Friday, February 21, 2014

Thank You, We Are Comfortable Where We Are: A.W. Roberson Part 2

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

This post is Part 2 of a three part blog article featuring the life of A.W. Roberson. Roberson was a person who believed in equality and spent his life looking for opportunities to achieve this in Harvey County. To read Part 1 click here, Part 3 will be published next week. 

In the late 1930s through the 1950s, Newton, Ks was a segregated town. Restaurants and drug stores refused to serve black patrons unless they went around to the back door.  Black people were not allowed to stay in hotels, swim in the swimming pool or get their hair cut at barbershops.  The movie theater had sections designated for black people to sit.  Black students were allowed to play football with white students, but not basketball.
1944-45 Railroader

A.W. Roberson and others saw opportunities for change.
Main Street, Newton
ca. 1950s
After the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, Roberson realized that anyone who refused to serve a black person could be sued.
"So, a group of us, both blacks and some whites who agreed with our cause, went downtown and went from one end of Main Street to the other, visiting each business.  We'd send someone in, and if they were refused service, they were to brush the back of their head as a signal.  Then I'd come in and talk to the owner, and most often, they'd get served." (Newton Kansan, 15 January 1987)
Wayne's Tavern, 525 Main, Newton
1949 The Newton Guide
HCHM Photo
According to Roberson, only one storekeeper said, "he would close before he would serve blacks, but he eventually served us anyway."  The first Newton restaurant, other than the Harvey House,  to allow black citizens to regularly sit in the main dining area  to eat was the Guest House in 1957.

The Rex Theater, 214 N. Main, Newton, 1946

Movie theaters were another place of segregation. Roberson came up with a plan. He and his wife decided to go to see a movie. They arrived early when the bright overhead lights were on and they could be clearly seen.  They sat in the center of the fifth row - not in the section reserved for minorities.  If anyone asked them to move, Roberson planned to say, "Thank you, we are comfortable where we are."  No one asked them to move, although Roberson noted that his wife was really not very comfortable.  They went several more times and nothing was said.  Roberson then encouraged others in the black community to do the same thing, "to be calm, to talk nice, to keep cool, to be polite to anyone asking them to move."  They also agreed that they would need to be carried out if they were ejected.  The separate section for blacks and other minority groups disappeared and people sat where they wanted to.

  • Newton Kansan 29 May 1992 - announcement
  • Newton Kansan 1 June 1992 full obituary
  • Newton City Directories 1948, 1952, 1954
  • United States Census, 1940
  • United State Public Records Index, 1 August 1986 Residence
    • 1213 N Walnut St/ Newton, Ks
  • United States Social Security Death Index
  • Newton Kansan, 15 January 1987
    • Bartel, Matt, "Roberson Tells of Struggle for Housing Here" and "Roberson Worked for Equal Rights Here"
  • Kreider, Robert S.  Looking Back into the Future. Bethel College, North Newton, Ks, 1998 
    • 1978:  A.W. Roberson-Peacemaker.  Originally appeared in the Mennonite Weekly Review, 2 April 1978
  • Lehn, Cornelia.  Peace Be With You.  Newton, Ks: Faith and Life Press, 1980.  
    • "Ministry of Reconciliation: A.W. Roberson, 1944", p.100.
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