A Progressive Kansan: James M. Gross

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

The 1880s in Newton were filled with optimism and incredible growth. Main street was filling in with buildings and new businesses.  Businessmen were busy with real estate and building a modern progressive city. They were eager to push away the reputation of the 1870s and “Bloody Newton” and replace it with “Progress and Prosperity.”

Perhaps this thriving community was what drew thirty-one year old James M. Gross and his wife, Frances,  to Newton in approximately 1884* to establish a barber shop.  No doubt James and Frances were also looking for a good place to raise a family. The couple’s first child, Carl J., was born on October 7, 1885 in Newton. By 1888, James had joined his brother, George, in the barber shop business.  Throughout the next thirty-three years both James and Frances  were active leaders in Newton’s “colored” community.

Arcade Depot and Hotel at Fourth and Main, Newton, Kansas, ca. 1900.

James & Frances Gross

James was born on December 25, 1866 near Lexington, Mo. In 1883, he moved from Missouri to Ottawa, Kansas where he learned the barber’s trade. Perhaps to apprentice, he spent a year with Dan Lucas of Kansas City. Once in Newton he worked with his brother for a number of years. By 1900, he was the sole propietor of the barber shop and the Evening Kansan Republican noted, “he has made his business a financial success.” and is known as a “progressive Kansan.”

The Topeka Plaindealer, 13 December 1912.

James M. and Frances Gross were married 12 June 1894 in Buchanan, Missouri.** Frances also known as Fannie was born in 1863 in Christian, Kentucky, to Loyd and Melonia Clements. Frances was previously married to a man named Ben Morrow.

Arcade Barber Shop

In Newton, James opened his own barber shop in the newly rebuilt Arcade/Santa Fe Depot building in May 1900.

Arcade Hotel & Santa Fe Depot, 1905.

Evening Kansan Republican, 15 May 1900

Always looking for ways to impove his services, in the spring of 1901, Gross annouced that he had “added an adjustable chair for children to his barber shop.”  At the state level he had the respect of both Black and white barbers. Gross was a charter member of the Kansas State Barber’s association No. 6 of Newton. The organization had a membership  of twenty, seventeen of whom were white. He was elected treasurer and later,  secretary for the organization.

Both the Evening Kansan Republican and the Topeka Plaindealer agreed;  James “conducted the leading tonsorial parlors of the city . . . he is held in the highest estem by the businessmen of his town.”

“One of the Leads in Society”

Both James and Frances were active members in the Black community, locally and at the state level. James was a writer for the Topeka Plaindealer, a newspaper run for and by the Black communities in Kansas and printed in Topeka.

Locally, he was active in the local Fred Douglas literary society, serving as president in 1900. The group of men met to discuss various issues of concern or interest to them.  At their December 1900 meeting, papers were read and then a discussion was held on the topic, “That the Negro has a better right to this country than the Indian.” 

Frances was described  as “his cultured wife . . . one of the leads in society and church circles”  with her “winning way and sweet disposition.”  She also was involved  in several local women’s group including  N.U.G, which seemed to function much like the all white Ladies Reading Circle, Unic Octon Club,  and the Colored O.E.S. Almond Chapter 27  where she served as Worthy Matron in 1920-21.***

Both James and Frances were heavily involved in their church. At a benefit in 1902, James “made a fine Uncle Rufus or ‘Ole Man’.” A short time later, the paper reports that James’ performance of  I’ve a Longing in My Heart for You  “brought the house down.” He also served as  Sabbath Superintendent for the A.M.E. Church.

Frances apparently also had a mind for business and the Topeka Plaindealer, May 1901,  noted she was James’ “peer as a financier and manager in church work. If lawful I would have her for a steward instead of a stewardess.”

The Topeka Plaindealer, 22 May 1901.

“A Delightful Lawn Party”

The couple frequently entertained in their home. In April 1900, they held a welcome to Newton party for Frances’ younger brother, Jesse, which included games, music and “a fine supper.”

Evening Kansan Republican, 28 April 1900.

Later that same year, they hosted  “a delightful lawn party” for their out-of-town guests, P.J. Morrow and his wife, at their home on east 4th. “Excellent music was furnished by Messrs. Hamilton and Robinson of Wichita and it was of a very high order.” Morrow was likely a relative of Frances’ first husband, Ben Morrow.

“Most Prominent Colored Citizen”

In 1909, James sold the Arcade barber shop to G.A. Tong. In the announcement to the paper,  he noted he plans to remain in Newton, but wanted to make a trip to the Pacific coast.  In July 1909, he accepted a position as a Pullman porter. His “run” was between Newton and Amarillo.

James and Frances were living at 511 east 8th with their son, Carl and his wife Canilla Gross in 1918.

Newton City Directory, 1918-1919.

One year later the Evening Kansan Republican on May 16, 1919 carried the sad announcment that at 3:30 in the afternoon James Gross, “one of the most prominent colored citizen of Newton” had died from stomach cancer.

He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks.

Describing James M. Gross, the Topeka Plaindealer noted; “He was well respected by all who know him as a man devoted to his family and race.”

Notes

*Gross’ Obituary gives the date 1897 for his arrival in Newton. This is likely an error in printing, as census and newspapers have the family in Newton Ks by 1885 when Carl was born.

**Frances Clements Morrow Gross was previously married to a man named Ben Morrow. Some of his children also came to Newton at the turn of the century.

***In 1925-26 Carl J. Gross family moved to California and established a life there. There is no mention of Frances in the Newton papers after 1921. The location of her burial has also not yet been discovered.

Sources

  • Evening Kansan Republican:  1 May 1899, 12 Jan 1900, 15 May 1900, 25, 12 Dec. 1900, 29 April 1901, 9 Jan 1902,  4 Mar 1902, 8 April 1902, 17 May 1902, 23 July 1902,  1 September 1902, 18 Aug 1903,  26 Aug 1903,  29 Aug 1903, 18 Aug 1905, 25 May 1909, 30 July 1909,  16 May 1919, 5 Feb. 1920, 29 June 1921,  29 Dec 1921.
  • Newton Journal: 23 May 1919.
  • The Topeka Plaindealer: 1 June 1900, 2 Dec 1900,  1 Mar 1903, 13 Nov 1903, 29 July 1904, 2 Oct 1904, 3 Oct 1904,  2 Dec 1911, 2 Feb 1912, 9 Feb 1912 13 December 1912, 3 March 1916, 4 April 1919,  16 May 1919, 30 May 1919, 31 Oct 1919.
  • U.S. Census: 1870, 1900, 1910, 1930, 1940.
  • Kansas Census: 1915
  • Marriage Certificate for James M. Gross and Fannie B. Morrow, 12 June 1894, Missouri, County Marriage, Naturalization, and Courthouse Records, 1800-1991.

One Who Made A Difference

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

In the spring of 1985, 58 year old June Rossiter Thaw achieved one of her lifelong dreams as she walked across the stage at Bethel College to earn her bachelor’s degree in social work. The same spring, her son, Terry graduated from Newton High School.  The Thaw family had much to celebrate!

June Thaw spent her life in service to others.  Born in Newton on June 6, 1927 to Kean and Hazel Rickman Rossiter, June enjoyed helping people and throughout her life she did just that.

She graduated from Newton High School and at age 20 she married Booker T. Thaw on March 12, 1948. For awhile, her life was filled with raising a family, but she still found time to attend college classes, workshops and seminars. However, graduating with a college degree remained just out of reach.

Daughters Valerie & Heidi, and son, Terry.

June had a life philosophy that one never gets to old to learn something new and set new goals.  This was never clearer than after her husband, Brooker T., died in October 1980.  She decided that “school would be the perfect thing to help her put her life back together.”

After getting her degree, June worked as a social worker at Presbyterian Manor in Newton. She also was involved in many community organizations.  She worked with Catherine Westerhaus to found the Mid-Kansas Community Action Program. As part of her work at Mid-CAP, she was active in establishing a number of programs that are still needed today including Head Start, Meals on Wheels, as well as senior transportation and food stamp support.

Other projects important to June included hospice, domestic violence and voter registration.

June was named as one of “10 Who Made A Difference” in the March 28, 2005, Newton Kansan. Even at the age of 77, she did not let her age or physical difficulties get in the way of her work noting; “I still have stuff I want to do . . .I am not ready to die.”  In 2005, Rosa Barrera, then director of RSVP noted that June did not let her wheelchair stop her. Barrera noted; “Quite a bit of volunteer work gets done from her apartment. She phones all other seniors in the community to check on them.” At that point June had volunteered with RSVP for 5 years.

When asked to sum up her life in one word, June told the reporter; “Satisfaction. My peace with God is the main thing that keeps me going.”

June Thaw completed her life of service on December 16, 2007 at the age of 80. Throughout her life, she was definitely one who made a difference.

Sources

  • “Rickman Book” on loan from Karen Werner Wall.
    • Marriage License Booker T Thaw to June Sylvia Rossiter, March 12, 1948.
    • “Mother & Son are 1985 Graduates” Kansas State Globe: May 22-29, 1985.
    • Frey, Chad, “Women’s work helped many” Newton Kansan, 28 March 2005.
    • All photos courtesy Karen Werner Wall, “Rickman Book.”
  • “June Sylvia Rossiter Thaw Obituary,” Newton Kansan, 19 December 2007.

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,