Kansas businessman Junius George Groves was reputedly the world’s largest grower of Irish potatoes. (New York Public Library)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jim Leiker is professor of history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.
The success of “Tiger King” has me wondering if executives at Netflix would be interested in a story called “Potato King.” While I patiently await their response — no word yet — I’ll try it out on readers of Kansas Reflector. It wouldn’t be surprising if Hollywood passed on a story centered on Kansas, even less on one about a Black farmer who became one of the richest people in the United States.
Junius George Groves was 6 years old when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. We know little about his life in central Kentucky before 1879, at which time he joined thousands of “Exodusters,” Black migrants fleeing the South after Reconstruction, to make homes in Kansas. Groves worked for landowners west of Kansas City and in 1880 married Mathilda Stewart from Missouri. Besides raising several children, together they rented farmland in Wyandotte County and grew white potatoes.
Many people today confuse Exodusters with the settlers who founded Nicodemus, an all-Black colony in Graham County. Nicodemus began earlier, in 1877, yet both originated from the same tradition: The assumptions that true freedom required land and Kansas with its free-state reputation offered more of both than did southern cotton fields.
Most migrants found disappointment in Kansas, and Junius and Mathilda probably did as well. Lynchings and segregation became the norm there within a short time. Still, they persisted.
Junius purchased land in the Kaw Valley eventually totaling more than 500 acres. In 1900, a Topeka newspaper declared him “the wealthiest Negro in Kansas, if not in the entire West,” reputedly the world’s largest grower of Irish potatoes. Shipping his product across the U.S. and into Mexico and Canada, the Union Pacific Railroad built a spur line to his property in Edwardsville. Nearly 50 hired hands, Black and white, worked his fields, with Groves sometimes making trips to Quindaro to pick up day laborers.
Junius and Mathilda sent some of their offspring to Kansas State Agricultural College — now K-State — as well as established a Baptist church in Edwardsville, the Kaw Valley Potato Association, and the Kansas State Negro Business League. In typical Washingtonian fashion, when whites excluded him from their golf course, he built his own, especially for African Americans.
– Jim Leiker
Booker T. Washington, the famous “Wizard of Tuskegee,” saw in Groves exactly the kind of man he thought Black Americans should emulate. Washington taught a self-help philosophy of using segregation to Black people’s advantage by keeping money and talent within the community. That approach came under attack by progressives such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed a more confrontational approach against white racism was needed.
Within that debate, Groves’ success served a purpose by promoting Washington’s ideal of the self-made man. He featured “the Potato King” in a 1904 journal article and again in his 1907 book “The Negro in Business.”
Junius and Mathilda sent some of their offspring to Kansas State Agricultural College — now Kansas State University — as well as established a Baptist church in Edwardsville, the Kaw Valley Potato Association, and the Kansas State Negro Business League. In typical Washingtonian fashion, when white people excluded him from their golf course, he built his own, especially for African Americans.
Following his death in 1925 at age 66, Groves was largely forgotten. However, efforts are underway to restore his memory. Groves has been inducted into the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center in Kansas City and, in 2021, into the Kansas Business Hall of Fame, the first Black man so recognized.
I shake my head in bewilderment at accusations that teaching Black History and race relations are meant to instill guilt in white children. As a white person myself of German-Russian ancestry, who has also taught African American Studies for the better part of 30 years, I’ve never felt that an honest accounting of our nation’s sorry record on civil rights should diminish my own or my ancestors’ accomplishments. Your heritage must be pretty brittle if it can’t withstand criticism.
But OK, if uplifting stories only are wanted, I’ll play. Junius Groves’ life should be celebrated as an example of entrepreneurial capitalism, a feat of upward mobility starting with the ultimate poverty of not even owning oneself and ending as the owner of a thriving business with connections spanning the continent.
Yet these successes were not his alone, or even those of Mathilda, who co-built their empire as his spouse and partner. Groves prospered with the support of a strong Black community, an agricultural tradition that emphasized innovation, and a transportation network subsidized by public funds. The fact that Native Americans before him had shown the way to raise potatoes along Kansas’s rivers didn’t hurt either.
Barack Obama was badly misinterpreted when he said to business owners, “You didn’t build that,” meaning that they owed their success in part to the investments and knowledge of others. I don’t believe Groves would have taken offense at that sentiment. Somehow, I think he would have shrugged, as if to say, “Well, of course.”
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