Jesse Milan, the first African American public-school teacher in Lawrence, KS, home to the University of Kansas, has died of natural causes. He was 92. Among his many notable distinctions was his appointment by President George W. Bush to the commission commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Mr. Milan was a state president of the Kansas Branches of NAACP from 2000 -2004 and led in the 1960’s the creation of the first integrated public swimming pool in Kansas.
A tireless community advocate, in 2001 Milan received the Benjamin Hooks President of the Year Award from the Midwest Region IV State Conference of NAACP chapters for his civil rights work in Kansas. He was elected Governor of the Optimist Clubs of Kansas and served on the board of the Kansas Mental Health Association. In 2014 he received the Hero Award from the 71st Annual NAACP Kansas State Conference.
Mr. Milan earned his Master’s in Education degree in 1954 from the University of Kansas in Lawrence and began his long career in education. That year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision that segregated public schools were unconstitutional and Mr. Milan was hired by the Lawrence, Kansas Public School System as its first Black public-school teacher. Lawrence is just 30 miles from Topeka, KS.
The same year, Jesse Milan and Alversa R. Brewster were married on June 13, 1954 at her church in St. Louis, MO. They met while students at KU and remained devoted husband and wife for the next 60 years. Their four children, Jesse, Jr., John Edward, Julie Ann, and Joy Lynne were all born in Lawrence.
Milan started his education career in Lawrence as a physical education teacher, coach, and social studies teacher at Central Junior High. In 1956, he took on the bigger role of physical education consultant for Lawrence’s entire network of elementary schools and over the next 15 years circuited to all 12 elementary schools in the city and taught every public-school child in grades K-6. As a beloved teacher, students always looked forward to having. Mr. Milan taught thousands and thousands of Kansas children the fundamentals of rope climbing, gymnastics, softball, basketball, square dancing, in-door and out-door sports and games, the values of good sportsmanship, and the fun and importance of physical fitness.
Recognized early for his contributions to the community, Milan received in 1958 the Lawrence Junior Chamber of Commerce Young Man of the Year Award.
Milan had a vision for the community in Lawrence. He led the bond issue for building the first integrated public swimming pool in the state of Kansas. He created a coalition of Black and white advocates for the bond issue and funding for the swimming pool was approved in the local election and it opened in Lawrence the summer of 1967. It was a victory for civil rights in Kansas.
In 1973, Jesse and Alversa Milan received jointly the Martin Luther King Award from the Lawrence Branch of Concerned Black Parents. In 1997, the Jesse Milan Pre-School at Pinkney Elementary School in Lawrence, KS was named and dedicated in his honor. The day of the dedication was unanimously declared by the Lawrence City Commission as “Jesse Milan Day.”
George W. Bush appointed Milan to the Presidential Commission celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. The appointment recognized Milan’s historic role in education and civil rights. The commission was convened in 2002 and culminated its work in the 2004, the 50th year of desegregation and the 50th year since Milan began his Kansas teaching career.
During their years in Lawrence, Jesse and Alversa were alumni sponsors of the Mu Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at the University of Kansas. Milan mentored many young Black men at KU including football legend Gale Sayers who devoted part of a chapter in his autobiography, “I Am Third,” to his relationship with Mr. Milan.
In 1969 while teaching in Lawrence, Milan became an assistant professor of education at Baker University in Baldwin City, KS. At Baker he founded Mungano, the first interracial student organization dedicated to fostering a community of diversity on campus. Mungano continues today. The Milan-Harris Award for Diversity at Baker University was created in his honor in 2000. He continued teaching at Baker until 2001.
Baker University awarded him in 2001 an honorary Doctorate of Education and he used thereafter the well-deserved title, Dr. Milan.
Milan left Lawrence in 1971 to become regional director of compliance for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Protection for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for region 7. The region covered Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. He retired from federal service in 1988 and received in 2003 the HUD Secretary’s Pioneer Award for his long advocacy and leadership for fair housing.
Jesse Milan was born in Dupree, OK, to Clarence W. and Willie Mae (nee Harrison) Milan and moved at an early age to Kansas City, KS where he grew up with his three brothers (Clarence, Jr., Milton, and Robert) and two sisters (Osceola and Ossie Mae). He attended Northeast Junior High School. After graduating in 1946 from Sumner High School, the historic all-Black high school in Kansas City, KS, Milan enlisted in the Air Force to obtain the benefits of the GI bill to attend college. He served twice, once in Hawaii and was recalled two years later for the Korean Conflict rising to the rank of Staff Sargent. He earned his B.S. degree in Education from Kansas University in 1953 and his Master’s in Education from KU n 1954, and his Specialist in Education certificate from Emporia State University in 1970.
In the Air Force, a military chaplain introduced Jesse to the Episcopal Church. Over the next 60 years he was elected and appointed to positions at the parish, diocesan and national levels of the church and for the Union of Black Episcopalians. In Lawrence he and his family attended Trinity Episcopal Church where all four children were baptized and where Jesse sang in the choir and led the senior high youth group.
The Milan family began residing in Kansas City, KS in 1971. Jesse and Alversa founded the Kansas City, KS chapter of Mother-to-Mother Ministry that partners established women with disadvantaged mothers. In Kansas City, he served also on the board of Turner House community center and the Vernon Center Foundation for senior citizens. He founded the Turnerites square dancing troupe that did performances for free throughout the Kansas City area.
Over the next decades Jesse Milan was a tireless leader for the state NAACP and the Optimist Club rising to the top state leadership posts for both. He helped many citizens over the years file housing and employment discrimination complaints, he advised and mentored legions of students and advocates, he led community service events and oratorical contests, and became the region’s patriarch for civil rights.
In 1971 the family joined the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, the historic African American congregation in Kansas City, KS. During their years at Ascension, he was senior warden, and Jesse and Alversa led the 100th anniversary celebration for the church with the Bishop of Kansas officiating. Milan was elected by the Diocese twice to represent it at the General Convention of the national church and he served also on the board of trustees of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. Beginning in the 1990s, Jesse, Alversa and daughter Julie became longtime parishioners at St. Martin in the Fields Episcopal in Edwardsville, KS. At the age of 75, he completed a two-year course of study and was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church and became officially Rev. Milan. He served as a deacon at St. Martin in the Fields from 2003 -2013 and remained a parishioner there until the end of his life.
Milan retired as a deacon in 2013 and received the Bishop’s Cross Award for his lifetime of outstanding service to the Episcopal Church.
Among his many honors, Jesse especially prized being nominated and selected to carry the 1996 Olympic Torch through a section of Kansas on its way to the Olympic Games in Atlanta. A replica of the torch remained with him to his last day. It was especially meaningful to him because Milan volunteered for 50 consecutive years as a track and field official at the annual University of Kansas Relays. But its greater meaning is clear to all who knew him. Jesse Milan was a torchbearer for education and civil rights throughout his entire life.
Rev. Dr. Milan’s volumes of professional and personal papers, records, and materials documenting his historic work in Kansas for education, civil rights, and for the faith community, along with his massive collective of awards and citations are housed at the Spencer Research Library Archival Collection at the University of Kansas.
At the time of his death, Rev. Dr. Milan was residing at Stratford Commons Memory Care in Overland Park, KS. He passed peacefully with Christian music sending him home.
Rev. Dr. Jesse Milan was preceded in death by Alversa Brewster Milan, in 2014, his loving and devoted wife of 59 years and 10 months. He is also preceded in death by his parents and four siblings.
Jesse is survived by his brother, Robert L. Milan, Sr.; and a host of nieces, nephews, grand nieces, nephews, brothers, and sisters-in-law. He is survived by his immediate family of son, Jesse Milan, Jr., and his spouse William Roberts; son, John Edward Milan; daughter, Julie Ann Milan; daughter, Joy Lynne Milan, and her spouse Jon Walls; and granddaughters, Milana Walls, and Courtney Walls.
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