Friday, February 14, 2014

Now, We and the Neighbors Get Along Just Fine: A.W. Roberson Part 1

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

When the words, "Civil Rights" are used, most think of Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King.  However, Harvey County had its own Civil Rights worker by the name of Augustus W. Roberson.  In the 1940s through late 1950s, A.W. Roberson was quietly, peacefully changing the community he lived and worked in.  When he died in 1992, his obituary quotes his daughter, who said, 
"A lot of people have called to offer their condolences and every one of them said he had a very strong impact. . . He had a love of God and a love of God's people."(Beverly Roberson Jackson, Newton Kansan 1 June 1992)  

This post is the first of a three part series about A.W. Roberson and the difference he was able to make in Harvey County.

Augustus W. Roberson
Newton Kansan Collection
HCHM Photos

When Augustus W. Roberson moved to Newton, Kansas with his family in the mid-1940s he thought, "Thank God I'm going to a free state."  However, much to his disappointment, he soon learned that "somethings were worse than anything I had seen in Texas" where racial segregation was still legal. (Newton Kansan, 15 January 1987) Roberson would spend the next 48 years working to "end racism and discrimination in the community." (Newton Kansas, Obituary, 1 June 1992.)

The grandson of slaves, A.W. Roberson was born July 7, 1907 to Anthony Roberson and Maggie Woodrow in Savoy, TX.  Anthony Roberson worked on the railroad maintenance and safety crew. His father also served as a minister and young  Roberson joined the church as age 9.  Of his growing up years in Texas he later recalled, "if church was open we were there." He married Ora C. Burnett in 1937 in Denison, TX.  They had two daughters. Throughout his life, his faith in God was very important to him and helped him overcome great obstacles. 

Another guiding force was his firm belief instilled in him by his father that "everyone was one of God's creatures and were all deserving of rights." (Newton Kansas, Obituary, 1 June 1992.)

Upon his arrival in Newton, Roberson observed that employment for black people was limited in Newton.  Most worked for the railroad, as household servants or in jobs related to maintenance. Roberson worked for the U.S. Postal Office.  Because he worked for the government, he did not have to fear the harassment that others experienced from local employers if they spoke up.  So, he began to push for equal rights.

First, he approached the Newton Chamber of Commerce.
 Directors of the Newton Chamber of Commerce
1939-1940 and 1940-1941
HCHM Photo
He questioned the members if there had ever been a black member. The answer was that none had ever applied.  Roberson applied to become a member and was accepted by unanimous vote.  Getting accepted was only the first hurdle.  The Chamber met at the Ripley Hotel, which did not allow blacks in the dining room.  

Roberson recalled that he
"would show up about 15 minutes early and sit in the lobby, so everyone could see me there as they came in for the meeting.  After awhile, they said it was time to eat and I got up just like everyone else and went to the table and sat down."  (Newton Kansan, 15 January 1987)

He left one seat between himself and the next person, "that way, whoever sat in that chair knew who they were sitting next to." Roberson was the first black person to sit to eat at the Ripley Hotel. He also worked to strengthen the local chapter for the NAACP.

Finding a home also proved to be another opportunity for Roberson to break down some racial barriers.

When his family first arrived in Newton, they boarded with U. S. Rickman, a black plumber.  The Roberson's wanted a home of their own.  Later, Roberson recalled his experiences purchasing a house.

"I'd call the local Realtors about a property and the'd say 'fine, come on over and we'll show you the place.' But when I got there and they saw I was black, they'd say this or that condition had come up since I called and the property was no longer available.  Then, they'd offer to show me some bungalow over in the black section of town."
Roberson did not want to live in a bungalow. So, he kept trying. Finally, he was able to purchase several lots near 12th and Walnut at a tax auction. The neighbors were all white.
"From the very start, I had people offering to buy the lots.  As time went on, they started telling me to name my price, they'd pay anything. They just simply didn't want blacks in the neighborhood."
Roberson held on to his lots and purchased a house from east of Goessel to move to Newton at his address 1213 N. Walnut.  At first there was some concern that there might be trouble.  Roberson took some time off of work to stay home.  He recalled that the neighbors "would gang up out front.  But nothing ever came of it."  

In 1987, Roberson reflected that "now, we and the neighbors get along just fine." 

Next weeks post will feature Roberson's experiences with downtown businesses.
  • 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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