Leonard Wesley, educator and civil rights leader, dies at age 79

07/23/2014 10:29 AM

07/24/2014 8:00 AM

Leonard H. Wesley, one of the architects of the Wichita school district’s integration plan, an avid NAACP member and one of the first African-American school principals in Wichita, died Sunday.

Mr. Wesley was 79 years old.

“His accomplishments were so important,” said Mark McCormick, director of the Kansas African American Museum. “He was the person blazing the trail for what we were trying to do so we could go to school together.”

A visitation will be at 6 p.m. Friday at St. Matthew CME, 841 N. Cleveland. A celebration of life service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at Tabernacle Bible Church, 1817 N. Volutsia.

Mr. Wesley’s legacy began with a dream from his grandparents and parents.

During the late 19th century, his grandparents were ex-slaves from Texas bound for Nicodemus – an all-black community in western Kansas – when their ox-pulled cart broke down north of Coffeyville. They were traveling with four other families and were forced to find work in order to pay for the broken axle, said Mr. Wesley’s brother, Clarence. The families ended up staying and forming a community north of Coffeyville.

Mr. Wesley was born May 9, 1935, in Sandy Ridge, about six miles north of Coffeyville. He graduated from high school in Coffeyville and Coffeyville Community College. At the community college, he became one of the first African-Americans to play baseball on an integrated team – but played on a segregated basketball team with hand-me-down uniforms.

He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Pittsburg State College, his master’s degree from Wichita State University and his doctorate in education from the University of Kansas.

He started teaching at Ingalls Elementary and then became assistant principal at Rea Woodman Elementary. He later became assistant superintendent of the Wichita school district.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 kicked in requiring schools to desegregate, the federal government threatened to withhold school funding from Wichita until a busing plan was proposed. Mr. Wesley was instrumental in writing the desegregation plan approved by the Office of Civil Rights in 1971.

He retired in 1995 after 37 years in the Wichita schools.

“I’ve made a good living in my life, but when I go to places and I am seen as a black man, I’ve still got to prove to people that I’m OK,” Mr. Wesley told The Eagle in May 1997. “That’s a vestige that we’re trying to eliminate in this society.”

In 2003, Mr. Wesley received the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award from the National Education Association for his work in helping to create awareness to eliminate racial inequities.

Mr. Wesley is survived by his wife, Betty; sons, Leonard H. Wesley II, Allan E. (Marisa) Wesley; brother, Clarence (Peggy) Wesley; sister, Helen Sanchez; and three grandchildren.

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