First black grad of Southwestern college gets a grave marker after 68 years

10/16/2011 12:00 AM

10/16/2011 11:27 PM

There was a high-energy and high-praise service Sunday for a man whose grave went unnoticed and unmarked for nearly seven decades. The Rev. Elijah Pilgrim Geiger, who lived from 1864 to 1943 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Wichita's Maple Grove Cemetery, finally received recognition Sunday from a state, city and congregation grateful for how he lived his life.

In 1899, Geiger was the first African-American graduate of Southwestern College in Winfield. When he became minister of what is now St. Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita during the early 20th century, he mentored such people as Ambrose Price Woodard, who went on to have a famous career as a lawyer and civil rights speaker. His son, A. Price Woodard, was the first black mayor of Wichita.

"Because of people like Rev. Geiger, I was able to teach for 35 years and pass that learning on to others," Lavonta Williams, Wichita's vice mayor, told the crowd of several hundred people who gathered Sunday to honor Geiger.

Several people in the congregation at St. Mark shouted "Amen!" as Williams read a city proclamation recognizing Oct. 16 as Elijah P. Geiger Day.

"I think that it is all our responsibility to keep giving back," Williams told the crowd. "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."

Other city and state leaders included Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, and representatives from Southwestern College.

Since 1943, Geiger's remains lay in obscurity until Dawn Pleas-Bailey, vice president for student life at Southwestern College, began researching his past.

She discovered Geiger was born into slavery in Sumter County, Ala. His parents lived on a plantation with 77 slaves and 15 homes owned by Alexander Geiger. He was the third of 11 children.

In 1890 he moved to St. Louis and became a minister of several small congregations of African Methodist Episcopal churches.

Then, in 1892, Geiger enrolled at Southwestern College in Winfield.

In 1917, he began his ministry at Fifteenth Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Wichita, now St. Mark.

During his years in Wichita, he helped the church erase its mortgage debt of $400, led the Ministerial League of Wichita, served on a committee that organized an Emancipation Rally in 1920 in Central Riverside Park, and was featured in "Colored Girls' and Boys' Inspiring United States History and a Heart to Heart Talk About White Folks."

"He was a good and faithful man," Pleas-Bailey said. "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. There was no money for him. 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!"

Geiger received a standing ovation.

The minister also now has a tombstone recognizing his achievements as a minister and scholar, donated by Southwestern College's alumni, students and others.

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