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James H. Guy

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Guy Family Genealogy:,guy::lett::344.html

A prominent Guy in Topeka's history.

James H. Guy

The Capital-Journal; (1906 Article)

"When I first started to shcool. I was with my mother a while in Topeka," Langston Hughes recalled in "The Big Sea." "She was a stenographer for a colored lawyer in Topeka, Mr. Guy."

Though little more than a footnote in the great poet's personal history, James H. Guy is a principal character in the story of Topeka, and his life is quite a book in itself.

Guy overcame tremendous adversity to become a successfull lawyer. In Topeka, in the early part of the century, he laid cornerstones for what one scholar has called "a cohesive community grounded in strong local institutions through which blacks could challenge city, state and national attitudes and events."

Guy grew up in Ohio, where, according to "The Blue Book of Topeka, 1910," he "tackled the legal profession and by indomitable effort ... mastered secrets of the profession," finally winning "from an unsympathetic coterie of examiners the right to practice law." He was, in fact, the first African-American lawyer admitted by the Supreme Court of Ohio.

In the mid-1880s he came to Topeka, where he began building a lucrative practice and a reputation for leadership within the black community. His name appears in few local histories unaccompanied by the word "prominent."

Guy was a founding member of St. Simon's Episcopal Church, where, at the time of his death in 1931, he was senior warden of the vestry board.

He was the first black appointed deputy county attorney for Shawnee County, served as the first president of the Topeka chapter of Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League, and served as national president of a fraternal insurance order called the Knights and Ladies of Protection.

Apparently, he was also something of a social flagship among blacks.

"Black Topekans believed that no apologies wre needed for their interest in refinement and cultivation," wrote Dr. Thomas C. Cox, professor of history at Middlebury College, in his study "Blacks in Topeka, Kansas: 1865-1915, A Social History." "Lavish entertainments with exotic menus, an orchestra, and a guest list of two hundred or more were not uncommon at the homes of attorney and Dr. Seth Vernella."

Guy's wife, Ella, whom he met in Topeka, was no less an independent figure in African-American social circles.

"The Topeka affiliate of the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs," Cox wrote, "was organized in 1893 and by 1917, consisted of eight separate organizations. Mrs. John Wright, Mrs. James H. Guy, and Mrs. J.M. Jamison, prominent in the social life of black Topeka, were active in the federation."

James Guy was an ardent promoter of education for blacks. In a time when integrationist rhetoric was seen as radical by many, Guy prudently espoused working within the existing educational framework.

"Without acquiescing in the legal or moral legitimacy of segregation one jot," Cox wrote, "James Guy, a prominent black Topeka attorney, asserted: 'We should not attempt to be in places that we are not wanted. We should recognize our differences and need to establish race pride and confidence.' In a series of letters to the 'Kansas State Ledger,' W.J. Johnson, a black Topekan educator, concurred with Guy and added: 'We are not seeking amalgamation or assimilation ... we feel that we are justified in insisting that (whites) not obtrude their equally unwelcome presence upon us.'"

One manisfestation of Guy's belief in the importance of black education was support for the Kansas Industrial and Educational Institute, a school east of Topeka patterned after Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute.

Guy demonstrated his interest in both the shcool and Topkea's black community in 1900, when he orchestrated replacement of KIEI's founder and director, Edward Stephens. Together with the Rev. George Shaffer of St. John A.M.E. church, Guy formed a committee to protest Stephens' allegation to the board of education that "the colored people of Topeka are the most corrupt set of people I ever saw." In a meeting with the board, Guy's committee rebuked Stephens for placing black Topekans "in the most odious light possible before the white community," and called attention to his irresponsibility and misuse of institute funds. Stephens was summarily dismissed. Guy later served on the institute's board of managers.

Also in 1900, Guy represented Topeka at the first national meeting of the National Negro Business League in Boston. His good standing in the league probably set the stage for selection of Ira Guy, his younger brother and a succesful barber, as first vice president of the national organization in 1906.

" Perhaps on the strength of that coup," Cox wrote, "and the presence of the (Kansas Industrial and Educational) institute in the city, the local chapter entered a successful bid to have the 1907 NNBL national meeting in Topeka."

The meeting, according to Cox, was a "rousing success, increasing the civic pride of black and white Topekans alike." Booker T. Washington himself gave the meeting's keynote address.

An interesting footnote: Langston Hughes remembered being most impressed, as a boy, when taken by his grandmother to hear Washington speak in Topeka.


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