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2018, vol. 72

Exploring Race and Ethnicity in Western District History: Aug. 5, 2017

by John D. Thiesen

John Thiesen is archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives and co-director of libraries at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.

What I want to offer you this afternoon is not any kind of comprehensive account of the topic of race and ethnicity in Western District history. Very little research has been done on this, so what I want to present is several stories that I’m aware of, and questions that I don’t have answers to. I hope these stories and questions will spark some interest and thinking about this topic.

Here’s a photo of the 1896 General Conference session. [If some of you see where I’m going with this photo, don’t give it away yet.] This is not the Western District, but it was held at one of the flagship Western District congregations, Alexanderwohl near Goessel, Kansas. It looks like what you might expect from 1896. I don’t think there are any women on the photo, although there is at least one young boy. It’s basically a big group of white men, although I would put an asterisk by “white’ because many of these men were immigrants from eastern Europe and the broader society at the time would have viewed their Germanic languages and their eastern European customs with a certain amount of suspicion. This was especially the case a few years later in World War 1, when they were seen as potential enemies even though most of them had no connection at all to the political nation of Germany. In any case, this photo looks pretty routine. But then zoom into the center.

Here’s a Cheyenne or Arapaho man, attending the 1896 General Conference in Alexanderwohl church! I haven’t been able to find any written commentary on his presence at the conference. Presumably he was from Oklahoma. I could speculate that maybe he was Mower, a Cheyenne leader who was more friendly to Mennonite mission work than many others. But I would certainly like to know more.

This is a fairly obvious starting point: we today live on land that formerly belonged to a wide variety of Native American groups for thousands of years before the 16th century when Europeans arrived in the Americas in a big way (and when Mennonites originated in Europe).

This highlights that cross-racial and cross-cultural interactions were a part of Western District history before the Western District even started. The first Mennonite cross-cultural “foreign’ mission started in 1880 in Darlington, Oklahoma. Young Cheyenne and Arapaho people attended Mennonite schools with Germanic Mennonite fellow students, in addition to the specifically “Indian’ school that operated at Halstead, Kansas, for a few years. Several were baptized and were listed as members of the First Mennonite Church in Halstead.1 A good number of these students, such as Maggie Leonard, the first person baptized from this mission effort, were actually of mixed race, with ties to white, Hispanic, and black families in addition to their Native American ancestry. They were cultural mediators or (perhaps involuntary) bridge-builders.

Here’s the Bethel College all school photo for 1893-1894, the first year Bethel was in operation. Right there in the front row is Philip Rabbit, part of the start of Bethel College. He probably had already been attending the Halstead Seminary in previous years, before Bethel started. He was from Cantonment, OK, and died in 1931. But I don’t know more than that. I wish I knew more about him.

When Mennonite immigrants came to central Kansas in 1874, their presence there was a step removed from the Native American presence. The land was controlled by the railroad and the federal government and the former Wichita, Osage, Cheyenne, and Arapaho residents had been forced out to Indian Territory. But for Mennonites who, a generation later, moved to Oklahoma, the displacement was much more immediate. The land assigned collectively to the Cheyenne and Arapaho only 15-20 years earlier was now allotted to individual ownership and the majority of it not allotted was opened to non-Native settlers. So the new settlers, some of them Mennonites, now came to live in amongst the Native American groups from whom the land had just then been taken away. Some Mennonites even rented or leased land from Native American owners. There was much more of a personal, direct encounter than there was a generation earlier in Kansas. What were these Mennonites thinking? Did it not bother them that this land had been taken away from one group of people, with whom their church was doing mission work, and handed over to the new settlers more or less for free? It’s hard to answer this question. One could read through letters and diaries of the time, but, like now, most people would only reflect on immediate urgent matters and not step back for the bigger picture. Presumably most people simply thought, “Here is land the government has opened. We need land for our young people to live on. So we’ll go get some of the new land.’ If one reads extensively in the private writings of the mission workers, one can get a sense that some of them had a better concept of the injustices going on; one can find in private writings their comments about white unfairness and exploitation. But there was a dichotomy between their private and public writings. What the constituency wanted to hear about was saving souls, not about the injustice of Native life. And the mission board, standing between the missionaries and the broader Mennonite constituency, also thought more in terms of numerical success.

Mennonites also did mission work among the Hopi villages in Arizona, which is of course outside of the Western District region. But there were occasional contacts there also. In 1903 a Hopi man, Qöyawayma, who had become a friend of the Mennonite mission workers, paid a visit to central Kansas and visited in Western District churches and with Western District families.

Later, his daughter Polingaysi Qöyawayma (known as Elizabeth Q. White), graduated from Bethel in 1915. She became a significant Hopi writer and artist and is maybe the most famous student of color to graduate from Bethel.

The first African-American student that I know of at Bethel was Homer J. Church, in 1920. The same year there was a student Geneva Mercomes, also African-American. Both were from Newton. I’m not certain these were the first African-American students because it appears that a student’s race was often not recorded. There is no notation for Philip Rabbit, for example. Homer Church has an annotation “colored’ in his permanent academic record file, but Geneva Mercomes doesn’t. So it would take some extensive research to determine for sure who the first African-American student was. What’s interesting is that Bethel had African-American students two generations earlier than other Mennonite colleges. My understanding is that the other colleges didn’t get students of color until the 1940s, but I could be mistaken about that.

Several other members of the Mercomes family went to Bethel. The Rickman family of Newton was also represented. One of the most famous African-American graduates of Bethel was Ruthabel Rickman, who had a prominent career as a choral director at Texas Southern University. She graduated in 1941.

Bethel’s racial diversity increased significantly starting in the 1950s and 1960s.. There were a number of prominent Native American graduates, such as Lawrence Hart, one of the Western District’s elder statesmen. Bethel had an exchange program with Spelman College from 1959 to at least 1964. I’m not sure exactly when it ended.

The town of Newton had a Mexican-American presence starting around 1905 as people were drawn to railroad work. Newton was a major railroad hub in those days and had more of an urban atmosphere than it does today, with many passenger trains per day, and unionized industrial workshops. 

Apparently about 1912, Bethel College students got involved in activities with children at what they called the “Mexican camp’. “Alli en el ranchito’ its residents said.2 It seems that students, and possibly also members of First Mennonite Church in Newton, ran a Sunday school and also gave some material aid, such as gifts at Christmas. Apparently this work ended by 1924 because of greater involvement by the Catholic parish in the ranchito community.3 As someone who grew up with one foot in the Catholic world, this has always made me uncomfortable  - the idea that Catholic people need to have “mission’ done to them. Helping with material needs is one thing, but the Sunday school implies that these people need “saving.’ One might note that there was no attempt to do Sunday school for white Catholics in Newton.

If we get into the 1930s, we’re in the era of the rise of Nazism. This is an area that I’ve done some research in, and much of the story here has to do with Mennonites elsewhere in the world than the southern Great Plains. Two specific stories to mention here:

John R. Thierstein became editor of the General Conference paper The Mennonite in 1937. He was an immigrant from Switzerland (not Germany) to Kansas in the 1880s and became a teacher of German. He taught at Bluffton and then came to Bethel in the 1920s. Thierstein had experienced hostility during World War 1 as a teacher of German language, even though he had nothing to do with Germany as a political entity, and he reacted in the 1930s by writing defensive articles against public criticism of the new Nazi Germany, thinking that it was just another round of the anti-German bigotry he had seen in World War 1. He died in 1941 before he could see the end result.

Mennonites in Kansas broadly supported a radio evangelist from Wichita, Gerald Winrod. Winrod promoted Jewish conspiracy theories as part of his evangelistic work. His magazine was printed on the same presses as the Mennonite Weekly Review during this time, and he spoke in Mennonite churches. Winrod ran for the US Senate in 1938 and, although he lost the primary, the majority of Mennonite voters apparently voted for him. He got 90% of the vote in the Goessel area, for example. Winrod seems to have done well in precincts where either the Mennonites or the Klan were prominent. Winrod eventually was tried for sedition in 1944.4

A well-known aspect of the World War 2 era in the United States is the internment of Japanese persons, including US citizens born in the United States. There was one internment camp in the Western District region, at Granada, Colorado. In the 1944-45 school year, Bethel had 3 US born students of Japanese ethnicity. They were from Seattle originally and had been put in a camp in Idaho. There was some kind of arrangement by which they could be released to go to college and somehow they ended up at Bethel, where they were given free tuition.5 These were not the first Asian students at Bethel (there were Chinese students in the 1930s), but maybe they were the first US students of Asian background.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement had some resonance in the Western District. Prominent leaders came to speak at Bethel and often spoke in other Western District congregations: Bayard Rustin in February 1950,6 Vincent Harding in 1957,7 Martin Luther King in January 1960 (he stayed at the parsonage of the Bethel College Mennonite Church in order to avoid racist encounters in town), C. T. Vivian in 1964. There might have been other such speakers.

Some Western District church members were involved in desegregation efforts. One the most well-known events, at least to me, was the Guest House restaurant in Newton. In 1957 J. Winfield Fretz the owner and Jim Rutschman the manager de-segregated their restaurant, the first to do so in Newton. Newton was an industrial railroad town and restaurants along Main Street had railroad passengers and railroad employees as customers. Under pressure of local custom, the Guest House had served non-white customers unobtrusively. Apparently most Main Street businessmen knew that the time for such de facto segregation was over but everyone was afraid to be the first to break the rules. So Fretz and Rutschman did so, serving all customers openly through the front door, apparently without too much backlash.8

Other Mennonites in Newton, such as the Platt family, had been involved in desegregation efforts. But this is an under-researched story.

There were trips by Bethel faculty and students to civil rights in the South. For example, a group of 25 went to the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.9 There were probably also similar trips by other Western District people, but again this is under-researched.

There were also most likely civil rights and inter-racial activities by Western District people in the major urban areas such as Kansas City, Wichita, and Oklahoma City. Again, not much has been put together about this.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the “Fresh Air’ program brought African-American youth from urban areas to spend time with Mennonite families in the Western District region during the summer. It seems like this was based on pretty naive assumptions about the home environment of the children and about the rural Mennonite environment. The Fresh Air program was a larger national program, not something invented by Mennonites. Clearly some of the children and some of the host families enjoyed these events. Others had more negative experiences. I have no idea of the total numbers involved for the Western District.10

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many churches worked with sponsoring Southeast Asian refugees. The phrase “boat people’ was sometimes used. I assume that at least a few of these families remain in contact with some Western District churches. This is something that hasn’t really been researched.

From here on, my information really becomes list-like. I find various references but I don’t know many of the stories behind the list items without a lot more detail work. A lot has happened in the last 40 years. My list serves to highlight that there are a lot of little-known stories.

- In 1980 there is mention of Hispanic work in Liberal by Leoncio and Dominga Gutierrez.11 There is also mention of Ernst Harder doing Hispanic work in Dallas12

- The Home Mission Committee was looking at Chinese work in Denver and Houston in 198013

- In 1982, Antonio Arevalo from Bogotá starting a new church in Dallas.14 There is also mention of George and Margaret Ediger in this connection15, apparently there were 2 projects, south Dallas and east Dallas16

La Communidad de Esperanza (east, Edigers) joined WD Oct. 199217

La Iglesia Cristiana de Dallas joined WD in 198818

- Chinese church starting in Houston 1983, led by Peter Lin from Taiwan, joined in 1985. 19

- San Antonio Hispanic Fellowship joins 198420

- In the 1980s people in WD congregations worked with Central American refugees, the “Overground Railroad’

- A prominent Asian-background church in these years was the Eng-Ho church Topeka 1986-1993, earlier in El Dorado. Aaron Wen from Taiwan is mentioned for this group21. As I understand it, this group eventually ended as people moved out of the WD area for jobs and other reasons.

- There was contact with an Ethiopian fellowship in Houston 1996-200022 made up partly of people who had been members of the Meserete Kristos church back in Ethiopia.

- There was a Hmong church Arvada 1994-97, charter June 8, 1997, joined WD in 1998.23 With the area conference reorganization in about 2005, this group went to the new Mountain States conference.

- Luz de Evangelio in Dallas, Job Martinez, joined in 199724

- Iglesia de Fe y Esperanza, Montezuma, KS 1997-199925

- Iglesia Cuerpo de Cristo in Ferris, TX, Julio Dueñas, in 199826

- Hope church in Waco, bi-lingual, joined in 199827

- Vietnamese church Houston 199928

- Marco Guete starts as assoc. conf. minister Oct. 1, 2000 out of Dallas, succeeding Frank Keller29 This would be the first time WD had persons of color on long-term staff, as far as I know.

- 2001, San Antonio church, Blanca Vargas30

- 2001, Many Peoples starts in Dallas, intentionally multi-cultural31

- 2003, Houston Hispanic project led by Alberto and Aurora Parchmont, Casa del Alfarero32 (online story)

- 2004 Hugo Saucedo named conf. youth minister based in Texas33

- 2004 Casa de Dios church plant in Garland, TX, Natividad Hernandez and Felix Marquez34

- 2004, mention of Sembradores de Buenas Nuevas, north Dallas; Comunidad de Vida, San Antonio (see story online); Monte Horeb, Dallas35

- 2005, House of Healing bilingual group in Dallas36

- Gilberto Flores starts as assoc. conf. min Feb. 1, 200937

- 2009 we hear about Iglesia Menonita Mi Redentor, Dallas; Casa Betania, Newton (see online story); Nueva Jerusalen, Pasadena, Tex.38

- 2011, Hispanic effort in Wichita, Jerry Acosta, Manos de Cristo, later name Aposento Alto Iglesia Menonita - Byron Pellecer39

- 2012 Iglesia Camino de Santidad joins, Liberal, KS40

- 2012 Chin Emmanuel Church, Houston41

- 2016, Camino Nuevo, Dallas, Antonio Caceros42

Some of these groups didn’t continue or didn’t stay with Western District. We shouldn’t see these cases as failures. Presumably, while they existed they provided a valuable place of belonging to the people who participated.

The question that interests me, behind the list, is how did these many people come to see the Western District as a good place to be? How did they find this to be a good fit? How do we all fit together?


- Miguel Almanza 1962 grad, later taught art for several years

- people brought in by GC offices: Hubert Brown, Marco Guete, Gilberto Flores, Hector Valencia

- Prairie People, 1981, list of churches on pp. 434-438 doesn’t list any Hispanic churches, but the Indian churches are listed.

- fall 2001 minutes, reports, directory; list 1 Hmong church, 4 Cheyenne/Arapaho, 5 Hispanic, 1 “intentionally multi-cultural’; out of 76 total congregations (some overlap with South Central, esp. of Hispanic churches)