An Ode to the Darker Youngers
By Diane Euston
Black History Month– a blip on the calendar that gives an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the astonishing struggles and incredible triumphs of African-American history. Unfortunately, most African Americans cannot trace their families back past the Reconstruction period due to migration patterns, lack of stories being passed down and the harsh reality of the time period.
Fortunately for a few lucky families, the Federal Writers Project from 1937-1939 sought out former slaves to interview them about their experiences. These 2,300 narratives give us only a glimpse into the true picture of the gruesome and genuine struggles for freedom.
In Missouri, 389 pages of these accounts exist. One memoir of a former slave named Simpson Charles Younger only gives part of his heroic, inspirational story in the four pages devoted to him. His true character as a pioneer and unassuming activist can be discovered while examining his entire life.
A Son of His Master
Simpson “Sim” C. Younger was born in 1850 on a farm outside of Independence, Mo. His mother, Elizabeth Simpson (1832-1894) was a mulatto slave born in Kentucky. Her master, Charles Younger, was born in 1779 in Virginia and came to Missouri around 1821. For a time, he operated a ferry crossing from Clay County to Chouteau’s Landing, later known as Kansas City. “My father was my mother’s master. . . the originator of the Younger family in Missouri, and grandfather of Cole, Jim and Bob Younger,” Sim recalled.
Charles owned around 20 slaves while a resident of Missouri, one being a light-skinned woman. By 1848, Elizabeth – only about 15 at the time- was pregnant with her master’s child. Her master was 68. A daughter named Catherine was born, and three years later, Simpson joined his sister in a commonplace yet troublesome situation of being born a slave and undermined any semblance of “white privilege.”
Charles, his father, had a wife and eight children, including Henry Washington Younger, father of part of the infamous James-Younger gang.
The Younger family lived in Clay, Jackson, Cass and St. Clair counties as Charles continued land speculation. When he decided to move to St. Clair Co. outside Osceola in the early 1850s, he left his “legitimate” family in Cass Co. and took his slaves, including his two children, with him.
A Will For the Future
In 1854, Charles died. In his will, he made special arrangements for his 22 year-old slave daughter, Elizabeth, and her two children.
“It is my will and desire that the slaves Catharine and Simpson, mentioned in my will, shall after my death be known by the names Catharine Younger and Simpson Younger, and in addition, to their freedom after my death.”
He arranged for his two children, oftentimes referred to as “quadroons” (indicating 75% white, 25% black), to be sent to the North to get a proper education. He arranged “board, clothing, tuition and incidental expenses and costs to be paid out of my estate.” He also gave Elizabeth land in St. Clair Co. where she lived until her death.
At five years old, Sim was sent to Oberlin, Oh., likely chosen due to the city’s connection to fighting for the abolition of slavery. Oberlin College was even a stop on the Underground Railroad. There, Sim and his older sister Catherine lived with a caretaker and received an education. Sim claimed he didn’t see his mother again until he was 21 years-old.
A Juvenile Soldier to College Graduate
“Yes ma’am,” Sim recollected, “I was born into slavery and I enlisted in the Union Army, January 1, 1864 at Oberlin, Ohio, and I was one of the youngest soldiers in the rank.”
Sim was five months shy of his 14th birthday when he chose to abandon school and serve in the 27th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. He saw action in Virginia and recalled a tragic event that happened during his career in the military.
He was on picket duty at Petersburg, Va. Sept. 1865 when “the Rebs” had built a fire nearby. The wind began to drive the smoke toward their encampment. “All at once we could hear someone coming toward us,” Sim said.
Thinking that the rebel army was attacking them, the picket opened fire. “We found out that it was a bunch of recruits from our own lines. Many were killed,” Younger remembered.
After the Civil War, Sim returned to Oberlin College and attended from 1866-1870 and majored in English. He was a pitcher on the varsity baseball team known as the Penfield Club and arguably became the first African American in the United States to play organized baseball as a member of the Oberlin Resolutes. He later taught school and learned the trades of marble cutting and setting. He was known to also be an incredible poet.
The Ninth Street Theater
Simpson returned in the late 1870s to Missouri and later settled in Kansas City. Before Brown V. Board of Education in 1954, there was another case that challenged segregation head on and it demanded that people reconsider how much outward appearances truly mattered.
On Nov. 27, 1888, Simpson went to the Ninth Street Theater box office at 9th and Broadway and purchased two tickets in the orchestra circle. Unbeknownst to the clerk on duty, the man standing before him was a black man. That night, Simpson guided his date, Miss Robinson down to their prime seats. The usher glanced at the complexion of Miss Robinson and noticed there must be a problem as “negros” weren’t allowed in that section.
The Kansas City Times reported, “Younger dresses well and could easily pass for a white man under the glare of the gas light.”
Younger objected when recalling the events at the Ninth Street Theater, “[The usher] looked at me again and I suppose he discovered that a drop of African blood in me and said, ‘It is a mistake, those seats are occupied.’”
The usher offered to move the couple up to the balcony where blacks were allowed to sit, but Younger refused to back down. He had rightfully purchased his seats in the orchestra circle and only until his date’s darker skin was revealed was there an issue. The theater’s manager, Abraham Judah, offered a refund and still Younger refused.
In turn, Simpson C. Younger sued the theater manager for $5,000 in damages and declared, “No amount of money could compensate me for the indignity to which I have been subjected.”
Challenging the Supreme Court
The case made it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. Younger’s counsel argued that not allowing Sim to use his seats he purchased was in violation of the 14th Amendment where “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the United States . . . nor deny to any person. . . equal protection of the laws.”
This wording was consistently challenged and directly led to the ability to make room for Jim Crow laws across the United States. In 1892, Simpson Younger’s fight for equality ended when Judge Black wrote, “When colored persons attend theaters and other places of amusement conducted and carried on by white persons, custom assigns them to separate seats. . . The defendant’s rule was no more than a reasonable regulation which he had the right to make and enforce.”
The judge even defended his actions by stating, “We have held that our statute which established separate schools for colored children does not violate the 14th Amendment.”
Defending Their Legacy
Simpson married Florence Higgerson in Kansas City in 1889 and had eight children. They left the area, settled in Oklahoma near his sister (who had married a white man) and later chose Sedalia, Mo. as their home.
When the Kansas City Star published an article in 1957 about Simpson Younger’s fight in the Supreme Court, they glorified how Simpson, in appearance, was light skinned and was the son of Charles Younger. They wrote, “The boy came to Kansas City to live; and resenting being classified a Negro, he proceeded to do something about it.”
His youngest daughter, Theodora Younger Telford, read that article and was enraged on how it represented her father. She wrote the newspaper and her passionate words were printed a week later. She said, “[I resent] anyone saying that my father resented being classified a Negro.”
Citing her own family history, Theodora wrote, “You can believe he resented the white man, if for no other reason than that in slavery days the white man used his helpless slave girls, not only for slaves, but for pleasure, too. . . I suggest you get a little more information on the mulatto side of the Youngers because everybody that is supposed to be lily white may not be.”
Remembering the Past to Protect the Future
This case brought on by Simpson is an early example of “separate but equal” decisions within the court that were constantly defended within the law. This case was never overturned. The law was interpreted to read that theaters had to admit “colored people,” but where they were allowed to sit was up to the owners. This remained the law until 1964 when Congress enacted the Public Accommodations Act prohibiting discrimination in public places such as theaters and amusement parks, 72 years after Simpson stood up for equality.
Simpson died at his daughter’s home just three days before his 93rd birthday in 1943. This man was the half great-uncle of the infamous Younger gang but gained his notoriety by continuously testing the color barrier. He served his country as a soldier, became one of the first African Americans allowed to play on a mixed baseball team, persevered through college and stood up to the unequal rights set upon him for the DNA that he was born with.
Simpson C. Younger may have not lived to see some of these barriers broken down, but he encompasses the true spirit of an American hero.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more about Simpson Younger, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com