The Riley County Historical Society, in response to a suggestion by Dave Baker, the director of the Douglass Center, offers this historical information about Manhattan’s early South Side.
The bulk of the research necessary for this article was collected by the Riley County Genealogical Society for its 2019 publication, “The Exodusters of 1879, and other Black Pioneers of Riley County, Kansas,” by Marcia Schuley and Margaret Parker.
Gerry Baker Walton wrote in 2008 about Manhattan’s early Black community. She said, “they came without money or education, but they came with a will to live better lives…. Men, women and children who settled in this town and put their blood, sweat, and tears into making this a better place than where they came from.”
Who was first to come? In 1968, Winifred Slagg, a former director of the Riley County Historical Museum, wrote that “EDOM THOMAS is said to have been the first …”.
Patricia J. O’Brien, after intensive research in 2011, identified the first Black citizen of Manhattan as OLIVER SIMMS.
Kevin Olson, in 2012, wrote that an early settler noted there were no African Americans in Manhattan in 1856 and Olson’s wide research led to the conclusion that “…the historical record does not note precisely when the first African American settlers arrived. (Although there were enslaved African Americans living in nearby Juniata and Ft. Riley before Manhattan was settled.)”
Schuley and Parker, in their genealogical research for their book, provided detailed research for Black Manhattanites who were heads of their households in the 1865 Kansas Census, and they list the earliest arrivals as OLIVER SIMMS, EDOM THOMAS, S. BROWN, J.S. THOMAS (a boy aged 16), and J. HENRY (a boy aged 10). This census information showed that Edom Thomas and Oliver Simms were both married, so their wives — ELIZA SIMMS and D. THOMAS — should also be counted among the first in Manhattan’s early Black Community.
And there were four Thomas children: daughter A. J. 16; son M., 13; son B., 8 and son ABRAHAM LINCOLN THOMAS, 2. These are the names as they were given in the 1865 Kansas Census report. This group of 11 individuals, then, could be considered the pioneering Black community members who helped build Manhattan.
S. Brown, J. S. Thomas, and J. Henry all lived in the homes of white families and their names did not show up in Manhattan records again. So, although their actual arrival dates are unknown, all the researchers agreed that the Oliver Simms and Edom Thomas families were truly pioneering settlers who lived next to each other on what was to become the 2nd block of Yuma Street. This may be considered the foundation of Manhattan’s South Side.
In 1865, Manhattan was a town with a population of 328. It was a community of settlers who were mostly transplanted from New England and Ohio, with a small downtown of a few stores and a hotel, several churches, and a newspaper. The Big Blue River ran right at the end of Poyntz and, in 1865, the railroad had not yet made it into town. Goods and people were hauled by ox cart or by using horse-power, so ferries were needed to bring people and provisions across the river. This provided jobs for strong and willing workers, both Black and white. A city school stood on often-muddy Poyntz Avenue at the corner of 9th street, and the new Bluemont College was on the far northwest side with classes into secondary school for those who met their requirements. This was the rapidly-growing city these first Black settlers called
home and it was Oliver Simms, Georgia born, who had the first recorded land ownership.
In May 1864, Oliver Simms married Eliza Mathews, who was born in Kentucky and had come to Kansas after a stay in Missouri. In September 1864, he bought a house and lot in Manhattan from Wm and Marilla Casterline for $300 at what would become 130 Yuma Street. In 1865, Simms listed his occupation as teamster and he then also owned the neighboring house, which he rented to Edom Thomas and his family. The Black community was growing and when the Second Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1866, it had 15 members and a frame church building at 6th St and El Paso.
Simms suffered a financial loss in 1866, when his rental house next door burned to the ground with a loss to all the contents — which means Edom Thomas and his family lost all their possessions. This disaster was reported in the newspaper with a plea of help for the family and a note that it was definitely time to establish a city fire department.
Oliver Simms played a role in organizing additional church services for the Black community in 1867: The Kansas Radical reported “Several colored citizens have manifested a deep interest in the religious awakening here, and service for their benefit will be held at the house of Oliver Simms a.t 3 o’clock p. m. on Sabbath. Brother B. W. Powers will conduct the service.” As the Black community continued to grow, several additional churches would later be organized.
The Riley County tax rolls showed that Oliver Simms paid his real estate taxes as well as a Poll Tax to vote. Simms had two real estate transactions in 1868: the sale of lot 64-1 for $200 and the purchase of 69-1 on Colorado Street for $75. Simms owned horses and he farmed. Where his farmed land lay was not included in the biographical sources mentioned, but perhaps it was simply the ground between Simms and the river. He subscribed to the newspaper, and several times he placed ads in it. In May of 1868 he asked for help:
STRAYED OR STOLEN From the subscriber in Manhattan, two bay horses; one a bright bay, about 16 hands high, star in forehead, blind in left eye, short mane and tail. The other a dark bay, heavy mane and tail, bad on a head stall. $25 reward will be paid for the recovery of the animals. OLIVER SIMMS. Manhattan, May 15th.
Oliver Simms sued Eliza for divorce in 1869, and their case was resolved by the judge in a Solomonic manner: it was granted providing they shared their house on lot 69-1 on Colorado St, now valued at $2,000. Eliza was awarded the west half and Oliver the east half. In the 1870 U. S. Census, both were living thus in the house. Oliver Simms, now 35, was head of household #190, dwelling #174 and his occupation was given as farmer with $1,200 in Real Estate and $400 in Personal Property. Eliza Matthews, 39, was recorded in the same residence (rather than as her own Head of Household, which she rightfully was) with $1,000 in Real Estate and $100 in Personal Property. Several other people also lived in this residence, one listed as working on the farm of Oliver Simons. (Spelling was variable for many names in those years).
Both Oliver and Eliza remarried in the next two years, Eliza in 1871 to Thomas Hill (who is first recorded in Manhattan in the 1875 census), a harness-maker born in Maryland, and Oliver in 1872 to Melvinia Beck, a native of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) who had recently come to Kansas. It appears Oliver and Eliza’s shared house arrangement was then no longer useful and in August 1871, Oliver sold his half of the real estate to Sallie Breakbill for $100. Eliza Hill, after bringing suit in 1872 against Sallie for the title, bought back Sallie’s share for $100. Eliza then owned the whole house and the 1875 census showed Eliza Hill owned the house and lot,
then worth $600, and had personal property worth $100 — but this information was recorded under her husband Thomas Hill’s name as Head of Household. Eliza also worked as a laundress.
Oliver Simms continued to engage in the civic life of his community, which was rapidly growing. By 1875, Riley County had a population of more than 7,000. Bridges were built over both the Blue and Kansas rivers and the area survived both earthquakes and a grasshopper invasion. In September 1879, the Manhattan Enterprise reported that Oliver Simms was one of the 40 delegates/alternates “entitled to seats in this convention” of the Anti-National Bank party, which was held at the Manhattan court house.
In 1880, Eliza and Thomas Hill were still living on Colorado Street, she still working as a laundress. She noted then she could not read or write. In 1881, Eliza and Thomas Hill left Manhattan and returned to Boonville, Missouri, Eliza’s old home before coming to Kansas, but they then came back to Manhattan. Staying only a short while, they again left Kansas and went to Denver, Colorado. However, in 1882, Eliza went back to Boonville alone and reported that her husband had disappeared; no one heard anything from him and he was presumed dead. Eliza Hill died March 31, 1884. Her estate was worth about $600 including $25 in cash, some personal property and the house and lot (Lot 69 Ward 1, the same one she had owned since her divorce from Oliver Simms), which was sold to Reuben Blood for $500.
Oliver Simms and his wife Melvina continued to live in Manhattan and, in the 1875 census, he gave his occupation as teamster. He owned $700 in real estate and $200 in personal property. Simms’ family then included Melvina, her son Daniel W. Beck, 11 (who had been born in Indian Territory) and the Simms’ 1-year-old son Joseph G. Sims.
Manhattan reached a population of 2,104 by 1880, enlarged by natural growth and the arrival of the Exodusters from the U.S. South after Reconstruction began. The 1880 census showed Oliver and “Lavina” had contributed to the population growth, enlarging their family with Sally 4, and Henry, 1. At that time Lavina’s son Daniel (Oliver’s stepson) worked as a laborer and still lived with the family, although he moved before the next census. In 1881, the Simms’s lost a child, as The Manhattan Nationalist reported that the “Infant child of Oliver Simms died February 4, 1881.” Little Henry was missing in the 1885 census, although whether he was the infant was not stated and no death record was found.
Oliver was farming in 1885 and Daniel Beck had moved to live with Debra Smith and her daughter Mana in the household of Sallie Fields. She had been Sallie Breakbill, but had gone back to the name of her first husband. Sallie’s story, like that of Edom Thomas and his family and many other early Black settlers, merits its own future article.
In 1886, lot 230-1 was in Oliver’s name and lot 231 was in Melvina’s, suggesting a change in their marital relationship. From 1887 to 1908, Oliver paid real estate tax on lots 230 and 231-1 and 232-1, all located on the north side of Pottawatomie Ave, from 3rd Street heading east. One of the lots, which had a small house on it, was owned by ‘Matoma’ Beck (Melvina Beck in a different spelling). This was another clue for the researchers that their relationship had changed as she reverted to her previous last name. No further records for Melvina Beck Simms were found.
Oliver Simms again married in April 1899 to Charlotte Small and things are not quite clear about his marital status after this, as the 1900 census shows Oliver reported himself as a widower living on Pottawatomie Ave. and Charlotte was not noted. Then in September 1902, The Manhattan Nationalist published a divorce notice for Oliver Simms vs. Charlotte Simms. Conjecture is that perhaps Oliver and Charlotte had separated, leaving Oliver alone but not actually a widower.
In any case, in 1909, all the lots were in the name of Debbie S. Geter, with Edmund Geter, and Sally M. Geter. A Manhattan Mercury article of April 2, 1904 explains these names and relationships: “Sallie Sims of Emporia is visiting her father, Oliver Simms and her aunt Mrs. Jeter.” In 1910, Oliver was still living on Pottawatomie. His son Joseph T. Simms became a barber in Washington state, was a noted member of the first Negro Masonic Lodge in Washington State, and was chosen to deliver the response to the welcome speech by the mayor of Yakima, Washington on the occasion of the convention of the Grand Masonic Lodge for the state of Washington in 1918.
Oliver Simms died April 22, 1911 after helping Manhattan grow from its frontier beginning to a city with a population of more than 6,000. By then, a depot was serving railroads on the south side of town, and the city went from dirt roads to more than 60 miles of paved streets, introduced a trolley system and automobiles, and boasted a big central city park with a golf course. He also would have seen the construction of a big new stone courthouse and the Carnegie Library.
Oliver Simms, Eliza Simms Hill and Melvina Simms and their families contributed to the pioneering spirit of Manhattan.
The Daily Mercury carried Oliver Simms’ obituary on April 24:
Oliver Simms, a well-known and much respected negro, died Saturday afternoon at his home near the Dewey stock yards. Mr. Simms was 75 years old and was born in slavery. He came to Manhattan shortly after the war and by hard work and good management accumulated a comfortable competence. He leaves two children, a daughter whose home is at Pittsburg, Kansas, and a son who lives in Seattle. The daughter attended the funeral which was held yesterday afternoon at the Second Baptist church.
(This article is one in an occasional series dedicated to the history of Manhattan and Riley County. Janet Duncan is a member of the Riley County Historical Society board. She believes all history is local until it is more widely known.)