Special to The Gardner News
As freed slaves were struggling to find their way in a post-slavery world during the years following the Civil War, Jeremiah McCanse made a name for himself and generations of his family when he set up a small barbershop in Spring Hill and offered haircuts for 10 cents.
McCanse was one of many black business owners in the area during the late 19th century, said Jim Wilson of the Spring Hill Historical Society, and the fact that his barbershop co-existed peacefully with white-owned businesses is a testament to the success of race relations in Spring Hill at the time.
“It’s a picture of what race relations have been in the past,” Wilson said. “I find it inspirational that people got along. It’s a seed of hope that can be planted in people.”
Jeremiah was born into slavery in 1848 in Mt. Vernon, Mo. As an eight years old, Jeremiah was sold to the William McCanse family for $600. He eventually took their last name. He enlisted as a drummer in Company A, 113th United States colored infantry in October 1863, when he was only 15 years old, and was honorably discharged in April 1866, a year after the Civil War ended.
He moved to Olathe, later meeting and courting the woman who would become his wife, Rachel Chilton. The couple had six children together.
They later moved to Spring Hill, where Jeremiah opened his downtown barbershop and cut the hair of white customers during the day and black customers in the evening. A phonograph, which would become a beloved relic in the shop, played music all day. Advertisements in The Spring Hill New Era urged readers to come get their hair cut by “Jerry.”
Besides owning a barbershop in town, Jeremiah also remained active in politics, serving in offices with the School Board and the Republican Party. As Jeremiah’s influence in the community grew, so did his real estate. In addition to the building that housed his barbershop, which now houses an appliance store, Jeremiah also owned another building in the area that survives to this day.
Although Jeremiah died in 1904, his legacy has lived on through his family, including his great-granddaughter, Corrine Patterson, who lives in Kansas City, Mo.
Patterson, who has in her possession some letters written by Jeremiah while he was living in Olathe, said her association with one of Spring Hill’s great black leaders continues to be a source of pride for her.
“It makes me very proud and grateful,” she said. “It’s been a blessing to me.”
Corrine’s interest in her family history was sparked when she read an article in The Kansas City Star about a former Kansas City surgeon named Andrew McCanse. She contacted the newspaper and determined that he was related to the same William McCanse who had owned Jeremiah as a young boy.
The two arranged a meeting, and instead of the tension Patterson said she expected to encounter, the two found became fast friends. She said she doesn’t hold any ill feelings toward the family that owned Jeremiah and that she is only concerned with moving on with her life.
“We are very close. It’s overwhelming,” Patterson said.
I told him, ‘That was the time then, but I don’t hold that against anyone,’” she said of the issue of slavery. “That is not my way of life. Mine is moving forward.”
Patterson, who continues to research the life of her great-grandmother, Rachel, was among those in attendance in August 2002, when the Spring Hill Historical Society set a new headstone at Jeremiah’s grave site in the Spring Hill Cemetery. The ceremony attracted more than 200 people including Jeremiah’s biological descendants and descendants of the family who owned Jeremiah before he was freed.
Wilson said such ceremonies are an important part of the recognition of such a vital figure in Spring Hill’s history, a man who struggled for success and equality during a time that threatened to eliminate both for freed slaves.
“It’s not a perfect world,” Wilson said. “Yes, there was segregation, but (Jeremiah) took advantage of what was there.”
This story first appeared in a 2005 edition of The Spring Hill New Era