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Western University

Western University students gather on the campus grounds circa 1923 to enjoy a music concert.

Eva Jessye was a popular spiritual singer and successful choral conductor in the 1920s and 1930s who began her career at Western University in Kansas. Jessye was one of a number of talented African American students who participated in the university’s Jackson Jubilee Singers in Quindaro, Wyandotte County. The music curriculum was one of many successful programs at the university, which drew students from around the Midwest and beyond.

The town of Quindaro, located near Kansas City and the Missouri and Kansas rivers, was a popular stop for African Americans traveling north from the South after the Civil War. Here they found a generally supportive community. In 1865 when Freedman’s University was founded, 429 African Americans lived in the area. Operated by Presbyterian minister Eben Blachley, Freedman’s struggled to find funds to survive. When Blachley died in 1877, the university closed. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church gave second life to the facility, reopening it in 1881 with the name Western University. The AME Church jointly operated Wilberforce University in Ohio for black students, among 13 others. Choosing the name Western based on its proximity to Wilberforce, the church followed Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute model with a curriculum of vocational training.

When Ward Hall was constructed in 1891, all members on the university’s board were African American. Western added theological courses to the curriculum and hired Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon as president. Vernon helped grow the university with the philosophy “to educate the head-hand-heart for the home.” By 1907 students displayed the unofficial school emblem—four-leaf clover with four Hs, a sunflower, and a gold center with the school’s initials—on their clothing.

Vernon’s goal was for graduates to be equipped with practical skills that would lead to employment. “We are of the opinion that in this day of competition and labor unions and stern demands,” Vernon said, “nothing will aid us as much as to prepare our youths to compete with
any in the world of skilled labor.”

The Kansas Legislature agreed to fund a $10,000 building in 1899 to house the new industrial department. This public-private partnership would continue throughout the remainder of the university’s history and place it at the center of political dealings. Western received funding in 1905 for the Girls’ Trades Building, in 1907 for the Boys’ Trades Building, and in 1909 for the girls’ dormitory.

As a result of the state funding, Kansas students received tuition discounts. Western’s 1916-1917 catalog listed enrollment at $8.50 per month for room and board; $1.50 in trade fees, Kansas students were exempt; $1 one-time entrance fee, and $1 gymnasium fee per semester. Laundry, textbooks, and uniforms were not included.

Western University’s renown grew after hiring Robert G. Jackson. A music major at the University of Kansas, Jackson built the music program at Western. After joining the university in 1902, Jackson created vocal, orchestra, and band programs. He formed the Jubilee Singers, which drew students like Jessye and Nora Douglass Holt. They gained national acclaim, performed in every state, at Chautauquas, and even traveled to Africa for a series of programs. By 1920 the music program maintained rigorous requirements with mandatory private lessons and practice of three-and-a-half hours per day.

A fire in 1924 severely damaged Ward Hall and the admissions began to decline. Further drops in state appropriations and private funding led to Western University’s closure in 1943.

Entry: Western University

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2010

Date Modified: February 2023

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.