Notable Alumni


On Tuesday, March 17, 2009 the 1939 national championship basketball team from Southwestern College was honored at the NAIA tournament tip-off banquet and awards ceremony at the Kansas City Convention Center Ballroom. Charles Grigsby '42, the final living member of the team, was honored during the ceremony.

Watch the video celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the 1939 Champions produced by Allegro Media for the NAIA below: (Flash 8 or higher required.)


Thoughts from the Hill
by Dawn Pleas-Bailey

This is the mysterious story of Elijah Pilgrim Geiger, the first African-American graduate of Southwestern College. As a college administrator for the past 17 years, I could share the stories of a multitude of SC graduates but Elijah’s story is captivating, not because of what is known, but because of what has yet to be discovered.

Elijah was born in Mississippi in 1870. He came to the Southwestern College in 1896 at the age of 26 and completed his studies in 1899. Through dogged determination, he became the first African-American graduate of the college. He went on to a successful career as a minister and preacher in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas. He died in 1943 and is buried in Wichita’s Maple Grove Cemetery. There is no tombstone to mark his grave. I know little about his life and nothing about his death. What did he look like? What were the other details of his life? Why did he come to south central Kansas? Why Southwestern? What church did he pastor in Wichita when he lived on Wabash Avenue? I have spent the last six months trying to uncover answers to these questions.

We begin our story at the turn of the 20th century, a tumultuous time. Southwestern College was in its infancy, having been founded only 11 years prior. It was a time of racial conflict with the prevalence of Jim Crow laws, race riots, and the influx of new immigrants from Europe. To counteract uncertainty, many Americans looked to place their faith into something larger than their current circumstance. Their answer was education. Like Elijah, they entrusted their future on the viability of a college degree. Southwestern College has aided that desire from its inception.

Elijah Pilgrim Geiger’s life could be seen as just another anecdote – no big deal. It happened often over 110 years ago. Some might contend that we need to focus on current issues. Who cares about some dead Southwestern alumnus? Moreover, who cares about the historical past of the college?

What a huge mistake. Elijah’s successful life based on a college education is vitally important. He is one of the millions of American success stories that were ignited through a college. I also believe the element of mystery makes this story compelling. His personal courage to attend Southwestern at a time when few blacks could even dream of, let alone afford, a college degree is inspiring.

I became a bold “Moundbuilder” archaeologist. I spent blissful hours in the library and searched through the school’s archives. I worked with archivists such as Jerry Wallace and Elise Eilts Blas. I found dusty documents. I hunted through cemeteries. I explored ancestral sites of the Internet. I explored Southwestern’s annals from 1885 to the present. I talked with SC alums about their recollections of the past. I even annoyed my family, friends, and President Dick Merriman about various research discoveries.

In my journey to uncover the story of Elijah Pilgrim Geiger, I uncovered a fascinating new side of myself.  Elijah’s life triggered a new avenue of learning almost 70 years after his death. Unfortunately in my zeal to uncover “the rest of the story”, I now have more questions than answers. But I also have unearthed new facts about the past of Southwestern College. Suddenly I was a student again.

In sharing my experience, I hope to unleash the bold “Moundbuilder” archaeologist in you. As the college celebrates its anniversary, it is the perfect time to learn about its historical past. I challenge you to dust off your old yearbook. I dare you to REALLY listen to the stories from your mother or Aunt Sadie. I encourage you to unpack those old boxes in the attic. It will unleash a historical spirit in you. I am eager to hear about your discoveries. And it is all due to the mysterious life of alums like Elijah Pilgrim Geiger.

(Dawn Pleas-Bailey is vice president for student affairs at Southwestern College. Thoughts From the Hill is a series in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the college, being celebrated in 2010-2011.)

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