By Alissa Sheppard
After spending a lifetime of anonymity, Elijah Pilgrim Geiger is now a name that will never be forgotten. Amidst dancing and praising to the glorious sounds of gospel music, not only was it a celebration of life, it was a celebration of Southwestern College.
After seeing a class photo from 1921 with a single black man in it, Dawn Pleas Bailey, vice president of students, was sparked with interest. She questioned president Dick Merriman and asked if it was possible that the man in the photo was the first African-American to graduate from Southwestern. After Merriman’s unknowing response, Pleas-Bailey took it upon herself to find the answer. After a search spanning two years and four states, Pleas-Bailey found the answers to everything she was looking for.
Born into slavery in Alabama in 1864, Geiger was one of many children, but he was not like the others. He had a thirst for education, as well as a spiritual calling. In 1892 he moved to Kansas and attended Southwestern College, and was the fifth pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.
Geiger turned out to have the spirit of a true Moundbuilder, and Pleas-Bailey thinks the research she did in her spare time will open the eyes of many students and show them how hard this man worked, overcoming discrimination, segregation, and various other trials and tribulations, and still graduated. “As for the future of the college, I think Kansas will see how great of a school Southwestern is” said Pleas-Bailey.
Knowing that a person could overcome slavery and be the first black person to graduate from the school shows great determination. Lai-L Clemons, director of campus life and international students, said there is no excuse anymore. “If a man can be born a slave then graduate and live his life through the callings of God, then anyone can graduate and do what they want if they put their mind to it,” she said.
Righting a wrong is what Brendon Fox, SAAB director, calls it. “It did not make sense that this man, who was a good and faithful servant, did not have some kind of tribute for all that he had done” said Fox.
After Pleas-Bailey’s presentation last year, Fox and SAAB thought it would be a great idea to raise money for a headstone. The money came from many sources, alumni, faculty, and personal donations, as well as a major contribution from the United Methodist Conference, and then the headstone was purchased from S.I. Memorials of Wichita. “He was very worthy of a headstone, and he got what he deserved,” said Fox.
Not only does Elijah Pilgrim Geiger have a headstone, he now has a day that has been dedicated to him for his accomplishments. Lavonta Williams, vice mayor of Wichita, proposed a proclamation and deemed October 16th as Reverend Elijah Pilgrim Geiger Day.
Alissa Sheppard is a senior majoring in communication. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.