Several area programs are focusing on African-American history during the month of February.
Sylvia Kelly of North Newton spoke about her experience growing up in Topeka and Newton during a Life Enrichment session at Bethel College on Wednesday.
"When I came to Newton, it was different than it is now," Kelly said.
Kelly was 16 years old when her family moved to Newton in 1951. Unlike Topeka, Newton did not have segregated schools.
"Newton was a good place, had a good reputation," Kelly said. "...When I moved to Newton, about 75 percent of the blacks owned their own homes and every family that I met had one kid in college, at least."
Segregation was not unknown, as Kelly shared memories of African-Americans not being allowed to sit and eat at lunch counters, having to sit in the back of the movie theater and not being allowed to play on the high school basketball team. Other public places were unofficially off-limits.
"One day, I went and got in the pool...people looked at me, but nobody said anything," Kelly recalled. "When I got out and went to church that Sunday, people were talking — everybody knew I'd been in the pool. I didn't know where the kids were, because there was nobody in the pool that looked like me, and I knew that they could swim."
Kelly later married and raised four children in Newton.
"I felt this was a doggone good place to live, so this is where I'm going to raise my kids, and I did," Kelly said.
Three of her children attended college, including one who graduated from Bethel College.
"Along the way, I met some really nice people," Kelly said. "...You get past the color and you live through births, deaths, marriages and those kind of things."
Not everyone was accepting of African-Americans — including some business owners.
"I went downtown, walking downtown. I went in all the stores that I could go in," Kelly recalled. "There was — then it was a different time — Woolworth's, there was a guest house, there was Leonida's, the restaurant. I didn't see anybody working there that looked like me."
That was when she joined the Church and Human Relations group, made up of members of different churches, and went around town to ask why black people were not being hired.
"With some pressure, they began to change their minds," Kelly said. "...Slowly but surely, things began to change. But it took somebody with courage and somebody willing to stand up. The laws were on the books — didn't matter. Things were not being enforced like they should."
Kelly continues to advocate for social justice for African-Americans in Newton and around the country.
"I'm going to do what I want to do. I'm going to fight for what is right for people for as long as I live," Kelly said.
Another opportunity to learn about African-American history will be "Voices of Freedom: The Story of the McWorter Family," a free program presented by Karen Wall at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at Newton Public Library, 720 N. Oak St.
Wall's research of the McWorter family focuses on Free Frank McWorter, who was the first African-American to found a town — New Philadelphia, Illinois — in 1836. McWorter saved up money to buy freedom for himself, his wife and child. He incorporated New Philadelphia, allowing both black and white settlers to purchase land there, and served as the city's mayor.
Several of McWorter's descendants moved to Valley Center in the late 1800s.
For more information about "Voices of Freedom: The Story of the McWorter Family," call 316-283-2890.