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.”


*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.


  • 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.

“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.


**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.


  • 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