May 28, 2014

Wichita couple among Maya Angelou’s longtime friends

Maya Angelou was a frequent presence in Wichita, where she established a lifelong friendship with George and Emalyn Rogers.

Maya Angelou was a frequent presence in Wichita, where she established a lifelong friendship with George and Emalyn Rogers.

“She called me brother. I called her sister,” George Rogers said Wednesday. “That was the way we were.”

He and his wife named one of their daughters Maya.

George Rogers and Angelou met in 1968, before her best-selling book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” was published.

He had gone to live briefly in Alabama. She was the western regional coordinator for Martin Luther King.

“I was fortunate to hear her,” Rogers said. “A friend introduced us and we got to talking and so forth. She told me she was scheduled to make a presentation in Wichita a few months later.”

When she came to Wichita, Rogers followed up on the friendship and through the years, they always kept in touch. He said he last spoke with Angelou on Friday to finalize plans for a July visit.

In 1996, when a library in north Wichita was about to be named for her, she told The Eagle: “I had wonderful times in Wichita.”

She talked of her visits to the old Zanzibar Club on 13th Street.

During the 1970s and early 1980s she visited Wichita regularly. She participated in a Forum Board Lecture at Wichita State University in November of 1973. During the spring of 1974, she was a Distinguished Professor of Minority Studies, according to records from the special collections and university archives of the WSU Libraries.

She also visited area churches and schools.

By then, Rogers was the founder of the minority studies department at WSU. When she came to Wichita, she would stay with the Rogers and his family.

“Maya was the most total human being I ever met in my life,” Rogers said. “She was very blunt. She was simply straightforward. She valued integrity and honesty and under no circumstances tolerated any kind of bigotry on anyone’s part.”

In 1994, she canceled a speaking appearance at Emporia State University when her limousine was surrounded in Topeka by Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who taunted her with anti-gay remarks.

She called Rogers and told him what was happening.

“I was on my way up there,” said Rogers, who is a former Wichita City Council member. “Maya believed in resolving problems without violence. If folks were violent and raving, she was not going to stay around.”

Through more than four decades of friendship, Rogers came to know Angelou as a fabulous cook.

“She could cook anything. She didn’t mess with no seasonings,” he said.

When Oprah decided to celebrate Angelou’s 70th birthday, she invited the Rogerses and 150 other guests on a week-long cruise with Angelou.

“Every five years Oprah always did a big birthday party for Maya, and we’d always be invited,” he said.

On Wednesday morning, Rogers was on a list of people Angelou requested be called and notified of her passing.

“She had continuity,” he said. “How she talked was the way she lived.”

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