Two African-American pioneers in Kansas City

Dale headline

Washington DaleWashington Dale, reputedly "the oldest man in the West," and "older by five years than the Federal constitution," died on March 17, 1893, aged 109, in Kansas City. Son of a North Carolina Baptist preacher, Washington Dale was born free, but was stolen by a slave trader, who "disposed of him" as a servant to Andrew Jackson, with whom in the Journal's account he was present at the battle of New Orleans in 1815. Said the American Citizen, Dale had "seen his country grow from the struggling colonies under the confederation to that mighty and powerful union ...."

Sold to a Rolla Dale in Kentucky, he went to Missouri in 1821. He participated in the Mexican War as a servant, and later was a servant to General William Selby Harney during the Indian wars. He was able to save enough money to buy his freedom when his "master," the son of Rolla Dale, died, but – according to the story – a "defect" in the papers resulted in his being again put on the auction block.

After the Civil War, Washington Dale moved to Kansas City and made his living supplying water to saloons and hotels. He became a land owner and was "a familiar figure in the early history" of Kansas City.[1]   The American Citizen, a pro-Cleveland Democratic paper,  said of Dale that he had the "rare good fortune to have so lived as to command the respect and confidence of all who knew him. In politics, he differed from the masses of his race by believing in men instead of party. Sopronounced was he in his views that his sympathies were never with the Republican party."

In June, the Star (June 13, 1893, p.4) reported the death of James Sweeney, born a slave in Richmond,Sweeney article Virginia, who came to Kansas City in 1865, where he bought a property "not then of much value" but subsequently valued at $200,000. Sweeney, an ordained minister said to be "the richest colored man in Jackson county," founded the St. James Baptist Church, where he preached.

His property included a half block of city lots on East 18th Street between Grove St. and Flora Ave., which he deeded to his widow. His will gave a small bequest of $5 each to several people, including Henry Callaway, “born in slavery,” and a tract of land “for the use and benefit of the Colored Orphans’ Home association of Jackson county, Missouri.[2]  "Here," says the Star report, "is a record left of honesty, piety, industry and the acquirement of wealth by one who was reared a slave. These examples will doubtless multiply and should be remembered. The old time of slavery had no family trees, no genealogies, no descents or inheritances. All these have come now; families are being founded and there is a new incentive to labor, accumulation and all civic duties in the pride of family."

About a month after Sweeney's death, his widow Johana filed a suit in circuit court against attorney Jay Boright. In the Daily Journal story, Johana claimed that instead of preparing a will for Sweeney's estate, the lawyer had deeded Sweeney's property to himself.

Johana and her husband, former slaves, could not read or write so they trusted the attorney. Johana put the presumed will away, unaware of its real nature, but Boright got hold of it and, in the story's words, "filed it in the recorder's office as a deed of conveyance" of Sweeney's property to himself.

 Johana asked the court to set the deed aside. In 1890, James Sweeney had become suspicious of the document and found it was a warranty deed "for all the property, made in Boright's favor, the consideration for which was $1," according to a wire service report of the time. Boright was indicted but fled town and was arrested in Chicago.

Will Not Come to TrialProceedings were subsequently dropped "on technicalities," and the deed mysteriously disappeared until Boright filed it. A few weeks before Johana's suit was filed, her attorney, W.B.C. Brown, filed for probate another will drawn up after discovery of Boright's fraud. Boright, however, continued to maintain that "his contract with Sweeney was an honest one and he should fight in the courts for the establishment for his claims to the property; that he had been mispepresented in the matter."[3]

In October, a story in the Daily Journal reported that Johanna Sweeney had dropped her action against Boright after the latter ''withdrew the deed from the records, and, it is said, made it over to the plaintiff," Johanna.[4] But Johanna's troubles were not yet over: one suit remained, yet another legacy of slavery: "The suit still remaining is one brought by William Callaway, of Virginia, to set aside the will because he did not get enough of the estate. Callaway, as set forth in the will, was a natural son of the Rev. Sweeney, born in slavery, and was bequeathed only $500."  

A November item in the Daily Journal reports that Johanna had filed a response to Callaway's claim that his father "was of unsound mind. The widow denies that her husband was of unsound mind."[5] Widow files answer

Washington Dale and James Sweeney are two African-American pioneers of Kansas City whose travails and achievements deserve to be remembered.


[1] “He outlived a century.” Daily Journal, March 18, 1893, p. 3.

[2] “James Sweeney’s Will.” Kansas City Times, June 15, 1893, p. 8.

[3] “A Valuable Estate.” Kansas City Times, July 6, 1893, p. 8.

[4] “Will Not Come to Trial.” Daily Journal, October 13, 1893, p. 3.

[5] “The Widow Files Answer.” Daily Journal, November 1, 1893, p. 4.