Pieces of a Puzzle: M. Thomas Family

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

In honor of Juneteenth, a day celebrated by many Black communities to commemorate the end of slavery, we are sharing the story of  an Old Settler Black family.

Introduction

Harvey County is made up of diverse cultures.  Many families can trace their history back to the early settlement period of the 1870s and 1880s.  Traditionally,  focus has been on the white settlers in celebrations like Old Settler’s Day. However, Black and other mixed race families,  like David Anderson & Mary Rickman Anderson Grant , were homesteading in 1871. In 1880, a group of at least 32 Black individuals, including Katie Vance, settled in Newton. Their stories are harder to find, often only brief mentions in the newspaper provide scattered clues. Many times the stories are not neat and pretty. This is the case with the family of M. Thomas as seen through the eyes of local newspapers.

Recently, a short blurb in 1888 about a 15 year old “colored girl”  in Police Court caught my attention. Curious to see if I could find out more, I did some digging.

Newton Daily Republican, 1 March 1888

The M. Thomas family came to Newton in about 1880 from Trenton, Todd, Kentucky.  The family consisted of Madison, his wife, Matilda, and three children, 13 year old William, 11 year old Mary, and 7 year old Ellen. In 1885, the family was living along north Main between 10th & 11th and Madison worked as a laborer.

The two of Thomas children experienced difficulties with the law in the late 1800s, all of which were reported in colorful detail by the local papers.

The Thomas Siblings

Ellen Thomas : “Frisky Colored Maiden”

In 1887,  14 year old Ellen Thomas must have fallen in with a rough crowd.  In September, she was arrested with four men for disturbing a meeting at the Second Baptist Church.  The men, George Morrow, C. Coleman, George Vance, and Bob Wylls, were each fined three dollars and court costs. The judge showed “mercy to the woman” and did not fine her.  Later, he reportedly regretted not being harder on her. (Newton Daily Republican, 9 September 1887)

At the end of September, Ellen was arrested along with Charles Coleman  for stealing a watch while at the county fair.  This time the judge was not so lenient and Ellen was fined two dollars and costs.

Justice’s Docket City of Newton Criminal Cases 1880-1889

In March 1888, Ellen  was arrested for drunk and disorderly. The Newton Kansan noted that “Ellen is an old offender and has figured quite conspicuously in the courts in this city on several former occasions, and the officers’ patience is about exhausted.” (1 March 1888) She plead guilty and paid the $5 fine plus costs.

In April, Ellen was again mentioned in the Evening Daily Republican under the heading “Too Hilarious”

“Ellen Thomas a colored woman, who has on more than one occasion figured romantically in police court circles, and Albert Lewis also colored, were taken before Police Judge Spooner . . . who fined them each $5 and the court trimmings for disorderly conduct on the streets Friday night.” (22 April 1888)

The reporter failed to describe what was “Too Hilarious” about the situation.

A more serious crime was committed in October when the Newton Daily Republican  reported that she was “Fined for Her Fun.” Ellen was described as the “frisky colored maiden, who assaulted the young white girl Miss Scott.” The trial was held in Judge Lupfer’s court and Ellen was fined $5 and costs which the editor felt would “no doubt cause her to have more respect for the law.” (22 October 1888)

She again caught the attention of the police and newspaper readers in October 1891. After serving time  in jail for an “affray” with Mrs. Weston (another Black woman), Ellen was released, but soon found herself back in jail for attempting to help a fellow prisoner escape. The Newton Daily Republican recounted:

“It seems that while in jail she lost her heart to one of her fellow-prisoners, a colored man giving his name as McCloskey, and ever since she received her freedom has been trying to devise a way for him to escape. Today Sheriff Pollard caught her giving him two saws made especially for cutting iron and promptly arrested her.” (22 October 1891)

This time she was sentenced to 15 months at Lansing for the attempt. She returned to Newton in 1893, “a rather notorious colored woman.” Ellen next appears in Police court with several others on charges of being operators, inmates or frequenters of questionable houses.” However, in this case she was found not guilty.

Ellen appears once more in the Newton paper in a strange story featuring “Female Footpads.”

Newton Kansan, 26 Jan 1900

The Newton Kansan on January 26, 1900 colorfully describes the hold up of “L. Titsworth of Lincoln. . . by three wenches” on West 4th near the Second Baptist Church in Newton.  Titsworth was walking around town to pass the time when,

“he was accosted by the dusky Amazons, one of whom flashed a pistol in his face. He surrendered at once and the woman went through his pockets, taking two $5 bills and a silver dollar.  This was about 8 o’clock; services were going on in the church at the time.  the audacity of the affair left Mr. Titsworth almost speechless and by the time he regained composure the females had flown.”

Warrants were quickly issued for Ellen Thomas, Mary and Gertie Doe. In a strange turn, the February 23 issue of the Newton Kansan noted that

 “The criminal docket was wiped up this morning owing to the fact that ‘Colonel’ Titsworth failed to leave his address and refuses to stay in one place long enough to allow said address to become known . . . the case dismissed.”

The editor noted, “The colonel is a smooth proposition and will no doubt be the defendant in a state case some time.”

Ellen Thomas also seemed to disappear from Newton and the record.

Bill Thomas: “Full of Lead”

William or Bill was born in Tennessee in approximately 1867. He was 13 when the family arrived in Newton.  By the mid-1890s, he was working as a porter at the Clark hotel in Newton.  He had scuffles with the law off and on.  The most serious event was in 1896 and also involved his sister Ellen.

Newton Kansan, 5 November 1896

During Republican rally with a large crowd, Thomas apparently took insult at “Red” Woodford slapping his sister Ellen. Thomas drew his 32 caliber revolver and fired, hitting Woodford at least twice. Woodford drew his own weapon and chased after Thomas.  Even though both men sustained possibly fatal wounds, the paper reported that they “showed great courage so far as the effects of the shots were concerned.” Woodford was carried to Harry Lum’s and Thomas to Dr. Roff’s, both too badly wounded to be arrested, neither expected to live.

In May 1897, the Newton Kansan reported Red” Woodford Captured. Apparently, both men were strong enough to escape Newton before they were arrested for the November 1896 shooting.  Woodford returned to the area in May 1897 and Sheriff Charles Judkin wasted no time in arresting him.  The paper reported that Bill Thomas was in Louisiana.

Madison & Mathilda Thomas

Madison and Matilda Thomas seemed to have lived a much quieter life than  their children.   One can only wonder what they thought.

Matilda Thomas: “A Colored Woman”

In 1892, sorrow struck the family when Matilda died of “a severe attack of asthma.” on December  10. Her obituary was a brief announcement in the paper. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks.  Matilda was born in Kentucky in approximately 1842.  She possibly met Madison Thomas after the Civil War and they were married.  Their first child, William was born in 1867.

Newton Daily Republican, 10 December 1892.

Madison Thomas: “The Price Paid”

Born a slave in about 1829 in Virginia,  little can be pieced together about Madision Thomas’ life. A small notice in the Newton Kansan for July 18, 1907 notes:

“Thomas is at present time 86 years of age and is growing feeble but at one time he was evidently a good man as the price paid for him was 1200 dollars.” 

The article also describes Thomas’ bill of sale for a “negro slave . . .Madison Thomas . .  in Richmond, Va in the year 1858.” When the war broke out Madison enlisted in the Union army under General Thomas and “was given by his own master the bill of sale for his own body.”

Under the command of General Thomas, it is likely that Madison served with the USCT 1st Brigade (14,16,17,18,44) or USCT 2nd Brigade (12, 13,100) and which was raised in Tennessee. He was posted along railroads in 1864 and moved to Nashville with General Thomas to participate in the Battle of Nashville.

After 1911, Madison Thomas, former slave, Union soldier, laborer and Harvey County resident since 1880 disappears from the written record. While his wife, Matilda Thomas, is buried in Greenwood, there does not seem to be a record of his death or burial.

Sources & Notes

  • Thank you to HCHM Volunteer Damon Penner for his research on Madison Thomas’s Civil War record. (Any errors are mine.) Damon is a senior at WSU and is currently volunteering at HCHM working with the Civil War Pensions.
  • More on Juneteenth 
  • Newton Daily Republican: 1 July 1891, 7 January 1893
  • Newton City Directories: 1885, 1887, 1902, 1905, 1911.
  • U.S Census: 1880, 1900, 1910,
  • Kansas Census: 1895, 1905,

 

“There Remains One More Victory:” Mabel Hillman

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

“There are times when patriotic Americans feel that they are losing confidence in their country’s future . . . There remains one more victory, as important and far-reaching as any – the conquering of racial prejudice.” Mabel Hillman, May 22, 1900

NHS Class of 1900

Flipping through photos of early Newton High Senior classes, I became curious when I came across the Class of 1900 photo that included one Black woman.

Newton High School Class of 1900.

The studio photo did not come with identification other than the class of 1900.  Luckily, the 1904 Mirror, perhaps the first annual for Newton High School, listed all of the graduates from 1893 to 1904.

 

The Mirror, 1904

List of names for NHS Class of 1900

 

The class included some well known Newton family names – Axtell, Bretch, Caveny, Plumb and Reese.  Research narrowed the identity of the Black woman to Mabel or Mable Hillman.

Who was she? Could she be the first Black woman graduate of Newton High School?

Senior Class Day

The Evening Kansan Republican, 22 May 1900 reported on “Senior Class Day,”  which included  “lectures instead of the usual program of orations and declamations, the graduates ‘spoke their pieces.”  The room at the high school was deemed “too small” and the opera house management “donated the use of the house.”

The editor of the paper proudly proclaimed;

There is one institution in Newton of which the citizens are proud -the high school – and as a consequence, the house was well filled at 2:15 when the curtain rose.”

The program opened with a chorus “Joy, Joy, Freedom Today,” and A. Mabel Devlin, salutatorian, extended the  welcome.  She then “launched into the discussion of the question, ‘Why are there so few boys in the high school?’ ” Other students followed, some with serious subjects, entertainment and music.

“One More Victory”

One of the last speakers was senior, Mabel Hillman who “spoke for her race in ‘The Future of the Negro’ treating the subject in a rational manner” according to the reporter.

Miss Hillman began:

“There are times when patriotic Americans feel that they are losing confidence in their country’s future . . . There remains one more victory, as important and far-reaching as any – the conquering of racial prejudice.”

Following the opening, she recounted the ways in which,

 “the negro has played an important part in the crises of the nation. In the great wars he has been found trustworthy, brave and patriotic. . . He no longer considers himself the bone while the north and south are dogs fighting over him. But he needs the help, encouragement and guidance of the good people, and then with his own industry and skill, will he carve out his own future.”

Evening Kansan Republican, 18 May 1900.

She pointed out the many accomplishments already achieved from educational institutions, building projects and “one of the largest and finest farms in Kansas is owned by a negro.”

She closed with a story from the battle at San Juan Hill, “when the boy whose father fell at Gettysburg was by the side of the boy whose father wore the gray, and as they made that terrible charge a colored trooper crawled between them and they sacrificed in common for Liberty’s flag.”

She concluded, “in these shall he conquer. His future depends on himself, if he develop skill, intelligence and character.”

Of the speeches reported on for the article, the one given by Mabel Hillman received the most attention from the editor of the Evening Kansan Republican.

So, who was Mabel  (Mable) Hillman?

There are a few clues about her life in Newton as a student and activities following graduation.

School, Church & Clubs: Mabel’s Activities

In 1896, Mabel  attended Newton High school and during a Kansas Day Celebration she gave a presentation on “John Brown.”

Newton Kansan, 30 January 1896.

After graduation it did not take long for Mabel to find ways to be involved in her community. By the summer of 1900, Mabel, with her friend, Mrs. J. M. Gross, were “managers of the Busy Bee club.” The purpose of the club was to provide “excellent programs,”  a way for Black women to gather together and a benefit for the church. The gatherings were held in homes.

Evening Kansan Republican, 10 July 1900

During her time in Newton, Mabel was active in the C.M.E (Holsey Chapel) Church. In 1899, she with Lizzie Roland and Addie Webb gave “recitations” for the Christmas Program at the C.M.E. Church  in Newton.

A benefit concert was held at the opera house for the C.M.E. Church with “an abundance of vocal and instrumental museum, interspersed with recitations and other exercises”  in May 1902. Among the musical selections was a song “Every Race Has a Flag But the Coon” performed by Miss Hillman and chorus.***

Evening Kansan Republican, 16 May 1902.

A short time later the new C.M.E. Church on West 5th held a service of dedication. Miss Hillman gave the “Welcome to Our House of Worship” for the service.

N.U.G. Club

The N.U.G. Club was  formed in Newton in January 1901 “as an organization among the colored people for the study of current events and the literature of the day.”  In format, the club functioned much like the Ladies Reading Circle and other women’s groups popular in the early 1900s.  There were 12 members the first year including Miss Mabel Hillman and Mrs. J. M. Gross.

Weekly meetings were held in the homes of members. Opening consisted of a scripture reading followed by a program.  At a December 30, 1902 meeting, Mabel read one of Booker T. Washington’s addresses. There was then a general discussion on two topics: “Has the Negro as Many Friends in the North as in the South” and “Do you Think that Booker T. Washington Should Lead Us?”

February 1903, Mabel was elected president of the N.U.G. Club. During a farewell reception for Mrs. H. A. Abernathy, Miss Hillman is described as “the very worthy president.” 

A brief note in a September 26, 1903 report to the Evening Kansan Republican  described the most recent meeting of the N.U.G. Club with a discussion on “Home Culture”

. . . after which a dainty lunch was served, during which time, the president, Miss Mable Hillman, who will leave in a few days for California, was presented with a paper knife . . .as a token of their love and respect.”

Mabel Hillman had great concern for all aspects of the Black community in Newton. In addition to her work with women, she addressed a newly formed men’s group called the  “Newton Invincibles” before she left in 1903.  The purpose of the group was to work “for harmony and unity among the negroes of the city.”

In the fall of 1903, Mabel Hillman left for California.  She left behind a solid foundation for the N.U.G. organization within the Black community.  The N.U.G. Club continued into the 1920s as an organization.

Hillman Family

The Hillman family first appeared in the Kansas State Census for 1895 as living in Harvey County.

  • John Hillman, 49, born in Kentucky, a laborer
  • Cora Hillman, 47, born in Tennessee, a housekeeper
  • Lulu Hilman, 21, born in Kentucky
  • Mable Hillman, 17, born in Kentucky
  • Jessie Hillman, 5, born in Kansas

Only Mabel is identified has having attended school.

Voter Registration records indicate that  John Hillman, mid-40s to early 50s, lived at various residences, including 117 E 11th, in Newton 1888-1891. His occupation was listed as a laborer. After 1891, John Hillman does not appear in the local city directories, voter registration lists or newspapers.

In 1900, Mrs. Cora Hillman, housekeeper, age 50 is listed as living at 117 E 11th, Newton, Ks.

In 1922, a brief announcement appears in the Evening Newton Kansan announcing the death of Mrs. John Jackson’s stepfather, John Hillman. Mrs. Jackson’s given name was Lulu, likely Mabel’s older sister.   Two other daughters are listed; Mrs.  Spaulding living in Los Angeles and Mrs. Steele in Kentucky, possibly the younger two sisters, Mabel and Jesse.

Evening Kansan Republican, 14 January 1922

The short obituary for Mrs. Cora Ann Hillman in December 1933 notes that she was 84 years old and she passed away “at the home of her only child, a daughter, Mrs. J.J. Jackson of 119 East 12th.” No other relatives were mentioned in the notice.

Mrs. Lula (John J.) Jackson died in 1960 at the age of 87. At the time of this post, no further information on Mabel Hillman or Jesse Hillman could be found.

Notes:

**At this posting, what N.U.G. stood for has not been discovered. Contact HCHM if you know! Watch for future posts on this Harvey County organization.

***The song, “Every Race Has a Flag But the Coon” written by two white men, seems like a strange choice to perform. Even at the time it was written in 1902, it was considered offensive. Why it was sung at an African American church benefit concert is unclear.

****Was Mabel Hillman the first Black woman to graduate from Newton High School? The answer is a cautious – yes. There is always the chance that additional research will reveal an earlier graduate.

Sources

  • Newton City Directories: 1885, 1887, 1901-02, 1905, 1911, 1913, 1917, 1919, 1931, 1934, 1938, 1943, 1946
  • Kansas State Census, 1895
  • Mirror, 1904 NHS Annual, HCHM Archives
  • Voter Index Inventory, HCHM Archives
  • Newton Kansan: 30 Jan 1896,
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 22 December 1899, 25 December 1899, 18 May 1900, 22 May 1900, 24 May 1900, 10 July 1900, 11 August 1900, 13 September 1900, 24 December 1900, 27 February 1901,  27  March 1901, 22 April 1902, 7 May 1902, 16 May 1902, 7 June 1902, 30 August 1902, 30 December 1902, 18 February 1903, 21 March 1903, 25 March 1903, 30 March 1903, 2 September 1903, 5 December 1933, 6 December 1933.
  • The Topeka Plaindealer 6 April 1900, 14 September 1906.
  • “Cora Ann Hillman,” died 12/04/1933, Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks.
  • “Lulu Jackson,” died 11/20/1960, Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks

Harvey County’s Oldest Resident: Katie Vance

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

In 1922, Harvey County celebrated 50 years as a county. Efforts were made to recognize the “Old Settlers.” Lists with information on where the family  came from, the date they arrived in Harvey County, and what township they settled in. Local photographer, W.R. Murphy took studio photographs  of Old Settlers still alive which was included in the 1922 50th Anniversary Ed of the Newton Kansan. Descendants of deceased settlers could submit photos to be included in the issue.

One group of early settlers was not acknowledged included people of color.  Many Black families saw the opportunity to own their own land through the Homestead Act of 1862 and worked hard to achieve this dream in Harvey County.  Mary Rickman Anderson Grant with her husband and children were among Harvey County’s first Black residents, arriving in 1871. Others followed and made their lives in Harvey County, Kansas. The Vance/Brooks family also made Newton, Ks their home.

An “Aged Colored Woman”

In November 1902,   Katie Vance, an “aged colored woman,” died after living through one century and parts of two other. Her brief obituary reported that “she could recall incidents of the time of Washington and Jefferson.” Her age was estimated between 110 to 125 years old at the time of her death in 1902.

She was declared “the oldest person in the county . . . colored, who lives on West Fifth Street.” in 1899. At that time, the next oldest was 92 year old  Abraham Thiessen of Alta Township.

Newton Kansan, 23 June 1899

In 1901, the Evening Kansan Republican interviewed “the remarkable woman” and noted that “her faculties with the exception of that of sight, are but little impaired.” She was described as someone that  “has been known and respected by the colored people of the city and within the memory of nearly all of them she has been an old woman.”

“A Stately Mansion and Broad Fields”

She began life as a slave on a plantation in approximately 1779. Her earliest memories were of “a stately mansion and broad fields in Virginia.” She did not know her parents. For newspaper article she noted:

“Of her parents she knew nothing.  Her master and mistress, even if they knew, never deigned to enlighten her as to the whereabouts of her parents. . . she grew up. . . without a mother to love and watch over her.”

Throughout her growing up years, she “was employed in odd jobs about the house” along with a brother and sister.  She never knew what it was to not work. She recalled; “if caught with a book in her possession, she was soundly slapped and the book taken from her.”

“Toiled from Sunrise to Sunset”

Change came to Katie’s life when the daughter of the plantation owner married a man by the name of McQuery. Katie was given to the newlyweds and moved with the couple first to Charlottesville, N.C. and later Kentucky. At first her duties were as a nurse for the couple’s children. Once the children grew up, Katie went to work in the tobacco factory and corn fields “where she toiled from sunrise to sunset, day in and day out.”

After the “cruel separation in Virginia,” she never saw her brother or sister again.

At the end of the Civil War, Katie continued working hard. One possible glimpse into her life at this time comes from a complaint filed by Katie Vance on November 2, 1868 with the Mississippi, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office records, 1865-1872 against Jesy Bransfield for cotton owed to her. The cotton was  “released and turned over to the plaintive.”

Mississippi, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Report, 1865-1872.

Married twice, her second husband, Wilson Vance, was  also a slave on the McQuery plantation. She had four children that lived to adulthood, but by the time of the  1901 interview all had died. At that time, she knew of only one other living relative, a great grandson who was a railroad worker “out west.”

Several other “well known colored citizens of this city, were property of one Col. Elijah Sebree,” at a neighboring plantation, including  Abe Weston and Willis Brooks, future son-in-law, both of whom would make the trip to Kansas with the Vance family.

“Equal Opportunities”

In January 1880, Vance with 31 others, including Weston and Brooks, “emigrated to sunny Kansas, where the negro was given equal opportunities with the white man in the race of life.” Katie Vance was already an elderly woman “about ready to shuffle off this mortal coil”  at the time of the trip. When they arrived in Newton, the family consisted of Willis & Emily Brooks and a son, George Washington, and the elderly Wilson & Katie Vance. The Vance/Brooks family lived at 422 W 5th, Newton, Ks in a house described as a “shanty” for the next 20 years.

Wilson Vance died at the age of 105 in 1894. In 1897, the Vance’s remaining daughter, Emily, (Mrs.Willis Brooks) died. Willis Brooks remarried in 1898.   Following the death of her husband and daughter, Katie continued to live in the house with her 81 year old son-in-law, Willis Brooks and his second wife, Margaret Harding Brooks.

By the time of the Evening Kansan Republican interview in January 1901, Katie was completely blind “although her memory seems as active as ever.”

Evening Kansan Republican, 29 June 1901

Kate Vance died in November 1902. Her funeral was held at the 2nd Baptist Church, Newton, Ks where she was a member. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks.

Evening Kansan Republican, 28 November 1902.

The final clues to Katie Vance’s remaining family appear in the legal section of the Evening Kansan Republican 11 December 1903 announcing a Sheriff’s Sale of their property.  Willis Brooks died in July 1903. Although no obituary for Brooks was discovered, the Sheriff’s Sale lists George Washington and wife Clara Washington, possibly Katie Vance’s grandson, as well as Margaret Brooks, Willis’ second wife.

Evening Kansan Republican, 11 December 1903.

Sources

  • Katie Vance  complaint November 2, 1868 with the Mississippi, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office records, 1865-1872.
  • Newton Kansan, 23 June 1899, 1 August 1902.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 29 January 1901, 28 November 1902,  11 December 1903.
  • Newton City Directories: 1885, 1887, 1902. Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives, Newton, Ks
  • U.S. Census:
    • 1870: Trenton, Todd, Kentucky
    • 1880: Newton, Harvey County, Kansas
    • 1900: Newton, Ward 4, Harvey County, Ks
  • Marriage License Collection, Harvey Historical Museum & Archives, Newton, Ks, Groom Index.
    • Willis Brooks married Margaret Harding 3 November 1898