nickname “Kansas Comet.” Not surprisingly, in both of his playing years he earned a selection as an All-American. As a junior he set a NCAA record for the longest rush from the line of scrimmage by running 99 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska. The Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs selected Sayers in the first round of the NFL and AFL drafts respectively. He went with the Bears and there he met his BFF, Brian Piccolo. The two were the first racially mixed roommates in the history of the franchise. When Piccolo died from cancer years later, Sayers wrote a book that was later turned into a TV-movie. After seven years with the Bears, he retired because of injuries and returned to KU as the athletic director for four years. In 1977 he became the youngest person (and the first Jayhawk) to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Learn more at the University’s Booth Hall of Athletics. Check out the “Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Gale Sayers” video.
Lynette Woodard is the actual best KU women’s basketball player ever! By the end of the 1980-81 season, when she closed out her career at the University of Kansas, Woodard had scored 3,649 points – a number still unsurpassed in collegiate women’s basketball. She also stands as KU’s leading rebounder and thief, having accumulated 1,714 rebounds and 522 steals during her years at Allen Field House. There were not a lot of prospects for women’s basketball after college, but Woodard insisted that she was lucky to play at all. After spending a couple of years in a professional Italian league, she returned home and not only qualified for the 1984 Olympic team but was selected to captain it. The US boycotted the games, however, so she never got to play. A year later, she tried out for the Harlem Globetrotters and became the first female member of the team. She later returned to KU as an assistant woman’s basketball coach. Learn more about Lynette Woodard at the DeBruce Center and Booth Hall of Athletics.