Wichita State News
Photo: Lainie Rusco
Robert Weems, a history professor at WSU, is documenting the history of African American businesses in Wichita.

African American business history is the focus of WSU project

Friday, May 31, 2013

Robert Weems worries that the history of African American businesses in Wichita may someday be lost forever. That’s why he’s made it his mission to document all that he can.

Weems – the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State – is coordinator of The Wichita African American Business History Project.

The goal of the project, which he has worked on since coming to WSU in 2011, is to document the role of business and entrepreneurship in the development of Wichita’s African American community.

Weems has been conducting interviews and collecting related historical artifacts. When completed, he hopes to have recorded the history as spoken by 50 to 75 people. The interviews and artifacts will be housed in Ablah Library’s Special Collections at WSU.

“My interest in undertaking this project is linked with my research in African American business history,” Weems said. “This aspect of the African American historical experience remains one of the most understudied.”

‘Come and gone with barely a trace’

As late as the 1960s, there were 50 viable African American insurance companies in the United States; today there are two. Even more telling, Weems said, is that only four African American-owned insurance companies have had their histories documented in book-length manuscripts.

“It appears that this important phenomenon related to African American history has come and gone with barely a trace of its existence,” he said.

Based on those national statistics, Weems is determined to document the history of African American enterprise locally.

Weems said the information he gathers will be an archive of materials that students and other scholars can use as a resource for future research papers, articles and books.

Some of the people Weems has interviewed include U.L. “Rip” Gooch, whose Aero Services Inc. was a pioneering fixed-based operation; Charles F. McAfee, a world-renowned architect based in Wichita; the recently-deceased Eugene “Genie” Jackson, whose grandfather Abner B. Jackson Sr. started Jackson Mortuary in 1926; Frankie Howard Mason, whose mother Xavia Howard was the first Afican American woman in Kansas to hold a dual license as a funeral director and embalmer; and Robert Alford, whose Wichita lighting company was the first business of this type owned by an African American in the United States.

“In the end, my methodology of conducting individual interviews, along with gathering pertinent business artifacts, should result in a database of materials that will be both useful to students and scholars, as well as help document an important aspect of Wichita history,” Weems said.

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Created on Friday, May 31, 2013; Last modified on Friday, June 07, 2013