Brendon Fox, left, and Dawn Pleas-Bailey unveil a headstone for Elijah Pilgrim Geiger. Geiger was the first African-American graduate of Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan. Photo courtesy of The Wichita Eagle/Jaime Green.
The first African-American graduate at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., was a faithful man of God, who gave his life to church ministry. Seven decades after his death, the Rev. Elijah Pilgrim Geiger and his unmarked grave have received the recognition they deserve.
"He was a good and faithful man," said Dawn Pleas-Bailey, an expert on Geiger, at an Oct. 16 ceremony honoring his life. "And when he died ... they gathered just enough money to get him up here and to bury him. Folks didn't have any money, and he didn't have any children. And for 68 years and six months and one day, nobody remembered. He had given his life to the Lord and nobody remembered. But look at this day!"
United Methodist-related Southwestern College, along with St. Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita and the Kansas West Annual (regional) Conference, worked together to give Geiger the recognition and a headstone to signify his burial spot.
In the dedication service, attended by a few hundred people, United Methodists and others from across the state honored Geiger and unveiled the burial marker.
Geiger was born a slave in Sumter County, Ala., in 1864. After moving to St. Louis in 1890, he became a minister to several small African Methodist Episcopal churches. He enrolled at Southwestern College in 1892 and graduated with honors in 1899. During his studies at Southwestern, he was the first African-American man elected president of the prestigious Athenian Society.
In 1917, Geiger began preaching in Wichita at what is now St. Mark United Methodist Church. Geiger was also active in the Wichita community as leader of the Ministerial League of Wichita and one of the organizers of an Emancipation Rally in 1920. As pastor, Geiger mentored Ambrose Price Woodard, who later became a famous lawyer and civil rights activist. His son, A. Price Woodard, became Wichita’s first African-American mayor.
After serving five years at the church, Geiger moved to Oklahoma. He died March 23, 1943, and his funeral was April 16 at St. Mark. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Wichita’s Maple Grove Cemetery.
Pleas-Bailey, vice president of student life and special assistant to the president at Southwestern College, said Geiger was described as “one of the truest, most faithful and hard-working students that we have ever had.”
She reminded her students that if a black man coming from slavery in Alabama could make it through college so successfully, anyone could. “If he can do it, what excuse do you have?” she asked.
“My knowledge of him shows me that I have it easy,” said Alejandro Fernandez, a Southwestern student who attended the service. “He went through a lot to get where he did, and I pretty much was given this opportunity. So, it makes me want to work hard because I want to show that I can graduate like he did.”
“It’s very inspirational to all people, especially to me being an African American, to see how he went through adversity and still came out on top and left a legacy,” said Anjaih Clemons, a Southwestern student who works in Pleas-Bailey’s office. “I think it gives hope to a lot of individuals, especially minority individuals.”
Pleas-Bailey organized the event recognizing Geiger. She began researching Geiger’s life more than a year ago and since then has spent much of her time telling his story.
A headstone signifies the burial spot of Elijah Pilgrim Geiger. Photo courtesy of Dawn Pleas-Bailey.
Lavonta Williams, Wichita's vice mayor, declared Oct. 16 “Elijah Pilgrim Geiger Day” in the city.
"I think that it is all our responsibility to keep giving back," Williams said in an article in the Wichita Eagle. "He gave to us. I stood on his shoulders. It is up to some of you to stand on our shoulders now and continue this legacy."
Southwestern was chartered in 1885 and recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. The Rev. Kendal Utt, district superintendent of the Kansas West Annual (regional) Conference, said he thought the dedication service was “a tremendous exclamation mark” on all the celebration events that have occurred throughout the year.
Utt said uncovering Geiger’s story allowed Southwestern to continue its “tradition of being a pioneer in offering a place for all people to come and get an education, regardless of where they come from or who they are.”
Pleas-Bailey said part of her job involves community engagement in urban areas. She said she works mostly with first-generation, low-income minority students, trying to convey the power and importance of education.
Pleas-Bailey said she thinks Geiger’s life shows that since its beginning, Southwestern has maintained a mission of helping disadvantaged people.
“I couldn’t even sleep that night,” Pleas-Bailey said, reflecting on the dedication service. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. It felt like his spirit was there. Every once in a while, you do the right thing for the right reason, and people care about it.”
Learn more about the Black College Fund, which supports United Methodist-related historically Black colleges.
*Snell is a United Methodist Communications intern and a senior at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.