The first African-American graduate of Southwestern College, Elijah Pilgrim Geiger, has been buried with an unmarked grave since 1943. His new headstone will be unveiled in a special ceremony at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita.
Dawn Pleas-Bailey, vice president for student life at Southwestern College, has been on a journey of discovery for the past two years as she explored the life of Geiger. Her archaeological exploration has taken her to four states and brought her back to an unmarked grave in Wichita.
“This headstone has been made possible by the contributions of Southwestern College’s alumni, current students, staff, and friends,” says Jessica Falk, director of development at Southwestern.
Geiger enrolled in Southwestern College in September 1892 only seven years after the college had been founded as the South West Kansas College. His calling to the ministry did not lessen during his college years and he frequently preached, usually at the local African Methodist Episcopal churches.
During his last year in college, he was unanimously elected as literary speaker (president) of the prestigious Athenian Society, the first African-American elected to such a position. He graduated from Southwestern College (with honors) in 1899 and was described as “one of the truest, most faithful and hard-working students that we have ever had.”
Starting in 1917, Elijah began his most prominent position at Fifteenth Ave. Methodist Episcopal Church in Wichita (now known as Saint Mark United Methodist Church). Although he was only at this position a year, Geiger:
- Eradicated the long-standing building debt ($400). The church celebrated in a mortgage burning ceremony on March 22, 1918.
- Led the Ministerial League of Wichita.
- Served on the committee that organized the Emancipation Rally on Sept. 20, 1920, in Central Riverside Park. The featured speaker was the Honorable George L. Vaughn, orator, lawyer, and civic leader from St. Louis, Mo. Vaughn spoke to thousands about historic and political significances of African-Americans.
- Was featured in the book “Colored Girls and Boys Inspiring United States History,” and “A Heart to Heart Talk About White Folks” by William Henry Harrison Jr. He was described as one of the African-American ministers in the United States whose “immense congregations are ministered unto by their spiritual leaders, who are also Sunday after Sunday calmly pacifying and patiently advising their congregations in order to keep them on peaceful and frictionless relations (without sacrificing their citizenship rights) with the white people with whom they daily come in contact.”
- Described in the Oct. 20, 1920 edition of the “Wichita Negro Star’s” society and personal column as “arousing great interest in this section of the city in his church.”
- Mentored Southwestern College students, Leroy Moore and Ambrose Price Woodard. Moore, the first African-American athlete at SC and will be inducted into the SC Athletic Hall of Fame on Oct. 22, went onto to receive his master’s and doctorate in chemistry at the University of Kansas and had a successful career as professor and dean at Langston University and Texas College. Woodard went on to a career as a lawyer and civil rights speaker and his son, A. Price Woodard (born in Winfield), was an attorney and the first African-American mayor of Wichita.
After serving Fifteenth Ave. Methodist Church for five years as pastor, Geiger served the Methodist Episcopal Church for two more years before withdrawing in 1923. He settled in Sapulpa, Okla. He made occasional trips to Wichita to preach.
He became seriously ill Aug.18, 1939 and died a few years later on March 27, 1943. His funeral was held at Saint Mark on April 16, 1943, and was attended by many older members of the church. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Wichita at Maple Grove Cemetery.
“Researching his (Elijah Pilgrim Geiger) life has been fascinating in discovering the past, but also reignited my pride in being a Moundbuilder,” says Pleas-Bailey. “His journey encourages me to strive toward my goals.”
For more information, contact Pleas-Bailey at (620) 229-6336.