A Most Exceptional Man: The Conclusion of the Edward S. Stephens Story

Kansas Industrial School, Topeka, Kansas, Kansas Historical Society, Item Number: 226242
Call Number: FK2.7 VS.1925 *1
KSHS Identifier: DaRT ID: 226242

The first two posts in this series traced Edward Stephens’s career from St. Louis to Asheville to Topeka.  We saw him succeed as well as fail as he tried to lift up his race with his work in schools and black YMCAs.  This new post brings the story to a conclusion by looking at how Stephens’s involvement with the Industrial and Educational Institute of Topeka, the school he founded with his wife Izie, came to an end.  The couple made one last move, to Bridgeport, Connecticut.  The story closes with a look at Stephens’s legacy.   

After living in Topeka for five years, Stephens ran into trouble with the city’s black leadership, a small group of established families who were accustomed to getting their way in matters of race.  In the aftermath of a bitter struggle between antislavery and proslavery forces, Kansas came into the Union in 1861 as a free state with a small black population. The state attracted large numbers of freed slaves after the Civil War.  By the time Stephens arrived in Topeka several decades later, a tight circle of families was handling negotiations with the white power structure and effectively running the black side of town.  Stephens was the outspoken newcomer, the exceptional man whose birth in British Guiana, elite upbringing, international education, and world travels set him apart from other people of his race. 

In January 1900, Topeka’s black leaders took a big step into partisan politics when, for the first time, they called a meeting of black voters to endorse a slate of candidates running for political office.  Stephens quickly wrote a letter to the local newspapers stating that some black people would “take no part” in such meetings because they “don’t let other men, white or black, even in ‘politics,’ dictate their course of conduct for them.”  Clearly feeling excluded, Stephens said he was speaking for the quiet people of his race whose voice “may not now be heard.  But we will be felt” (Topeka Daily Capital, January 18, 1900).

“Don’t Favor Pledges,” Topeka Daily Capital, January 18, 1900

Just as quickly, black leaders answered by calling a “mass meeting” to respond to Stephens.  An editorial that ran in the black paper the Topeka Plain Dealer (January 19, 1900) a week before the gathering set the stage by hurling racial slurs at Stephens, insulting his intelligence, and dismissing his knowledge of local black politics as “about as extensive as to be expected of a citizen who has absolutely no connection with the race except the few children who attend his school.” 

The viciousness of these attacks suggests that resentment had been building up against Stephens well before candidate endorsements became an issue.  At the mass meeting, a resolution prepared by the leadership denounced Stephens for “opposing everything that is to our interest, and seeking to place us in a ridiculous light before the public” (Plain Dealer, January 26, 1900).  The resolution passed unanimously. 

For several months the situation appeared to be cooling down, but in April Stephens took on the leadership again when he and a delegation of black men headed by a black minister went before the Topeka school board and leveled charges of nepotism and mismanagement in the black schools.  The men claimed that “a clique of colored people have the dictating of [teacher] appointments,” insuring that their family members were employed, and that “some of the teachers spend more time in politics than in the school room” (Topeka State Journal, April 3, 1900).

“Lively Times,” Topeka State Journal, April 3, 1900.

The State Journal identified Stephens as the instigator of the dissenting group, observing that he “seems to represent the ‘outs’ who want to get in.”  Then the black Plain Dealer quoted him as telling the school board that in all his world travels, “the colored people of Topeka are the most corrupt set of people I ever saw” (April 20, 1900).  These were fighting words.

Indignant at Stephens’s blanket accusation of black corruption, the leadership called a second mass meeting.  The leaders presented a resolution charging Stephens with “attempting to defame and blacken the reputation and good standing of the colored people of Topeka,” trying to put them “in the most odious light possible before the white people of this community, and thereby lessen their regard and consideration for us.”  The resolution delivered a low blow with the claim that Stephens had “the reputation of being a user of intoxicants . . . a general disturber of the peace.”

Black people would like to give the Industrial Institute their support, the resolution continued, but they could not so long as Stephens remained in control.  Despite having received a “letter of apology and explanation” from Stephens, the leaders concluded the resolution by calling on the institute’s board of trustees to fire Stephens and replace him with someone of “Christian deportment, intelligence, and manly bearing” who could rebuild and restore public confidence in the school.  As before, the resolution passed unanimously (Plain Dealer, April 20, 1900).

Stephens once again found himself out of a job.  He and Izie prepared to move.  The board of trustees, acting on the recommendation of Booker T. Washington, replaced Stephens with William Carter, a graduate of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, considered to be the top industrial school for black people in the nation.  Topeka’s black community welcomed Carter as the new superintendent of the Industrial Institute (Daily Capital, October 13, 1900). 

Booker T. Washington circa 1895, by Frances Benjamin Johnson. Image from Booker T. Washington, Wikipedia.

The school that Edward and Izie founded in 1895 went through many changes in name and leadership on its way to becoming the Kansas Technical Institute (KTI), a high school and two-year technical college popularly known as “The Tuskegee of the West.”  Even though it desegregated after World War II, the KTI closed in 1955 in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (Deborah Dandridge and Donna Rae Pearson, “Kansas Technical Institute: the Tuskegee of the West”).

From The Community Voice, “Kansas Technical Institute: the Tuskegee of the West
Kansas Black History Facts — Day 9 Feb 6, 2016.”

Bridgeport, Connecticut

We know far less about Edward and Izie Stephens’s lives and careers after 1900.  Three years after they lost control of the school they had built, the State Journal ran a brief note that “Edward Stephens, formerly of the Topeka Industrial Institute, is now living in Worcester, Mass.  He is employed as translator for the Houghton-Mifflin Company” (July 3, 1903). 

By 1906 Edward and Izie were living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and operating a small school in their home.  All we know for certain about the curriculum is that “Mrs. Stephens conducted a school in domestic science for colored girls” (Bridgeport Evening Farmer, October 1, 1909).  It seems likely that Izie played a larger role than Edward in this school because of his failing health.   

The two of them kept a low profile in Bridgeport.  During the years they spent together in the Connecticut seaport town, they made the local newspaper only once—when Edward passed away.  He and Izie must have found their “partial obscurity” and lack of notoriety a welcome relief from the glare of publicity in Topeka (Bridgeport Evening Farmer, October 1, 1909).

Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, Bridgeport,Connecticut, October 1, 1909, partial clip.

Edward S. Stephens died of tuberculosis on September 30, 1909, and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, survived by his wife and a son.  He was a member of the First Baptist Church.  His obituary noted that he “had been ill for several weeks” and that “he had dreams of some day returning to Georgetown.”  Izie Reddick Stephens lived until 1943 and helped found a black branch of the YWCA in Bridgeport.  She was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery (Bond, “In Search of Edward Stephens”; Christine Gauvreau, “Edward S. Stephens and Izie Reddick: Connecticut African-American Educators”).

Legacy

Edward Stephens’s privileged upbringing in British Guiana and England, his university education in Europe, and his travels throughout the world gave him a self-assured personal style and a determination to help his race, sometimes to the point of fighting battles he must have known he would lose.  Stephens kept the faith of his convictions. In Asheville he stood up for higher salaries for black public school teachers, and when it came to helping young black people who had been denied the advantages he enjoyed, he had no equal among his contemporaries in Asheville or Topeka.

The tragedy of his career was that his self-confidence, one of his greatest strengths, could make him seem aloof to some people of his own race.  In a letter he wrote to the Daily Capital almost three years before his confrontation with Topeka’s black leadership, he despaired the “jealousy, envy, hatred, malice and uncharitableness” that black people directed toward one another, “especially at one unfortunate enough to be in any way prominent, however distasteful prominence may be to him” (September 9, 1897).  These negative feelings surfaced again and again in Topeka, causing Stephens even more trouble than they did in Asheville.

Despite it all, Stephens cared deeply and accomplished much.  It is remarkable that Edward and Izie were able to achieve what they did in a climate of white supremacy—supported by law in Asheville and by custom in Topeka—and with the misgivings of some members of their own race. 

In 1922 the Asheville school committee consulted with black residents about what to name the newly built black high school, the long-awaited replacement for the Catholic Hill School that Stephens had opened as principal in 1892 and that fire destroyed in 1917.  The committee received an appeal from “members of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored Race,” the Asheville forerunner of the activist NAACP (Citizen, April 26, 1922). 

Asheville Citizen, April 26, 1922

These “leading colored citizens” remembered Stephens and held him in such high regard—almost 30 years after he left the city—that they recommended naming the new high school as a memorial to him and Hester Lee, an early Asheville educator “who gave many years of her life as a teacher of colored in the city.” [Click here to read more about Hester Lee.] The committee acted favorably on the recommendation. Stephens-Lee High School became a place of inspiration and pride for black students in Asheville, and it also served students from communities throughout the region where there was no black high school.  

In spite of the many obstacles Stephens faced during his 20 years in America, he left a legacy in each of the four cities where he worked.  In St. Louis, he gave the community a black YMCA.  In Asheville, he was the organizer of the YMI, the teacher and administrator who advocated for improving black life.  In Topeka, Edward and Izie founded an institute together that lasted into the 1950s and became the leading historically black industrial school in the state.  And in Bridgeport, there was the small school for girls taught by Izie in their home.      

Edward Stephens was a builder of black schools. 

Post written by Joe Newman, North Carolina Room Friends Board Member and Professor Emeritus of Education, University of South Alabama. Research by Joe Newman and Zoe Rhine.

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